Official: Olympic movement backs EU involvement in sport

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The EU’s future competence on sport should enable more political discussions and avoid further European Court of Justice rulings that challenge the autonomy and specific nature of sports, said the head of the European Olympic Committee’s (EOC) new EU office in an interview with EURACTIV.

Folker Hellmund heads the European Olympic Committee’s (EOC) new EU office in Brussels.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.  

Why are you opening an EU office of the EOC? 

The office will be called the EOC-EU office, but several sports organisations will be partners of it, and as the EOC and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) work very closely together, we, the EOC, are the official representative of the IOC here in Brussels as well. 

In sports, it is very important to represent international sports federations as well because of the multilevel international structure of sport. Therefore it is very important to have the IOC involved in this office as well. 

Often questions are not relevant for the EU level, but more so for the international level, and that is what the European Commission has to learn as well. Because if you look at the Commission’s White Paper, the international federations have not been mentioned sufficiently as partners: the paper only looks at the European level. 

For us, it is very important that as a major stakeholders, international federations can combine different sports – even FIFA is represented by the IOC – and it is very important to have them onboard. 

Do you consider the opening of the office to bring an international dimension to EU sports policy? 

We are taking up what the heads of state concluded during the French EU Presidency. The December summit conclusions mention sports and highlight the major role of the IOC in this regard. We wish to take up this position, and are happy to represent the views of the IOC via the EOC-EU office. 

In general, it is important that sport speaks with one voice and the same arguments – in particular regarding lobbying interests in the European institutions.  

What do you mean by speaking with one voice? Some sports NGOs are arguing that you neither represent them, nor their interests. 

We can’t of course represent all the different existing sports organisations. I mean that the very strong Olympic movement is represented by this office. The European non-governmental sports organisation (ENGSO) will also soon become a member of this office, so that we have the two big sports organisations at European level – Olympic sport and NGO sport – represented by this office. 

So, I don’t mind if there are other offices dealing with sports, the important thing is to get the most relevant sports represented, and this is undoubtedly the case with our office. 

What’s the difference between the EOC and ENGSO? There seems to be a lot of overlap in their memberships. 

Traditionally, there was a difference between Olympic sports and other sports. In the past, within countries, you had differentiation between sports federations and national Olympic committees. In the last ten years, there has been a tendency to merge them, like in Germany, France and Denmark, but in some countries you still have the differentiation between sports federations and the Olympic part. 

But for me, it is just a question of time for mergers to happen in most countries. 

What do you expect from the forthcoming EU competence on sport? What should be the EU’s main role in sport? 

First of all, I’d say that the vast majority of sports leaders are in favour of Article 165 of the Lisbon Treaty on sports, because for the first time, there is a chance that sports will become part of the formal agenda of sports ministers, ending a situation of informal meetings with no decisions with impact. Thus, Council-level political action will be important. 

Second, the European Commission’s White Paper mentions mainstreaming of sport financing – meaning that sport becomes eligible for existing European funding programmes, such as structural funds. For the moment, the Commission’s different directorate-generals can easily say ‘no’ to funding sports projects, because it is not a European competence in the Treaty. So, Article 165 could lead to mainstreaming of sports. 

Furthermore, there are certain issues with which we are asking the Commission for help, while on other issues, we want to strengthen our autonomy. So, regarding illegal betting or preserving the integrity of sport, for example, we would like to strengthen the role of the Commission. 

On other issues, like anti-doping, we already have established systems like NADA and WADA, but as a supplementary action, we could imagine that the Commission would support networking of anti-doping agencies or include anti-doping measures in the research framework programmes to fund research on new anti-doping tests. 

On the other hand, regarding the autonomy of sport: in our perspective, the Meca-Medina judgement has made the situation more uncertain than ever. Because we feel that the autonomy of sport is really questioned – less by the European Commission itself but by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). 

For us, it is more important that more issues are solved on a political level instead of just waiting for the court to take a decision. So the more we can solve with the help of Article 165 at political level, the less the ECJ has to take decisions on sport. 

Thus, we need support in certain fields, but underline that sport’s autonomy should not be questioned. And this is the difficulty. How to make sure that everybody understands our point of view: that we support Article 165, but on the other hand we would like to preserve our autonomy. So this is why it is important for us to be clear on which political fields we expect the Commission to become active and those on which we wish to keep our autonomy. 

In the past, without this article, EU institutions were reluctant to decide on sport issues together in a structured dialogue, which has now just started, and therefore the ECJ often took decisions as there was no political solution. 

With Article 165, we hope there will be more political solutions. 

So you hope to be more involved in EU projects in the future? 

Yes, but we are involved already. I just mentioned this structured European sports dialogue that has been started, and we have been actively involved in this both at working level, with regular meetings with the Commisison’s sports unit, and at the political level, with IOC and EOC presidents and Commissioner Figel’. 

Compared to recent years, it is also good that the Commission has started its own activities on certain issues. In March, there will be a meeting of national and European team sports federations regarding the free movement of workers in sports and the 6+5 rule. This was initiated by the Commission, so it is good that they are starting to implement the White Paper and become active, instead of just waiting to be under pressure from outside. 

Other examples are the planned conference on anti-doping in Athens in June and a conference on licensing systems in football – how to strengthen equal chances for all in European club tournaments. We could imagine that at least minimum standards agreed by our leagues could be one outcome of this thought. 

But you also need to know that this is a very sensitive issue, because the interests between the leagues are probably not always the same. The sport itself has to find common solutions, on for example minimum standards, with the help of the EU – the EU alone should not be in charge of fixing minimum standards, but more a moderator between the different interests. 

What do you think of sports as a soft policy tool compared to sports for sporting competition? 

In the White Paper, there is a quite good description of the different things that sport stands for, and one of these is the societal role of sport in dealing with integration, the fight against obesity and health equality questions. And this is one part of Olympic sport as well. 

When you look at Olympic sports, the Games and the athletes there, just a few of them are professionals. I’m sure that Usain Bolt as a sprinter can live from his gold medals, but for weightlifting, shooting or whatever, many athletes get support just so that they can stay active. So even Olympic sport is not always professional sport. 

Regarding the societal role of sport in education, the IOC has established the Youth Olympic Games so that youth can get used to Olympic values from very early on – and not just competition. Meanwhile, competition is an important part of sport and belongs to sport. 

One of the problems we face with regard to the EU institutions is finding out how to get the societal role of sport accepted in the different funding programmes when we talk about concrete projects, about for example integration or obesity.

The Commission is just starting to realise the extent to which sport can be supportive of other challenges, like integration or equality. But probably, sport must be more open to demonstrate what is being done in sports clubs at grassroots level. Therefore, the grassroots level should also be represented here in Brussels. And this is what we are planning to do with the ENGSO. It is important to give a signal to the EU institutions that we are not just representing professional sport, which is one part, but also the grassroots level. 

What issues do you intend to address next? 

Players’ agents are one. They are managers of individual sportsmen in football and athletics, and they have a very big influence on the athletes and there are really no rules on the criteria they should follow to become a sports agent. Therefore, we are very keen on the study that has been launched on the role of players’ agents, and that could provide interesting and usable results. 

Sports agents can be an obstacle for organising a big sports event, for example, as they may set rules regarding whom their athlete can compete against, or require big money for their participation. As for football, you sometimes have the feeling that the agents are only interested in transfers, because they get a certain amount of the transfer fee. 

Another issue is the collective selling of media rights and preserving the intellectual property rights of sports event organisers. It is important that their IPRs are preserved. In this context, illegal betting is an important issue. 

Furtehrmore, we are interested in the protection of young players. Some critics argue that Commission-backed ‘home-grown players’ rules attract clubs to transfer even younger players to their clubs, while the idea is that they are trained in the clubs or the leagues. There was no restriction regarding minors on these rules, and that is why it is important that FIFA negotiates with the EU on new rules on the protection of minors.

We also need a common approach between the member states, the EU, universities, employers and enterprises to the dual careers of sportsmen. If the member states have an interest in success in sports at professional level, or at Olympics and World Championships – then they have to help these people to combine sport and professional careers, or prevent them from having to start from zero after their professional sport careers are over. And I don’t know any country which is not interested in successful sportsmen.

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