Should Danish Elite sport be supervised?

August 8, 2020

Elite sports have a very low priority by the politicians of the Danish Parlament (Folketing) and the government ministers, except when they are guests at the Confederation of Danish Sports (DIF) during the Olympic Games or prizes are to be awarded at annual TV galla shows where Denmark’s best athletes are honored. During the coming autumn, however, the parliamentary parties will, for only the third time in four decades, discuss Danish elite sports in an international perspective. The background for the additions to the Act on Elite Sports is primarily the so-called “swimming case”, which stems from DR’s documentary broadcast: “Swimming stars – below the surface” (April 21, 2019) and the Chamber Advocate’s subsequent report: “Investigation of conditions for elite swimmers in the Danish Swimming Federation” was published on February 7, 2020. On the basis of the “swimming case” – and similar cases in e.g. Badminton Denmark and the Danish Orienteering Federation – on non-well-being, violations and unacceptable behavior, the Minister of Culture decided a few weeks ago that “… there is a need to change the rules regarding, the composition of the Team Denmark board to emphasize Team Danmark’s supervisory obligation, strengthen the athletes’ voice and minimize potential conflicts of interest/incapacity in Team Danmark’s board ”(Press release from the Ministry of Culture, July 2, 2020).

Elite sports at the international level are a selective and exclusive system

This is not a thorough revision of the existing Act on Elite Sport, but only additions. It is, in my opinion, both inappropriate and annoying. There is more than ever a need for politicians to put words to and direction for the most important purpose(s) of Danish elite sports in an international context. The first section of the Act on Elite Sport states that “… Team Denmark is a public, self-governing institution that aims to develop Danish elite sports in a  socially manner” – but develop Danish elite sports for what? Today, there is an unfortunate mix of targets or means in relation to the overall aim of the Act. Sporting results are e.g. not specifically mentioned, neither in the main clause of the Act nor in the 12 tasks described by the Act. However, it is pointless not to view Team Denmark’s work from an international results perspective, ie. good sporting results at international events such as the Olympic Games, the World Championships and the European Championships – but certainly not at any price. Sexual offenses, dispensing of medicine without medical approval or the like do not (nor) belong in the world of sports, but examples of e.g. non-well-being and eating disorders will always occur in certain training environments. Likewise, it is my opinion that “… elite sports at the international level is a selective and exclusive system where athletes can and must be deselected. Far from everyone thrives in such a system. Yes – maybe it’s really the fewest. There will always be a power relationship between athlete and coach, as the coach’s task is to deselect and prioritize among the athletes. For that reason, it is also pointless to compare elite sports environments with, for example, workplaces and educational institutions, where inclusion and social care are core values ​​”(” Will all that talk of well-being force Danish athletes down from the medal podium “, Jyllands-Posten,  July 8, 2020 ).

Will the additions to the Act on Elite Sports have consequences for Team Denmark’s next support programme or and the contract with the Ministry of Culture?

If the Minister of Culture and the parties in the Parlament (Folketing) fail to discuss and take a position on the most essential issue in the discussion of Danish elite sports in an international perspective – the overall aim(s) and direction of development of Danish elite sports – it will be exciting to follow the consequences. partly for Team Denmark’s support programme 2021-2024 and partly for the contract between Team Denmark and the Ministry of Culture in the same period. The latest 4 support programme (2005-2020), which define who, what and how Team Denmark can support athletes, teams and federations and the latest three contracts between Team Denmark and the Ministry of Culture (2009-2020) have emphasized that the most important aim has been to ” … Team Denmark-supported federations must perform at the highest international level and win medals at the European Championships, World Championships and Olympic Games. At the same time, Denmark as a nation must place in the Top-5 among nations under 10 million inhabitants and in the Top-25 among all nations measured on international rankings ”(Contract between Team Denmark and the Ministry of Culture 2017-2020, February 2017). Will objective, measurable sporting results have the same value and significance when the additions to the Act on Elite Sports enter into force on 1 January 2021 or will other objectives achieve higher priority at the request of Team Denmark and/or the Minister of Culture?

An “independent” function can be a completely wrong solution

With the additions to the Act on Elite Sports, as mentioned earlier, the Minister of Culture wishes to strengthen Team Denmark’s supervisory obligation, so that the institution “… is obliged to supervise that the rules and guidelines that apply to Team Denmark and that Team Denmark lays down are complied with, and that the work of the federations and similar partners with whom Team Danmark collaborates takes place in accordance with Team Danmark’s ethical and social guidelines”and“… Team Danmark establishes an independent function with a specially appointed person that athletes, coaches and others can contact them if they experience unacceptable behavior in the training and competition environments that Team Denmark collaborates with. The independent function refers directly to Team Denmark’s board ”. The most interesting thing about the above addition, however, is that “… Team Denmark is responsible for establishing and preparing a detailed description of the independent function after discussion with the athletes’ representatives and the involvement of the Danish Data Protection Agency. The description of the function must appear in Team Denmark’s articles of association ”(Proposal for the Act on Elite Sports, the Act on the Promotion of Integrity in Sport and the Act on the Distribution of Profits from the Lottery, July 2020). However, it will be paramount to the value and quality of an “independent” function that the general legal principles of separation between a legislative, executive and judicial power apply. If Team Denmark’s Board of Directors is to be both a legislative and judicial institution with a “specially appointed person” with reference to Team Denmark’s Board of Directors as executive institution, this will be a very unfortunate construction. I have always been very concerned when sports organizations – or others – have established and developed “parallel systems” for the general courts. And precisely in relation to elite sports, where the “work”  by training and competitions rests on a legal basis, conflicts, disputes and serious disagreements should be decided in general courts when a party – athlete, coach, sports director, federation or others – experiences an offense by a counterparty. The greatest strengths in ordinary courts are that all actors have the right and duty to testify and that all statements are made under the responsibility of witnesses. Media and public debate are absolutely central in any democratic legal society, but interpretation, punishment and sanctions in relation to society’s laws and rules – including the Act on Elite Sports – must be handled by the courts and not by other bodies.

Capacity applies to everyone – except the members of the Confederation of Danish Sport’s (DIF) board members

The additions to the Act on Elite Sports also contain some positive changes, not least in relation to the capacity of board members. The Minister of Culture proposes that “… members of Team Denmark’s board may not at the same time be employed in the Confederation of Danish Sports or federation under the Confederation of Danish Sports or be a member of the board of a federation under the Confederation of Danish Sports (DIF)”. In my opinion, Team Denmark should be an independent, professional knowledge institution without board members with narrow sports policy and financial self-interests. It is very positive that the Minister of Culture – after the grotesque mixing of interests with the CEO of the Danish Swimming Federation, who was nominated by DIF to Team Denmark’s board – now proposes that this can not take place in the future. But it is still extremely unfortunate that board members of the Confederation of Danish Sports (DIF) can still – also – be board members of Team Denmark. Over the years, there have been a number of cases, including The Danish Volleyball Federation’s lawsuit against Team Denmark (2010-2011) and the case  regarding the location of a national elite sports center (2011-2014), where several of Team Denmark’s board members nominated by DIF had more than difficulty finding out which interests they represented: Team Denmark or the Confederation of Danish Sports. In my opinion, there are no reasons for the special status of DIF’s board members – in relation to DIF’s members: Board members and employees in the federations – when it comes to membership of Team Denmark’s board.

You can read about my views and attitudes regarding Act on Elite sports and the “swimming case” in the following blogs:

  • In deep water – Act on elite sports, incapacity and power relations (25 April 2019) – https://ma57.dk/paa-dybt-vand-lov-om-eliteidraet-inhabilitet-og-magt-relationer/
    Continued in deep water – A lifebuoy was thrown, but without land in sight (May 10, 2019) –
    https://ma57.dk/fortsat-paa-dybt-vand-en-redningskrans-blev-kastet-men-uden-land-i-sigte/
  • The dream that was shattered by power politics and a foolish lease agreement (November 18, 2019) – https://ma57.dk/droemmen-som-blev-knust-af-magtpolitik-og-en-taabelig-lejeaftale/
    “Study of the conditions for elite swimmers in the Danish Swimming Union” – Personal comments (9 February 2020) – https://ma57.dk/undersoegelse-af-forholdene-for-elitesvoemmere-i-dansk-svoemmeunion/