Play the Game: Watchdog for 25 years

In a few weeks (June 27-30, 2022), Odense will host Play the Game’s 25th anniversary conference: “Play the Game – is there a cure for sports?”. At the conference, more than 400 journalists, researchers, experts, athletes, managers, politicians, whistleblowers and others from around the world will discuss the “shadow sides” of sport – and there are (still) many of them.

Democracy, transparency and freedom of expression as key values

The vision of an international forum focusing on the “shadow sides” of sport was launched in 1997 by journalist and editor-in-chief Jens Sejer Andersen, who hosted an international media seminar on behalf of the Danish Gymnastics and Sports Associations (DGI). The seminar was also the start of an international network for journalists who were interested in more than just sports results and international football matches. The first three conferences were conducted by DGI, but in 2004 “Play the Game” was established as a self-governing institution with support from the three Danish sport organizations: DGI, the Sports Confederation of Denmark (DIF) and Danish Company Sports (DFIF) as well as financial support from the Ministry of Culture. In 2011, “Play the Game” was merged with the Danish Institute for Sports Studies (Idan). Despite various organizational structures, the purpose of Play the Game has remained unchanged – “… to promote democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in international sports community”.

Doping is (still) one of the biggest challenges of sport

The most controversial theme in international sports in the late 1990s was doping, especially in professional cycling. The Festina scandal in 1998, in which French police seized a gigantic quantity of doping substances from the cycling team Festina shortly before the start of the Tour de France, was the background for the establishment of an international institution – the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) – the following year. In addition, a number of national anti-doping institutions were established, such as Anti-Doping Denmark (ADD), which was to combat the use of doping. During these years, the Play the Game conferences were the meeting place where “key players” in the international doping debate, such as Dick Pound (former IOC Vice President and WADA President 1999-2007), Bengt Saltin (International Researcher), Alessandro Donati (Head of Research and Anti-Doping at CONI), Pat McQuaid (UCI President 2005-2013) and Greg LeMond (Tour de France winner 1986, 1989 and 1990) appeared as “witnesses of truth”. Similarly, the Play the Game conference in 2017 became the venue where Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanova helped reveal for the systematic, Russian state doping, which culminated during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Despite a number of national and international initiatives, including coordination across nations and sports, doping is in my opinion still one of the biggest “shadow sides” of sports, as it is probably no more than 35-40 out of more than 200 nations that have an effective control system in relation to doping.

Corruption thrives in the world of sports

Another controversial theme is corruption in sports. In particular international organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and federations such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF – today World Athletics), the International Boxing Amateur Association ( AIBA) and the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) have been the subject of corruption scandals, i.a. in connection with the allocation of hosts for international events and the negotiation of television contracts and sponsorships. One of the “strongest cards” of the Play the Game conferences for 25 years has been the journalist and author Andrew Jennings, who died a few months ago. Jennings contributed in an exemplary manner with the books “Lords of the Rings: Power, money and drugs in the modern Olympics” (1992), “Foul! – The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals” (2008) and ”The Dirty Game: Uncovering the Scandal at FIFA” (2016), a fantastic international network of sources and a tireless commitment to incompetent and money-hungry “sports and football politicians” in the media spotlight and in several cases convicted of corruption in national and international courts. Without critical, hard-working journalists like Jennings, it is highly questionable whether e.g. Transparency International (IT) in 2016 was able to publish the report: “Global Corruption Report: Sport”. The report contains more than 60 articles, analyzes and essays from external contributors, which together cover six sports-related topics: Governance, transparency, American college sports, megaevents, match-fixing and sports participation. The report unequivocally shows that sport – not least due to exponentially increasing cash flows – has become a sector where corruption thrives. In the report, IT also makes a number of recommendations that national and international federations should use to combat corruption in sport. Against this background, Play the Game – together with six European universities: Loughborough University (UK), Utrecht University (Netherlands), KU Leuven (Belgium), German Sport University Cologne (Germany), IDHEAP Lausanne (Switzerland) and Ljubljana University (Slovenia) – developed “Sports Governance Observer” (2019), which is an operational, standardized “online tool” for measuring “good governance”. It would be very naive to imagine that “online tools” alone can root out corruption in sports, but Play the Game should be praised for (also) working on concrete solutions. In my opinion, there is no doubt that the billion-dollar purchase and sale of clubs across continents and sports is one of the international sport’s biggest threats in the years to come. Multinational funds and television companies can see many benefits by “investing” in top sports with astronomical amounts that are excluded from “democratic control”.

Room for different views and attitudes

Doping and corruption have been among the main themes at Play the Game conferences throughout the 25 years. But other controversial topics such as match-fixing, mega-events, organized crime, sexual assault and human rights violations as well as “soft topics” such as volunteering, sports journalism, sports management, ethics in sports and “sports for all” have been highlighted through academic or journalistic research. Subsequently, the topics of the individual sessions have been debated from different points of view among the participants – always with enthusiasm and respect for each other’s attitudes.

Play the Game 2022 – lots of current topics

12 international conferences in 5 different countries with 300-400 participants each have been the “crown jewel” for Play the Game. But the institution has – with Jens Sejer Andersen as visionary front figure – also involved in research projects, articles and debate posts on websites and participated in advisory committees and working groups under the EU, the Council of Europe and UNESCO.  Play the Game 2022 in Odense contains a packed program with both traditional themes such as doping, corruption and match-fixing. I also look forward to gaining more knowledge on topics such as the sporting consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, human rights and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the responsibility and commitment of the sports sector in relation to climate change, reforms of the International Sports Court CAS and much, much more.

Finally, a big congratulations to the team behind “Play the Game” with 25 years anniversary: Carl Holst, Troels Rasmussen, Jens Sejer Andersen, Stanis Elsborg, Kirsten Sparre, Maria Suurballe, Katja Høiriis and others who are associated with the “watchdog “- see you in Odense!

You can read more about Play the Game 2022 here: