The IOC’s intervention of AIBA – is this a turning point for international sports governance?

Published 03 August 2018 By: Tom Bruce, Emily Jamieson, Tom Rudkin

Boxing Gloves

The topic of governance has never been more relevant than it is today. Whether it is the widespread criticism of financial institutions’ practices in the wake of the financial crisis or the very public collapse of companies like BHS prompting wide scale and much publicised inquiries, how organisations are governed is the subject of ever-increasing scrutiny.

This is particularly the case for organisations with passionate stakeholders in the public eye and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the sporting world, where scandals have been plastered across the front pages. Almost all these headlines can be traced back in some way to the governance (or alleged lack thereof) of the organisations in question.

Many of the affected sporting bodies were founded in the late 19th or early 20th centuries by small (often homogenous) groups of enthusiastic amateurs. It is fair to say that times have changed since then but in many ways, sports organisations seem not to have kept up with the pace of change of the world around them.

The Code for Sports Governance1 published by UK Sport and Sport England in 2016 recognised the failings of sports governance compared to other industries, as well as the gap between usual practice and the increasingly high expectations of the government and tax-payer. While not perfect, the mandatory Code should do much to improve standards of sports governance in the UK, at least in terms of organisation and infrastructure, if not human and financial resource.

However, sports continue to be governed in a pyramid structure – with International Federations sitting at the top overseeing national bodies, and huge numbers of individual clubs occupying the bottom of the triangle. Until International Federations are held similarly accountable, sports will continue to fall behind in overall governance standards.

With that landscape as a backdrop, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) unprecedented decision in December 2017 to withdraw funding2 from the Association of International Boxing Associations (AIBA) could be a milestone. This article examines the actions taken by the IOC against AIBA relating to various governance concerns. Specifically, it looks at:

  • The IOC’s concerns with AIBA’s governance practices;

  • The specific concerns over AIBA’s anti-doping practices and AIBA’s decision to outsource their anti-doping management to the Doping-Free Sport Unit;

  • Whether the IOC’s decision to intervene can be seen as a positive step forward in addressing governance concerns at international federations, and whether a new precedent has been set.

The IOC’s concerns with AIBA

At its executive board meeting, the IOC cited concerns3 about the transparency of AIBA’s governance, finances, anti-doping practices, judging and refereeing, which is not compliant with the IOC’s expectations of an International Federation.4 The activities of International Federations must conform with the practices set out in the Olympic Charter,5 and the Charter grants the IOC the right (see Article 59(1.2)) to impose sanctions on International Federations where they have violated the Olympic charter or World Anti-Doping Code. Could this intervention by the IOC in the governance of an International Federation be a step forward in enforcing good governance practices on the international stage?

AIBA does have a history of governance issues including the refereeing scandal6 at the Athens Olympics which led to the IOC withholding from AIBA around one million dollars of television rights. However, it is their more recent scandals that appear to have prompted the IOC’s concerns:

  1. at Rio 2016 all 36 referees and judges who officiated boxing events were suspended due to investigations into corruption7;

  2. reports in the same year found that AIBA conducted only one out-of-competition anti-doping test in 2014 and 20158; and

  3. most recently, CK Wu, AIBA’s president from 2006 to 2017, was accused of financial mismanagement in connection with a $10 million loan from an Azerbaijani company which was missing from AIBA’s accounts9.

Even following the IOC’s decision to suspend funding at the end of last year, AIBA’s appointment of Gafur Rahimov as its interim president in place of Wu does not demonstrate a commitment to good governance. The IOC has said it is “extremely worried10 about the appointment of Rahimov, a man accused of being involved in the heroin trade, who was previously on Interpol’s "most wanted" list and who has had his assets frozen by the US Treasury. Similarly, AIBA is currently in dispute with WADA11 following the awarding of their 2019 World Championships to the Russian city of Sochi- a country well known for its wide spread doping violations.

That is not to say AIBA has failed to take any steps to responds to the IOC’s concerns. Since the end of last year, it has undertaken a series of reforms, including amendments to its Statutes12 that allow for:

  1. the introduction of elections to its congress;

  2. the separation of powers between the president and the executive committee; and

  3. a minimum of six of its twenty-eight council positions to be held by women13.

Specific concerns over AIBA’s anti-doping practices

In March this year AIBA outsourced the management14 of its anti-doping programme to a third party, the Doping-Free Sport Unit (DFSU) of the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF). The DFSU supports members of the GAISF by providing assistance and services in the context of anti-doping programmes. However, the interesting aspect of AIBA’s outsourcing was that it related to the entirety of its anti-doping programme. As explained further below, the recent introduction of the new International Testing Authority may (and, it is suggested, should) make this more common place.

AIBA's outsourcing in March reflected serious concerns15 about the robustness of its anti-doping procedures and its compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code (WADA Code). The lack of out-of-competition tests in 2015 is an undeniable indictment of the organisation's attitude towards preventing and sanctioning doping in boxing. It is a fundamental requirement of the WADA Code that International Federations "adopt and implement anti-doping policies and rules which confirm with the [WADA] Code".16 Similarly, International Federations are responsible for requiring National Federations to establish rules requiring all athletes and athlete support personnel to be bound by anti-doping rules that conform to the WADA Code, and for taking "appropriate action to discourage non-compliance with the [WADA] Code".17 In effect, International Federations are to take the lead within their sport in the fight against anti-doping; there can be little confidence in the robustness at national level if the international governance is totally deficient.

From a positive perspective, it would appear that the outsourcing to the DFSU worked, at least if AIBA's press release of 30 April 2018 is to be believed.18 In that release, it was stated that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had concluded that all non-conformities with the WADA Code had been addressed appropriately. Moreover, on 3 July 2018, AIBA announced19 that it was one of the first International Federations to join the newly established International Testing Agency (ITA). The ITA is intended to be an independent anti-doping testing and sanctioning system, established by WADA and with the IOC providing initial capital. There is some concern about the extent of the ITA’s independence, but in the authors’ view such an attempt at independence can only be seen as a positive step and the same can be said of AIBA's decision to outsource its anti-doping programme to it.

Is the IOC’s decision to intervene a positive step forward?

The IOC stated in December 2017 that funding would be suspended to AIBA until there was sufficient compliance with governance, refereeing and anti-doping issues. The IOC also maintained its right to review the inclusion of boxing in the programme for the Olympic Games, and asked AIBA to keep it updated on its progress in this regard. Both at AIBA’s publication of its initial progress report20 in January 2018 and at the submission of its further report21 in April 2018, the IOC have maintained that there are still major concerns22 and continue to withhold funding. However, the withdrawal of funding, and the associated publicity, has demonstrably made at least a small impact on AIBA’s governance practices. The decision to withdraw of funding may yet prove to be a turning point for the long-term development of boxing.

In the authors’ view, the IOC’s decision must therefore be seen as a positive – surely intervention from arguably the organisation with the most obvious mandate to do so, is better than no action at all. However, it remains to be seen how big a step forward this really is, or whether AIBA is just an "easy target". Action against one high profile governing body will make the headlines and may incentivise other sports to step up and avoid becoming press fodder themselves. However, one suspension of funding alone is not going to transform the sports governance landscape.

The credibility of the IOC’s enforcement action is weakened by its own governance issues. Despite promise of reform following the Salt Lake City scandal almost 20 years ago,23 suspicions remain. Investigations are ongoing into the bidding process for the Rio Olympics24. More recently, serious questions have been raised about a large payment from the Tokyo Olympic bid team25 to the son of Lamine Diack, former president of the IAAF who himself is the subject of numerus corruption investigations. A cynical view might suggest that the IOC should look to the transparency and integrity of its own standards and practices, before pointing the finger at (and withholding significant funding from) any individual sport.

However, there are some indications that the IOC’s actions are part of a wider change of attitude and that it is not the only organisation concerned with the pursuit of good governance. The Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) set up a Governance Task Force26 three years ago, whose goal is to promote a culture of good governance amongst International Federations. The Task Force sent out a governance self-assessment questionnaire27 for completion between November 2017 and January 2018, dealing with fundamental governance principles such as transparency, integrity (including conflicts) and democracy within ASOIF’s member federations (including AIBA).

ASOIF found28 that there was an overall improvement since the previous 2016-2017 assessment, but the results revealed considerable variation in standards of governance. Extraordinarily, six full members stated they did not publish at least one set of annual, externally audited accounts, while only one federation had at least 40% of each gender on its Executive Board. Clearly much remains to be done, but just the existence of the questionnaire and publication of its results is progress of sorts.

Has a precedent been set?

AIBA is not the only federation under scrutiny. Last year the IOC gave the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) six months to deliver a report 29 on how they intend to address a deeply rooted doping problem in the sport. The time frame has already been extended however the IOC has sent a clear message by removing 64 quota places for weightlifting at the Tokyo Games 30 and stressed that the ultimate sanction of removal from the Olympics altogether is still on the table for 2024. In response the IWF has sanctioned the countries 31 with 20 or more doping violations from 2008 to 2020 by linking the number of places available to their history of doping offences. A further step for the IWF might be to outsource its anti-doping operations to the ITA (referred to above).

In addition, in June this year the IOC suspended all direct financial payments to the International Biathlon Union (IBU)32, citing concerns with the governance of the IBU including its anti-doping programme and code of ethics. This follows the IBU’s president Anders Besseberg stepping down in April 2018 after his implication in various crimes including fraud, corruption and the Russian doping scandal.

If nothing else, therefore, might the publicity surrounding AIBA have set a precedent for intervention at an international level rather than only nationally? Perhaps – but as is clear from some of the historic examples set out in this article, this is hardly the first time that international sports governance issues have received the attention of the world's press. Previous investigations all too often appear to have been carried out in isolation and have not been the turning points that some might have hoped or expected they would be.

It remains to be seen whether the story of the IOC and AIBA will be a turning point or whether it will prove to be just another footnote in the long and chequered history of sports governance.

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Tom Bruce

Tom Bruce

Partner and Deputy-Head of Sports - Farrer & Co

Tom is an experienced sports lawyer known for his personable approach and outstanding client service. 

Tom is embedded in the sports sector and works closely with sports clients on a wide range of corporate, commercial and governance matters. He advises Governing Bodies, commercial sports organisations and clubs and is a "go-to" adviser for a number of high profile clients on governance matters (including the Code for Sports Governance), joint ventures and structuring international sporting events.

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Emily Jamieson

Emily Jamieson

Associate - Farrer & Co

Emily advises on corporate transactions including acquisitions and disposals, joint ventures, investments and corporate structuring. She also provides advice on general company law matters and in relation to corporate governance.

Tom Rudkin

Tom Rudkin

Associate - Farrer & Co

Tom provides reputation management and contentious media advice to the full range of Farrer & Co's clients. He is a member of the firm's Sports Group and, as well as assisting sports clients on reputational, media and other sensitive issues, he advises on sports-based disputes, rules and regulations and commercial contracts. Tom's work spans from advising National Governing Bodies to high profile sportsmen and women. He has also spent time in-house on secondment at the Lawn Tennis Association.

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