#AthletesFirst, executives second

The #AthletesFirst movement is by no means new but it’s recently had a great resurgence thanks to athletes who are not afraid to speak their minds and also to a company call Global Athlete who has set up a structure and a host of ambassadors in sport who are helping the movement.

Their mission statement is “Global Athlete is a new international athlete-led movement that will inspire and lead positive change in world sport, and collectively address the balance of power between athletes and administrators. We aim to help athletes gain a more represented voice in world sport, recognising that the neglecting and suppression of the athlete voice has gone on for too long”.

Athletes need a bigger voice in sport, for many years the athletes have play second fiddle to sports bodies.  The executives in some of these sports bodies are doing what suits them not athletes.  We all remember the stories from the summer Olympics in Rio 2016 where athletes we put up in very substandard accommodation while the executives lapped it up in nice hotels, this make no sense and is infuriating to most.  This situation is not unique and has gone on for years.  Athletes need to be involved in the decision making process and have a proper voice in sport.

An athletes voice

We have recently talked to Irish athlete Caradh O’Donovan who’s one of the ambassadors for Global Athlete.  Caradh is also accomplished TEDx speaker she combines her focus on training with work as an athlete mentor and speaking engagements.   She has been very vocal around the subject of athletes first, here are some extracts from our interviews with Caradh:

“After spending over twenty years competing internationally in sport, it is very clear to me that there is an imbalance of power and the gap that exists between sportspeople and administrators is not narrowing quickly enough in my opinion”

“I’ve often wondered why many athletes when asked about unethical practices in their sport tend to see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing. And why those who do have views on these issues often wait until they retire to speak out. Now I know why. And it’s not always down to apathy and indifference. Athletes can be afraid of the consequences and rightly so.

The top brass often pull out all of the stops to maintain the status quo. I think one of the biggest term in performance sport that has been misused is ‘control the controllables’. It has now become a tool to keep athletes in their boxes. As one senior official in my own sport told me not so long ago “get off social media, and get back in the gym”. And if this tactic doesn’t keep you in check, athletes can expect funding threats, deselection, stonewalling, writs, I could go on. All of which smacks of bullying and harassment. So stay small and focus on the medals.


But there’s a massive price to pay for towing the line (if it’s against your values). Your self respect leaves you and is replaced with resentment. That chips away at you and if you’re anything like me, you get sick. Really sick. So I don’t think you get to choose good over bad consequences. It’s more a case of ‘pick your poison’.

Caradh discusses the need for proper athlete representation in sport

There will never be a safe space to tell the truth. Those who stand for something are usually afraid, they just choose to speak truth to power regardless of consequences. It is impossible to stand for something and not be criticised. But opting out of uncomfortable conversations because you may get criticised is surely the definition of privilege?

A global Problem

“Lack of meaningful athlete representation is not limited to Irish sport. The same is scattered across almost all International Federations of sport, the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency. So while athletes have little or no say in how their sports are run we sit back and watch the leaders who are running sport, in its current format, fail. While I can’t guarantee that having equal voting and decision rights for athletes will reverse the damage that’s been done, it’s surely worth trying? That aside, is it not a basic right that athletes should have an equal say in decisions that impact upon them? Tokenism is no longer good enough, serious athlete representation is what needs to happen”

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