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The battle for the European Sports Model

By ISCA President Mogens Kirkeby

Photo: What to do about the stubborn reality that isn't a pyramid of sport? (Danish National Performance Team, Gudrun Clausen.)

There is currently a tough, sports political power struggle over the narrative of European sport. A battle of words where sports federations with relations to the International Olympic Committee want a monopoly-like organisational structure based on the organisational narrative of a pyramid model with a blissful and unbreakable connection between recreational sports and medal sports – and where the money reportedly flows from the elite to the grassroots.

But the advocates for this so-called "Pyramid Model" need to answer at least two questions:

  • Do you want to abolish freedom of association?
  • What to do about the stubborn reality, which is not a pyramid of sport?

Council of Europe and freedom of association

The sports political battle is being waged on many fronts. One of them is the revision of the Sport Charter of the Council of Europe. This Charter has historical weight and, not least, it is a basis for fundamental human rights. It forms a value base for the practice and organisation of sport in Europe and works as guidance for the countries' and civil society's delivery of sport and exercise.

The Council of Europe was established in 1949, and the cornerstone of the co-operation is the accession of the Member States to the Convention on Human Rights. In Article 11, the Convention clearly states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association […]"

Organisational pluralism

Most member states, researchers in the sports sector and organisations without affiliation to the IOC believe that the sporting reality in Europe is characterised by, among other things, diversity and organisational pluralism. Organisations with relations to the International Olympic Committee defend the pyramid model with a unitary, monopolised structure.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to promote a narrative which is in one’s own interest. It was also predictable that it would be staged unanimously and coordinated by the members of the Olympic family. That is how sport politics is today. But it becomes a voice from the past when the proponents believe that the organisations that make up the pyramid are THE MODEL that describes European sport. And that we should do everything we can to protect exactly that perception and the economic interests of these organisations in order to save sport participation in the European continent. What happened to the many civil society organisations outside of the sport federations, which are also providing sport and physical activities for citizens? Do they no longer exist; do they not have freedom of association?

Economic solidarity?
It also gets troublesome when the proponents for the pyramid model introduce as one of its biggest selling points 'The Economic Solidarity'. In that narrative, the money is earned from the ‘medal sport’ and passed on to the grassroots sport.
There are indeed sports which at the elite level provide a profit that is redistributed - primarily football in certain countries. How many percent of the sports economy it is, and how far down it trickles – it gets lost in the mist. Conversely, there are, in fact, many sports disciplines within the pyramid where the elite level is co-financed by the grassroots members’ fees! This is, of course, completely democratically legal and also a form of economic solidarity. However, this inverse relationship receives very limited attention in the discussion on economic solidarity. And at the end of the day, the reality remains the same: The primary source of finance for grassroots sport comes from citizens’ own payments, and the facilities and finance from the public sector. It does not depend on a pyramid model.

Organisational monopoly?

It becomes especially provocative and outdated when the proponents of the pyramid model believe that it is important for pretty much everything in sport, ‘that one organisation per sport or one umbrella organisation is the recognised partner for the public authorities’. Excuse me, but it sounds like something from a bygone era in Europe that only a few want to return to.

The pyramid is part of European sport. but when it comes to the number of citizens who are active in sport and recreational physical activity, the model constitutes a minority.

There are better models that describe the entirety and scope of sports in Europe. One of these is a model that resembles a church and is therefore also called the "church model" . Here, the pyramid is reduced to form the church spire, while most of the sports and physical activities are located in the somewhat larger and more down-to-earth parts of the church.

Alongside the battle for the Council of Europe's European Sport Charter, the European Parliament recently published a report (which we commented) on the future of sport policy in Europe. MEP Thomasz Frankowski is now leading the drafting of a report from the European Parliament CULT Committee on this subject.

I hope this report will describe and include the whole of sport – a model that is based on the present and reaches into the future – not back to the past.

My video comment on the European Sport Charter revision can be seen below.

Posted on 29/06/2021 by ISCA President Mogens Kirkeby


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