Government involvement in sport

When is it appropriate for a government to become involved in the organisation of sport?

In the UK there is much government involvement in sport through such governmental agencies as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; UK Sport and Sport England.

These agencies will often work in conjunction with the national governing bodies of particular sports in relation to issues such as the distribution of Lottery funding, bidding for international sporting events and the improvement in facilities and increasing participation in sport at a grass roots level.

Governments are often big financial contributors to sport however, and although most states generally strive to allow national sporting bodies to govern their own organizations and oversee their sports, states will sometimes intervene if they think something is awry with a sporting regulatory body.

In 2016, for example, the UK’s Sports Minister in the UK warned that England’s Football Association risked having government funding withdrawn if it did not implement institutional reform. That same year, UK Sport and Sport England published ‘A Code for Sports Governance’ setting out governance principles and rules which governing bodies funded by them were required to adopt.

On a European level, the EU specifically states its respect for sports organisations’ autonomy, but promotes compliance with the following principles:

  • democracy;
  • transparency;
  • accountability in decision-making;
  • inclusiveness in the representation of interested parties.

In an EU work plan for sport – ‘Principles of good governance in sport’ – an EU ‘Good Governance’ Expert Group called on sports authorities to publish clear statements of their objectives, rules and processes, and adopt democratic processes which engaged with relevant stakeholders.

Case law

There have been two famous cases involving government interference in sport. They are:

  • the Hellenic Football Association;
  • the Iraqi Olympic Committee.

The Hellenic Football Association

In 2004, the world governing body of Football, FIFA, found that the Greek government had broken rules on the independence of members and decision-making in that country.

Prior to this, FIFA had issued many warnings to the Hellenic Football Association and the Greek government that the running of the federation should be free from any kind of political involvement. The law at issue was a new law adopted in 2004 which increased government involvement in the running of the professional football leagues in Greece.

The initial outcome of this case was that the Hellenic Football Association was banned by FIFA from any involvement in international competitions. For example the Greece national team was banned from taking part in either the World Cup or the European Championships – of which they were the current holders. The Greek clubs who had also qualified to play in European competitions such as the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Cup were also banned from participating in these tournaments.

The ban imposed by FIFA was however, lifted shortly afterwards when the Greek government amended the law restricting the independence of the Hellenic Football Association.

The Iraqi Olympic Committee

In 2008, Iraq were suspended from taking part in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing due to the ongoing political interference by the government in the sports movement in Iraq. The Iraqi government took the decision to disband the countries national Olympic committee which was the final straw for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

It is a requirement of the IOC and the Olympic Movement that each country involved in the Olympics has to have a national Olympic Committee which can oversee the organisation of that countries participation in games and where appropriate organise a bid to host the games.

The government interference in disbanding the Iraqi Olympic Committee made Iraq’s position in the Olympics untenable.

Independence of national governing body

Following these cases it is clear that international governing bodies take a hard line on increased political involvement in the organisation of sport in various countries. The only way in which sport can continue to function on a level playing field is if the national governing bodies are independent from the government of that country.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.