UK Athletics’ creation of a (long overdue) Athletes’ Commission


Published 11 July 2017 | Authored by: Richard Yates

On 23 June 2017, UK Athletics (UKA) announced1 that nine members had been elected to the newly formed UKA Athletes’ Commission (Commission). The author was delighted to be one of the inaugural members, along with eight other very worthy colleagues,2 all of whom are either currently competing or recently retired athletes from a multitude of event disciplines and backgrounds. At the initial meeting of the Commission members on 13th October 2017, a further 3 members were appointed to the Commission to complete its population.3

This section provides a guide to the Commission and explains the role it will play within UK Athletics. Specifically, it looks at:

  • The background to the Commission;

  • Its purpose, membership and duties;

  • Key points to its future success

Background to the Commission

The Commission itself is largely the brainchild of multiple Olympic medallist heptathlete Kelly Sotherton who, in describing the Commission, has stated:

I have always passionately believed that, as athletes, we need a formal voice and role in the on-going future development of our sport.  I’m pleased UKA were open to this idea and that we have been able to work together to create a platform that allows athletes to provide effective input into decision-making at all levels of the organisation.

“I think UKA and athletics as a whole will really benefit from the unique insights and perspective delivered by the athletes and I look forward to seeing its work come to fruition in the years to come.4

The Commission also stems in some respect from the recent Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson Independent Review to Government entitled “Duty of Care in Sport”, which served to scrutinise welfare and safety issues in sport. Initial suggestions of the Commission have included athletes having a say in relation to major event calendar planning, careers advice and guidance on exiting the sport in addition to further support in relation to general life skills and more transparency in relation to selection and funding policies and decisions.

The balance of representative members from competing and non-competing athletes is seen as being of the utmost importance to the success of the Commission. This is because it facilitates those still competing in the sport to have a greater involvement in identifying current ideas and trends relevant to the competition arena, whereas the non-competing athletes have additional time to dedicate towards areas such as administration, careers guidance, general life skills and the business side of the sport, with a number of the non-competing members of the Commission now having moved into reputable professions. The common viewpoint is that the creation of the Commission is indeed long overdue in the sport of athletics, albeit there is clearly considerable groundwork to be done in ensuring that the Commission is effective.

 

Purpose, membership and duties

As per Paragraph 1 of the Terms of Reference5, the purpose of the Commission is:

"To ensure that the Board of UK Athletics can benefit from the perspective and expertise of international athletes in its deliberations and decision-making"; and

"To provide international athletes with a formal mechanism for ensuring that their views on important matters are heard at Board level by UK Athletics"6

The Commission will seek to provide a fresh perspective straight from the athletics track on new trends and issues being faced by the UKA Board and the organisation generally. The author is also of the opinion that the existence and functioning of a successful Athletes’ Commission will serve to increase trust towards UKA as an organisation by ensuring that the interests and viewpoints of the athlete remain at the forefront.

As per Paragraph 2 of the Terms of Reference, the membership of the Commission shall be as follows:

  • "The Commission membership shall comprise of up to 12 members elected in accordance with the criteria and election procedures set out below.

  • The members of the Commission shall elect a Chair, as set out below.

  • Any British athletes who are members of the International Amateur Athletics Federation Athletes’ Commission (“IAAF AC”), European Athletics Athletes’ Commission (“EA AC”), British Olympic Association Athletes Commission (“BOAAC”), or the Paralympic GB Athletes Commission shall be ex officio members of the Commission, may attend all meetings but shall not be eligible to vote."

As noted above, the Commission is currently comprised of its full quota of twelve members, including the author.7 In October 2017, the Commission members elected Hannah England as the first Chairperson, and the author was elected joint Vice-Chair8. The Chairperson stands for an initial period of 4 years, and has the task of representing the Athletes’ Commission by directly sitting on the UK Members Council and having the option to attend UKA Board Meetings as and when appropriate. The Chairperson is also responsible for a number of additional duties as set out in Paragraph 4 of the Terms of Reference9.

As per Paragraph 3 of the Terms of Reference, the general duties and responsibilities of the Commission members are as follows:

  • "At all times make decisions and provide advice based on the best interests of current and future British international athletes.

  • Where required, to bring matters to the Board of UK Athletics for discussion and or recommendation.

  • Where required to bring matters to the Performance Oversight Committee for discussion and recommendation.

  • Where requested provide feedback and guidance on relevant matters to the CEO or Performance Director of UK Athletics.

  • Proactively help provide an open two-way communication channel between UK Athletics and international athletes.

  • Report formally to the Board of UK Athletics at least once a year.

  • Annually, provide a written report which will be posted on the UK Athletics website to ensure all athletes are aware of the Commission’s activities.

  • At all times act in a manner which encapsulates the UK Athletics company values of integrity, accountability, respect, quality and communication."

 

Comment - key factors for the success of the Commission and initial developments

The author is of the view that a standalone Commission is unlikely to be effective and there is a strong requirement for an effective integration of the Commission into the existing organisational structure in addition to a clear connection to the wider community of athletes involved in the sport. In this respect, the mere creation of the Commission is indeed the easy part and only the first stage of a detailed process. It is imperative that in order for the Commission to be effective there needs to be an effective means by which the athletes are able to contact the Commission in order to successfully have their views communicated across to the board level. There also needs to be an effective feedback system whereby the athletes are able to provide the Commission with specific input on issues they feel need addressing at the top level. There is now a section of the UKA website specifically dedicated to the Commission and a specific email address for the athletes to contact the Commission with issues they wish to be placed on the agenda for discussion at the next Commission meeting.10

UKA itself will also need to actively report on the activities, investigations and values of the Commission in order for it to be effective. This will allow our athletes to see that the Commission is indeed being granted a good level of importance and exposure and the section of the governing body’s website now dedicated to the Commission is a useful starting point. The presence of the Commission at athletics events is also an integral ingredient for success and the Commission has already taken steps to ensure that one of its members is present at most major events in the athletics calendar ranging from winter cross-country meetings to the British Athletics Championships in the summer.

UKA has already show its amenability and willingness to work in conjunction with the Commission by allowing the Commission members to have a direct input in relation to draft selection policies for major championships and indeed granting a Commission member attendance at such selection meetings which had perhaps previously been seen as a source of controversy and inconsistency by some athletes.11

The creation of a more transparent governing body can only serve to assist in the development of the sport of athletics and if athletes are aware that their own opinions and ideas are indeed being taken into consideration when important decisions in relation to selection, funding and event planning are being made, the athletes themselves will feel a greater confidence.

It is important to note from existing successful athlete commissions such as that of the British Athletes Commission and that of the International Olympic Committee that an Athletes’ Commission should not be seen to simply operate as a complaints box but rather an effective channel between the athletes and the board. The ultimate aim is to create a determinative system for gaining athlete feedback on all key decisions affecting the sport. After all, athletes are at the centre of the sport so their voices need to be heard and their experiences and ideas must be utilised to optimum effect.

Although the UKA Board itself has in the past and does currently contain individuals who have indeed competed at the top-level in athletics, the Board has not always effectively represented the interests and viewpoints of the athletes and previous comments by Olympic Champions Greg Rutherford MBE12 and Dame Kelly Holmes13 echo such sentiments. The hope is that the recently formed Athletes’ Commission will serve to better reflect and communicate the opinions and perspectives of the athletes.

There has also been a recent criticism of the governing body from a number of former athletes such as Darren Campbell14. The criticisms revolve around the view that the current individuals running the sport are failing to take into consideration the needs and viewpoints of those integral to the successful functioning of the sport, be it the volunteers or the athletes themselves. Whilst there are a number of successful business leaders on the UKA board, there is in the author’s experience a feeling that athletes are the ones who will truly put the sport first when making certain decisions. The reality is that the viewpoint of the athlete needs to remain at the forefront and heart of the sport. In order to be effective, the Commission will require assistance from UKA in the form of both financial and administrative resources and is likely to lead to positive change in terms of the current board structure by virtue of the fact that the Chairperson of the Athletes’ Commission will now have a direct input at UKA board level.

 

Looking ahead

Having attended the last edition of the British Athletics Outdoor Championships in the summer in Birmingham it was disappointing to see that the stands were very sparse in the run up to what was a home World Championships in August 2017 in London. Specific criticisms centred around the fact that ticket prices were expensive, spectators and indeed athletes themselves were charged £10 each day for parking in a field and there were no healthy food options at the event for either the athletes or the spectators. More recent criticisms have centred around the fact that not enough is being done for athletes from a duty of care perspective when they leave sport and that the sport is also experiencing athletes retiring and moving away from the sport without UKA taking the opportunity to utilise and maximise the experiences and knowledge bank of those athletes, which is of course essential to the sport’s development and success moving forwards.

It is indeed easy to criticise such issues within the sport, the more difficult thing is ascertaining what the solution is and taking definitive and effective steps to improve matters. These are areas and problems that the Commission will be tasked with seeking to improve in the months and years ahead.

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About the Author

Richard Yates

Richard Yates

Richard is a solicitor in the Commercial Litigation and Sports and Media Law Departments at JMW Solicitors LLP, based in the firm’s Manchester City Centre Office.

Richard specialises in advising both individuals and companies on a variety of contentious commercial related matters to include breach of contract, professional negligence, defamation, property litigation, contested debt cases and emergency injunctions.

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