In deep water – the Act on Elite sport, impartiality and relations of power

Denmark is one of the few countries in the World where the parliament – the Folketing, which pass all legislation and which controls how the government manages the legislation – has passed an Act on Elite sport. It was the most visionary Minister of Culture, Niels Matthiasen, who had the office in 1971-73 and 1975-80, his talented secretary Claus Bøje, as well as a number of prominent athletes and coaches who initiated the Act on Elite Sport (Act No. 643), which was approved by Queen Margrethe II on December 19, 1984. During the preparatory work in the vast majority of topics, the Sports Confederation of Denmark (DIF) directly opposed an Act of Elite sport. There were several coherent reasons – not always logical reasons.

The act on Elite sport states that ”… Team Denmark is a self-governing institution whose purpose is to develop Danish elite sports in a socially responsible manner. In collaboration with the Sport Confederation of Denmark (DIF), the federations of DIF and other relevant collaboration partners, Team Denmark initiates, coordinates and optimaze joint arrangements for elite sports in Denmark through 12 primary tasks”. These tasks range widely and it does not appear unambiguously, either in the Act on Elite sport or in comments of the Act, whether there are goals or strategies in relation to the purpose of the Act. Sports results are also not specifically mentioned, either for the purpose of the Act or in relation to the 12 tasks. But in my opinion, it is meaningless not to look at Team Denmark’s work from an international perspective. Shortly speaking: Good sport results at international championships such as the Olympics, the World Championships and the European Championships – but certainly not at all costs.

The Act on Elite sport from the mid-1980s has in the vast majority of topics proved – in contrast to the vast majority of the country’s other legislation – to be well-functioning over a decade of years. Only once – in 2004 – over the past 35 years, the Act on Elite sport has been revised. One of the major legislative changes in 2004 was that Team Danmark should be led by a board of eight members appointed by the Minister of Culture. 4 members are nominated by the Minister of Culture and 4 are nominated by the DIF. This distribution and competency between the two partners was a political compromise, but in my opinion one of the worst in Danish elite sport history.

It also appears that the Act’s remarks that “when composing the board, it is intended that the entire board represent a broad insight into the world of elite sport and other relevant areas (municipal policy, cultural policy, research, business life, etc.” and “at least two are current or former elite athletes and/or current or former elite sport coaches “and that” the Minister of Culture  and DIF must, when nominating and appointing the board members, ensure that the board together represents the breadth and the competencies described in the Act’s remarks “. That is, in the “spirit and letter of the Act on Elite sport” a professional – and not a political – board.

I have always appreciated my P.E.education, but in relation to my duties as CEO of Team Denmark, my master’s degree in political science, including public administration, has been of much greater benefit. When I joined as CEO of Team Denmark in the summer of 2006, I was aware from the first working day that there could be some very serious challenges for those of Team Danmark’s board members who at the same time were either board members or employed by DIF or one of the DIF’s federations – not least in relation to the individual board member’s impartiality. A person is impartiality in a case where there is a possible conflict between a person’s, group or organization’s economic, social or cultural ties to the person’s statements on issues within the same field of interest and where there are particular circumstances that may weaken confidence in the person’s impartiality.

Already at the appointment of new board members per June 1, 2008, the challenge was “bent in neon” for me, as DIF nominated and then Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen appointed Niels-Christian Levin Hansen, member of the DIF’s board and chairman of the Danish Parachute Federation, to Team Danmark’s board for a 4-year period. In addition, Niels-Christian Levin Hansen, strongly engaged in “Elite Course” – a formalized network of 15-20 federations, which at that time was not financially supported by Team Denmark. And he was also a very active “lieutenant” for Niels Nygaard in the election campaign as DIF’s new chairman after the “Kai Holm era”. It will not be “completely out of the wheel” to describe the DIF’s nomination of Niels-Christian Levin Hansen to Team Danmark’s board in 2008 as a “diligence prize” for a faithful “lieutenant”.

In the subsequent nominations and re-nominations of DIF and appointment and re-election of changing Ministers of Culture – every second year – of new board members to Team Denmark, the serious challenge was maintained – or even further reinforced: Board members who were also members of the DIF’s board, board member, CEO or high performance manager of a federation has been appointed and re-appointed without much attention in the media. These people now – very often and with very different competencies in relation to the tasks in Team Danmark’s board – should fill out a double role which, on the basis of Team Danmark’s distinctive character as a professional, independent institution, has been both extremely unfortunate and, to my best, conviction to unfavorable for Danish elite sports main actors: The elite athletes.

Mixing of interests – as independent, professional board member of Team Denmark and politically elected or employed by DIF or a special federation at the same time – has been numerous, both before, during and after my period as Team Denmark’s CEO in 2006-2014. Only the economic power relationship between Team Denmark and the individual federations – where Team Denmark most often finances 70-80% of the vast majority of common elite and talent budgets between Team Denmark and federation – means that everyone will be much better off by DIF only nominate and the Minister of Culture only appointe new board members who are not board members or employees of DIF or DIF’s federations. There are lots of well-qualified human beings – former elite athletes and coaches with great professional knowledge and skills, and experience from elite sports at international level – also of both sexes – who do not have this dual role. But, of course, it requires either a revised Act on Elite sport, that DIF looks for potential board members outside the walls in The House of Sport or that the Minister of Culture, who is to appoint new members to Team Danmark’s board – next time in May 2020 – has format such as “Culture-Niels” and a secretary in the Ministry of Culture on a par with or near Claus Bøje. I’m far from an optimist in relation to the first two opportunities – the slim hope for “clean lines” and the greatest possible independence and self-ownership for Team Denmark are linked to the coming ministers of Culture.

If you want to read more about the establishment of Team Denmark, I can recommend the book: Ivan Lønstrup & Jørn Hansen: ”Da eliteidrætten blev stueren, Eliteidræt og idrætspolitik i Danmark” ” (Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2002).

I can state that the blog: “More and more adolescents are “drop outs” of Danish football and handball clubs” has been read by more than 18,000 – both in Denmark and abroad. Among the many readers are many board members, employees and volunteers from The Danish Football Association (DBU), The Danish Handball Federation (DHF), the Sport Confederation of Denmark (DIF) and the Danish Gymnastics and Sports Clubs (DGI).

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