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Olympism: The values of sport and the risks


Olympism: The values of sport and the risks

I am very happy to be here in Olympia once more, where 40 years ago, I attended as a young participant, and began a lifelong love affair –with Greece and its sporting history. I now live part of each year here in Greece– all because of the Academy!

I will begin by outlining the membership and mission of the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (ICSSPE), of which I am President. ICSSPE is the largest worldwide umbrella organisation in its field, with more than 300 member organisations, including sports institutes and universities, international sport federations and national and international associations and government organisations. It therefore covers a huge number of people through its collective membership – a conservative estimate is in excess of 60 million people, all working in sport science, sport and physical education.

ICSSPE’s mission is to:

• promote better scientific understanding of all facets of human movement;

• educate better quality of life and improved health for all people;

• advocate the benefits related to an active lifestyle and the ethical values inherent in sporting activity.

I hope that this immediately shows the synergies between ICSSPE’s mission, and the theme of this presentation, which will outline the contributions of science, education and advocacy to promoting the Olympic ideals and managing the risks to them. This is even clearer, when looking at ICSSPE’s contribution, i.e. to place science at the service of sport, through:

• SCIENCE, for better informed, more rigorous examination of experience and evidence;

• EDUCATION, for dissemination and explanation of information, and the development of the skills for informed choice; and

• ADVOCACY, in promoting the ethical bases for sport and physical education, with an emphasis on inclusion and positive values.

We play the roles of scientist, educator and advocate. As scientists, we use facts, logic and reasoning, to create knowledge and rational thinking – and to help us to balance complex arguments. As educators, we use knowledge and skills to develop others, supported by belief in their ability to realise their potential. And as advocates, we use rational argument and belief to promote causes and values in which our members believe.

As a scientist, educator and advocate, I see myself as a passionate rationalist for sport! But I am very aware that there are many issues and dilemmas in sport, which are not simple and which cannot be “solved” only by science. Sometimes, we must recognise the sources and implications of problems – and choose the most convincing position, or even, the least damaging solution (not always the most popular!).

The title of my presentation asks me to consider the relationships between Olympism, an ethical framework for selected values. But what are values? They can be defined as “principles or standards, judgements of what is important or valuable in life”. Note that I have emphasized that these are selected, chosen. They are NOT inevitable – but people within the Olympic Movement have decided that they are necessary and that they should be shared and promoted to young people, especially those participating and performing in sport.

I will return later to the obligations of professionals, and turn to the other part of the relationship I have been asked to examine – the Olympic ideals, which are expressed in the Olympic values:

• respect – this includes respect for one’s own and others’ bodies and sporting contributions (both colleagues’ and opponents’); and respect for the rules, shown through fair play. Respect extends to taking care of one’s health and the environment.

• excellence – being the best that one can be, both within sport and in life, through setting one’s own objectives and striving to achieve them through active participation and contribution.

• friendship – celebrating difference through shared sporting experiences and appreciating others’ challenges and achievements.

The Paralympic values add further dimensions, especially towards an inclusive sport:

• courage – to be who you are and to overcome difficulties and challenges.

• determination – to achieve what you set out to do.

• inspiration – to demonstrate ability and sporting prowess.

• equality – to show that Paralympic sport provides opportunities for achievement and excellence.

The Olympic Charter includes 3 clauses which are central to putting the ideals into practice:

4. The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

5. Recognising that sport occurs within the framework of society, sports organisations within the Olympic Movement shall have the rights and obligations of autonomy, which include freely establishing and controlling the rules of sport, determining the structure and governance of their organisations, enjoying the right of elections free from any outside influence and the responsibility for ensuring that principles of good governance be applied.

6. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

Clauses 4 and 6 are strong statements supporting the entitlement, the right, of all people to take part. This principle is proclaimed in sport and Olympic ideologies – and leaders of organisations commonly struggle to put it into practice.

So who is responsible for setting and upholding values – in and beyond sport? Parents and families are children’s first & most powerful influences, for all kinds of values, not only those related specifically to sport. Young children may be taught by their parents that, while they as young children, do matter, other people’s interests should also be considered, e.g. they are taught to share their toys, to recognise that Mummy might be busy and that they put extra pressure on her when they scream for attention or food. These basic, learned behaviours in turn underpin the values of unselfishness and consideration for others –respect– which provides the basis, later, for learning respect for opponents, officials and team-mates.

Peers later become important influences –it is no wonder that parents worry when they think their children are associating with the “wrong” friends– young people who have different or conflicting values to those which their children have been taught. And only after those two sets of powerful influences, come those of us working in sport –the sport professionals– teachers, coaches, leaders, administrators –and here, I include all those working in these roles, whether they are paid staff or elected, volunteer officers– all are bound by the same professional codes. Since professions are characterised by values and codes of conduct, by which professionals can be judged and held accountable, it is vital that all professionals in sport are aware of their own professional responsibilities, whatever role they may play.

Next, let us consider the notion of “risk”. I have selected two very different dimensions, since I believe that risk is essential and inevitable – and not always negative. However, in relation to sporting and Olympic values, “risk” is commonly seen as “endangerment”, involving threat to life, safety, existence, or status quo. It is often seen as out of or beyond one’s immediate control, although it can be posed by oneself or by or others. This threatening view of risk always seems to imply negative consequences, if the risk is not avoided.

An alternative view of risk is “venture” –commonly used in investment activities, where assets are invested in ventures which are hoped to increase those assets– but since this is neither inevitable nor completely predictable, the risk to the original stake remains. This view of risk is also central to education, since it can be seen as extending the limits of skill, stamina, knowledge, or understanding. From this perspective, this is one’s own decision, although it may be encouraged by others, e.g. parents, coaches, teachers, who support their protégé’s move beyond the known “comfort zone”. It is actually the basis of all learning and achievement.

Hence, risk is necessary and desirable –and for children’s and young people’s development, it is positive to recognise the difference between treating them as “cotton wool kids”, hence seeking that they avoid risk altogether– and encouraging active learning, where children and young people learn to manage risk and hence limit danger.

Returning to ICSSPE’s mission, this demonstrates the contribution of scientists, educators and advocates in promoting positive values and risk management in and through sport:

SCIENCE (philosophy, social psychology, pedagogy) offers clear conceptual framework and rational analysis of value formation, transmission & use/conflict;

EDUCATION (coaching, physical education, leadership, instruction) upholds core values as means of protecting the integrity of sport, helps learning of judgement;

ADVOCACY (policy-making, political activity, lobbying) promotes selected events, activities, behaviour, as desirable & worthy of investment – on basis of science & education.

The rhetoric around sport –sometimes called its “theology”– is defined by assumption of inherent values, like fairness, its currency as a common language and its availability to all – and these values are central to the tenets of Olympism. Yet sport has also been described as a “value receptacle” (Harry Edwards 1978), which reflects the values of the people who control and play it. This view questions the idea that sport necessarily and always is imbued with positive values; and every day, values like fairness or inclusion are constantly being violated, at all levels of sport, but perhaps most visibly, in professional and international sport. You only need to look at some of the behaviour in professional football, and the abuses like those of Lance Armstrong, to see this. This places significant responsibility on the people who lead and manage sport, at all levels, to enact and uphold the values related to the Olympic ideals.

These issues escalate into significant challenges in governance for federations at all levels, whether local, national or international; and since federations are often less wealthy and powerful than professional leagues and some clubs, which may resist or appeal against control and sanctions, the value struggle can be unequal, and very time-consuming and expensive. Too often, Federations have failed to recognise the need to be prepared to address the challenges of risk, both risks to sport, and risks within and by sport itself, e.g.:


• Cheating & corruption – all kinds, both individual & institutional;

• Commercialisation, gigantism, spectacle above contest, gambling;

• Use of sport as targets for terrorism;

• Attacks on integrity & autonomy of sport, rules & institutions.


• Over-conformity to the sport ethic (ref Jay Coakley on deviance) – abuse of athletes, whether physical, social, emotional, mental;

• Exclusion & polarisation – failure to recognise changes in context & social systems, failure to accommodate difference, reproduction of leadership in own image, poor governance;

• Abuse/imbalance of power, elitism & exclusion – inadequate levels of ac- countability.

De Coubertin himself recognised these tensions, very early in the development

of the Olympic Movement:

“Human imperfection tends always to transform the Olympian athlete into a circus performer. One must choose between two athletic methods which are not compatible ... The re-establishment of the Olympic Games on a basis and in the conditions in keeping with the needs of modern life would bring together, every four years, representatives of the nations of the world face-to-face, and one is permitted to think that these peaceful, courteous contests constitute the best form of internationalism”.

de Coubertin, 15 January, 1884

It is clear from this extract that de Coubertin was aware that the holders of power, and those to whom they are accountable, need constantly to be vigilant. Sport leaders must acquire the understanding, knowledge and skills they need to play this role, beginning with an appreciation of the term values – principles or standards, judgements of what is important or valuable in life. It is significant that professions are further characterised by values, codes of conduct and expected standards of skill and behaviour, by which professionals can be judged and held accountable. Hence, sport leaders need to identify the characteristics of professionalism which will further define their role, through the nature of service and professional practice, to identify and practice the principles of democracy and the Olympic ideals in sports governance.

In many ways, a robust ethical framework is a self-evident need. One only needs to look at the colliding worlds of “professional” players and clubs, against those responsible for governing the game; at the all-too-common collusion and confusion by stakeholders (including administrators, fans, media, politicians); andat the recurring evidence of distinct, competing priorities, value systems and behaviours. Any sports pages of almost any newspaper will provide examples.

An ethical framework is a system of shared, agreed values and behaviours, which define and support the management and delivery of a service system. Such frameworks are relatively easy to assemble and publish, but much more challenging to implement, as can be shown by the development and work of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

What does this imply for the Olympic Movement and leaders of sport? Often, upholders of values “swim against the tide”, facing enormous challenges; and they therefore need all their knowledge, belief and passion to fulfil their roles as moral guardians of an ethical sport system. They have to be prepared, and brave enough, to work on the system, as well as with individuals’ behaviour. They also need to be prepared to apply and maintain an ethical framework and explain why one is needed.

Implementation is challenging because of major realities which many times are overlooked or ignored in sport strategy and policy. First, institutions of sport are run by people – with all the human flaws, talents and peculiarities they bring. Sport can become exclusive and unfair, if those who manage it do not commit themselves to inclusion and fairness. This is why clause 5 is so important; and why it relates so strongly to clauses 4 and 6. Sport, all too often, fails to apply self criticism, instead allowing perpetuation and even exaggeration of the status quo, as shown by Jay Coakley’s work on what he calls over-conformity to the “sport ethic” (Coakley 1998). Coakley argues that ethical tenets such as subjugation of an individual’s needs for the good of the team can actually lead to legitimation of deviant behaviour, like playing whilst injured or taking performance enhancing drugs: he calls for a healthy level of self-evaluation and reflection.

Power in sport is in the hands of people with “currencies” – money, spaces, people, and institutions. “Power corrupts”? Abuse of power is enabled by dysfunctions between agencies within the sport system, including lack of recognition of responsibility, and leaders’ own power to influence; and commonly, by lack of connection/accountability to client groups, by people controlling and delivering sport, i.e., a lack of genuine professional accountability. Sport’s greatest risk is the self-perpetuating cliques, lacking critical reflection and encouraging mystification and secrecy in decision-making.

Functional sociology is currently somewhat unfashionable, but its basic concepts provide some helpful perspectives. Social systems, organisations and institutions, especially during times of change or challenge, require BOTH pattern maintenance, ways of protecting the status quo and existing systems and cultures, AND tension management, involving response to challenges and changes by recognising problems and managing change. For sport leaders and administrators, this is a core responsibility, i.e. to balance these two functions. Sadly, too often this responsibility is not taken and may be ignored or avoided.

Yet this is the basis of “good governance”, which recognises and accommodates this need for balance between pattern maintenance and tension management, for example by:

• Limiting length of tenure for elected officers –achieving balance between continuity, institutional memory– & “new blood” to refresh decision-making, leadership;

• Recognising increasing diversity in most countries –efforts to include wider representation & opinion– across social, ethnic, age groups;

• Targeting required skills & experience – meritocracy rather than gerontocracy

• Paid staff encouraged to create “learning organisation” – recognition of life cycles of organisations;

• Commitment to staff development & continuous improvement, for both paid & volunteer personnel.

These measures require constant commitment to thinking and evaluating organisations’ and leaders’ performance. But as Martin Luther King commented:

“It is surprising how many people find it difficult to think about what they know best and value most”.

There are many examples of this need for clear thinking and informed decisions. The Olympic Charter strongly supports inclusion, yet by 2012, after more than a decade of gender equity targets being set, the IOC faced the dilemma of no women competitors from Saudi Arabia (and other countries). IOC leaders had been working with Saudi Arabian sport leaders to try to achieve this. One lobbying organisation, Atlanta/Sydney/Athens/London +, called for any NOC which does not send women to the Games, to be excluded from the Olympic Games. This is an example of a real dilemma. It is a dilemma which is rooted in culture rather than religion, since there is no prohibition of women participating and competing in sport in Islamic teaching (Benn at al 2010). This is where knowledge of the issue is vital, before selecting a course of action. Even then, doing the right thing is not a simple matter:

• Could the IOC, committed to increasing gender equity AND respect for cultural diversity, achieve more by excluding countries which fail to enter women competitors, or by including them and ensuring persuasive advocacy for change within the Movement?

• The IOC chose the first option and achieved 2 female competitors at the Games in London – 2 very brave women!

• What are the next steps, for both the IOC and the Saudis?

There are no easy answers to these questions – but they should be asked, and the issues and circumstances considered, before adopting a position.

It might also be useful to examine practices adopted by some international federations, within the Olympic Movement, which actually exclude large groups of potential participants. Rules and clothing requirements can be discriminatory, and are often applied without consulting the people who will be affected most – the athletes. Much sport clothing, especially for female athletes, is designed around western stereotypical ideas about what women (and men) should wear, rather than the functional needs of the sport. When this results in the exclusion of large numbers of participants, surely there is a need for a radical rethink. These two illustrations of track and field athletes show quite similar covering of the body, albeit for rather different reasons – first a Bahraini athlete, and then a world-famous achiever from Australia:

In 2008, following an international study week in Oman, the International Association of Physical Education and Sport for Girls and Women issued the “Accept and Respect” Declaration, which calls upon International Sport Federations to assess their own rules and practices, especially with regard to clothing.

Clause 6:

We urge international sport federations to show their commitment to inclusion by ensuring that their dress codes for competition embrace Islamic requirements, taking into account the principles of propriety, safety and integrity.

The IAPESGW rationale is that conventional thinking about “appropriate” clothing should be secondary to the rights of millions of women and girls to take part in and compete in sport. As long as athletes are safe and well prepared, why should unnecessary clothing restrictions exclude them? IAPESGW is asking sports administrators and legislators to think logically and clearly, with due regard for the rights of their client group – players and athletes. Another live issue is the request by many Muslim women to wear a specially adapted hijab for playing soccer, which has been supported by members of the IOC but resisted for “safety reasons” by members of the FIFA medical commission.

In some cases, the reasons for decisions cannot be seen as either for safety or ethical reasons – rather, they are led by commercial interests. Two recent examples were the attempted imposition in badminton and boxing, that women competitors should wear skirts (not shorts)! The Badminton World Federation was up-front about its ruling to require female players to wear short skirts - “to boost the sport’s profile among viewers and sponsors”. Contrast this so-called rationale with comments from international players:

Indian player - “I wear skirts or dresses only on special occasions, but never in tournaments .... Skirts hamper my movement when I play.“

In the case of boxing, there was defensiveness from the sport’s leaders about the “femininity” of women boxers, hence the ruling that skirts should be worn – a ruling which was ridiculed by many leading women athletes. In both badminton and boxing cases, the rationale was based on attractiveness to the media, rather than on functional sporting needs. In both cases, the athletes contested the ruling vigorously and won their case. The women boxers at London 2012 earned immense respect – as boxers, not for their femininity!

Gender stereotypes and myths affect and restrict expectations: they deny individuality, diversity and ranges of behaviour; constrain (& deny) achievement; they polarise behaviour between categories; and they affect the ways in which rules are made and services are delivered –as they have done in sport. Possibly one of the most extreme examples is beach volleyball, which illustrated gender stereotype and sexualisation in the governance (rules) of sport: this clearly conflicted with the Olympic Charter.

– why these different uniforms?

Here, the international federation blurred the edges of sex and gender, and polarised how males and females present themselves, by actually legislating a maximum size for women’s uniforms. The reasons are clearly centred on the sexualisation of both the sport and its female competitors. When I have raised this issue, I have been told that the female uniforms are “functional”; but if this is the case, why do the men not wear them? My view is that this IF has been failing to meet the principles of good governance (clause 5) and of equity and inclusion (clauses 4 and 6) of the Olympic Charter – yet no-one challenged it. However, very recently the Federation has conceded that women players be allowed to wear shorts and tee shirts with long sleeves, after pressure from what the Federation calls “more conservative countries” – and recognition of the cold evenings in London!

Other examples of decisions in sport which need to balance values and risk include:

• Olympic Movement & Commonwealth Games Federation:

– Pressure to include team sports, v/s gigantism, lack of capacity among small countries to host, participate;

– Increasing gender equity, v/s increasing number of events & categories.

• Paralympic Movement:

– Classification of degrees of disability for fairness, v/s being able to offer viable competition;

– Efforts to include deaf & hearing-disabled (Deaflympics);

– Attempts to include athletes with intellectual disabilities – previous attempts abused by one national team.

• Federations:

– Human rights of trans-gender athletes v/s “fairness” & respect;

– Gender verification testing v/s scientific & ethical flaws;

– Athlete power v/s need for disinterest & experience.

In the context of contested value positions, there are inevitable effects on equity and inclusion in sport, and hence on opportunities to participate and success, for young people especially. This raises the issue of the role of non-governmental organisations and of governments, in setting a lead towards positive sporting values – and most relevant to this audience, the role of sport leaders and participants in protecting and promoting them.

“The essence of professionalism depends on the effective performance of two separate, but overlapping elements: knowledge and judgement”.

Charles Leadbetter “Seeing the Light”: RSA 2003

This is where it is necessary for science and ethics to be deployed together, so that the positive values of both sport and democracy can be promoted and protected, through good governance. We can all play a part, by encouraging reflection on sporting practices, and ensuring transparency and accountability among our sport leaders.


Benn, Tansin, Pfister, Gertrud & Jawad, Haifaa (eds) (2010). Muslim Women and Sport, London, Routledge.

De Coubertin, Baron Pierre (1894). Extract from Coubertin’s 15 January 1894 circular invitation to the Sorbonne Congress of June 1894, cited in Michael Llewellyn Smith (2004) Olympics in Athens 1896 London, Profile Books.

Edwards, Harry (1969). The Revolt of the Black Athlete New York, Free Press.

International Association of Physical Education and Sport for Girls and Women (2008). Accept and Respect Declaration

Leadbetter, Charles (2003). «Seeing the Light», Royal Society of Arts.

TALBOT Margaret, "Olympism: The values of sport and the risks", in: K. Georgiadis(ed.), INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC ACADEMY, 53th International Session for Young Participants (Ancient Olympia, 11-25/6/2013), International Olympic Academy, Athens, 2014, pp.190-203.

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Olympism: The values of sport and the risks
Prof. Margaret TALBOT
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Olympism: The values of sport and the risks
Prof. Margaret TALBOT
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Olympism: The values of sport and the risks
Prof. Margaret TALBOT
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