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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg April 19, 2021

Disrupting institutional reproduction? How Olympic athletes challenge the stability of the Olympic Movement

Institutionen im Wandel? Wie Olympische Athlet*innen die Olympische Bewegung destabilisieren

Maximilian Seltmann EMAIL logo
From the journal Sport und Gesellschaft


The recent years have seen a surge in elite athlete activism. This article examines how Olympic athletes are currently challenging the stability of central institutions of the Olympic Movement as collective political actors. The study builds on explanations of stability and change stemming from punctuated equilibrium theory and path dependency. Applying a multiple mini case study design, it is first illustrated how these mechanisms have been in play in the reproduction and disruption of historic Olympic institutions. The main analysis then shows how Olympic athletes, through their different organizational forms, challenge institutions that are detrimental to their interest. The findings illustrate that Olympic athletes have increased their power resources and apply strategies to defy institutions, which are reproduced on the basis of path-dependent explanations. In doing so, athletes have the potential to severely destabilize the system if their interests remain unaccounted for by those governing the Olympic Movement.


Politischer Aktivismus von olympischen Athleten hat in den letzten Jahren deutlich an Sichtbarkeit und Bedeutung gewonnen. Dieser Artikel untersucht, wie olympische Athleten als kollektive politische Akteure zentrale Institutionen der olympischen Bewegung herausfordern. Die Untersuchung baut auf den theoretischen Mechanismen der Reproduktion von Institutionen der Punctuated Equilibrium Theorie und der Pfadabhängigkeit auf. In mehreren „Mini-Fallstudien“ wird zunächst dargestellt, wie diese Mechanismen Stabilität bzw. Wandel von Institutionen in der Geschichte der olympischen Bewegung bedingten. Die Hauptanalyse zeigt dann auf, wie olympische Athleten in ihren verschiedenen Organisationsformen destabilisierend auf Institutionen einwirken, die ihren Interessen entgegenstehen. Die Ergebnisse zeigen, dass olympische Athleten ihre Machtressourcen vergrößert haben und gezielt Strategien anwenden, die die Reproduktion zentraler Institutionen beeinträchtigen. Damit besitzen sie das Potenzial, das System nachhaltig zu destabilisieren, sollten ihre Interessen nicht entsprechend berücksichtigt werden.

1 Introduction

While employment related issues have predominantly existed in professional team sports where player unions traditionally obtain an important role in the governance of their sport, the recent past has seen an increase in new athlete-led organizations also in the semi-professional sports of the Olympic Movement (Mittag 2018; Chappelet 2020). In 2017, German elite squad athletes launched an independent and professional body to represent their interests, called Athleten Deutschland. Since 2018, the organization receives direct funding from the German government to hire staff and to sustain an office in Berlin (Schültke and Schweizer 2018). On the international level, a group of elite athletes from different Olympic sports and geographic origins founded Global Athlete in 2019. Adding to the high-level group of athletes, Rob Koehler, former deputy director general of WADA, took on the role as director general of the organization (Roan 2019). In July 2020, Christian Taylor – a US triple jumper – has made good on his promise and formally launched the independent track and field organization called The Athletics Association (Iveson 2020). The organization aims to unify and defend the athletes’ voice in international track and field and is equipped with a board of internationally renowned top-level athletes from all continents. While different in their constitutions, scope and operational modes, all organizations point towards a similar goal: Enhancing the role of athletes in the policy making of Olympic sports.

The representation of athletes’ interests in the Olympic Movement is traditionally organized in so-called Athletes’ Commissions or Committees (AC). These bodies usually take a consultative role towards the board of sport governing bodies. On the national level, Ciomaga et al. (2018) identify that ACs are enshrined in the statutes of 52 of the 134 NSFs (38.8%) investigated in the USA, Canada and the UK. Geeraert (2018: 15) finds that in only two of the ten countries included in his study athletes enjoy “good” participation opportunities within the structures of national sport federations. In addition to insufficient levels of participation in the decision-making of sport, Krieger (2020: 107) illustrates that the establishment of an AC in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, today World Athletics) “must be considered a carefully constructed approach by IAAF leaders to integrate athletes while maintaining control over decision-making.” This reiterates findings of previous research which puts into question the effectiveness of ACs in empowering the athletes’ voice and influence within the Olympic Movement (Kreft 2017; Koss 2011). The above-mentioned newly established organizations can, therefore, be understood as results of insufficient existing structures. Houlihan’s (2004: 421f.) conclusion that “sport policy is generally made for, or on behalf of, athletes, rarely in consultation with athletes, and almost never in partnership with athletes” still resonates well with the positions of many athlete organizations as they seek to increase their influence in the governance of the Olympic Movement. Therefore, scholarly work argues that reform is needed to guarantee the future functioning of the Olympic Movement in the face of a “lack of equitable representation and democratised governance” (Donnelly 2015: 15).

This study understands the Olympic Movement as a predominantly political system which produces institutions to govern a sub-domain of public and private life, namely Olympic sports (Rittberger and Boekle 1996; Cattaneo and Parrish 2020). As such, the Olympic Movement generates varying institutions in the form of organizations, rules and policies characterizing the politics of the system (Gauthier 2017; Duval 2018). The aim of this study is to analyze how Olympic athletes as collective actors constitute a severe challenge to the stability of the governance system of Olympic sports and may cause substantial change to defining institutions of the Olympic Movement. The study commences with a theoretical framework for understanding institutional stability and change by combining the main features of punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) with Mahoney’s (2000) path-dependent explanations of institutional reproduction. On this basis, the study applies a “multiple mini case study design” (Boykoff 2017: 3). First, the theoretical framework is applied in two case studies of historic Olympic institutions. It will then be laid out how these mechanisms are at play in current cases where Olympic athletes confront central institutions of the system. The discussion sets the findings of the case studies into perspective and illustrates that these are part of larger developments in the political activities of Olympic athletes.

2 Theoretical Framework: Institutional Reproduction, Stability and Change

Green and Collins (2008: 228) point out that the “relevance of institutionalism within sport policy analysis is well documented.” [1] Two of the core variables of institutionalism are stability and change (Immergut 2006). The most fundamental finding of most research in sport studies and in other policy fields is that institutions tend to have a clear status-quo bias and are resistant to change (Béland and Powell 2016; Immergut 2006; Howlett 2009; Lindsey 2020). Howlett and Cashore (2009) argue that in many policy fields, stability and change are mostly explained through the lens PET. PET borrows its assumptions from paleo-biology and explains that “long periods of stability […] are punctuated by short bursts of instability and policy change.” (John 2015: 580) Thus, change occurs in the form of sudden departures from a status quo which was stable for a long time, shifting to a new equilibrium of the policy system. In its orthodox form, PET argues that change to an equilibrium can only occur through external forces or shocks (March and Olsen 2008; Howlett, 2009; Béland and Powell 2016). The relevance of external shock in causing the punctuation of policies and institutions is well documented in many fields of policy study (cf. Béland and Powell 2016; Kuhlmann and van der Heijden 2018).

Howlett (2009) identifies the potential and wide application of path dependency, introducing endogenous causes to explain institutional change. In its most basic form, path dependency explains “why history makes it difficult but not impossible to reform […] systems in a big way” (Wilsford 1994: 285). A core element of path dependency are so-called critical junctures or contingent events. These refer to events or decisions that “close off alternative options and lead to the establishment of institutions that generate enduring and self-reinforcing processes.” (van Bottenburg 2011: 207) According to path dependency, institutions are reproduced on the basis of positive feedback mechanisms which increase the value of the institution (Green and Collins 2008). Mahoney (2000) identifies four typologies of path-dependent explanation of institutional reproduction which enable the self-reinforcement of institutions. In turn, if these mechanisms are frustrated, they have the potential “for reversing self-reinforcing processes”. (ibid.: 517)

In the utilitarian explanation mode “actors rationally choose to reproduce institutions – including perhaps suboptimal institutions – because any potential benefits of transformations are outweighed by the costs.” (ibid.: 517) The central mechanism of path-dependent institutions is often referred to as “increasing returns” (ibid.: 508). The key logic of increasing returns is that, over time and in certain contexts, it becomes more costly to switch from one option to another (Green and Collins 2008). Thus, efficiency of an institution in terms of generating more (perceived) benefits than imposing costs is the core variable in the utilitarian explanation. With rationality and institutional efficiency at its foundation, the utilitarian explanation in turn makes institutional change possible “when it is no longer in the self-interest of actors to reproduce a given institution.” (Mahoney 2000: 518) Increased competitive pressures, leading to new alternatives that rational actors can choose from, or learning processes revealing the inefficiency of an institution serve as potential causes for institutional disruption.

The functional explanation places emphasis on the overall system that an institution is embedded in. “System functionality” (ibid.: 519) consequently is the central variable to explain institutional reproduction. The causal chain of the mechanism is explained in the following formula with predictive properties, adopted from Mahoney (2000: 519): 1) the institution serves some function for the system; therefore 2) the institution is expanded; therefore 3) the institution’s ability to serve a functional purpose is enhanced; therefore 4) the institution will be further expanded and eventually consolidated. Because of the existence of selfregulating systems in functional explanations, change instilled by endogenous forces cannot be theorized. Consequently, institutional change according to this mode can only come about as a result of a changing environment or exogenous shocks.

In power explanations, institutions can persist even against the will of most individuals if an elite that benefits from the stability of the institution has “sufficient strength” (ibid.: 521) to maintain it. Conflicting interests arise because institutions distribute costs and benefits unevenly among different groups. The core argument for an institution’s self-reinforcement is that, at its genesis, an institution empowers a specific group disproportionally to other groups. To maintain its dominant position, the advantaged group uses its power to further expand the institution which, in turn, widens the power gap between the elite and subordinate groups. The key explanatory variable can be understood as elite power. Mahoney (2000) explains that from the conflictual process which reproduces institutions in a power-based account arises a “dynamic of potential change” (ibid.: 523) inherent in institutions and “power-based institutions may reproduce themselves until they reach a critical threshold point, after which time self-reinforcement gives way to the inherently conflictual aspects of the institution and eventually to institutional change.” (ibid.: 523) Institutional change may take place as subordinate groups are disadvantaged to a point where they successfully challenge the existing institutions. Pierson (2015) refers to this successful challenge as an initial victory. He argues that in a path-dependent understanding of power distributions, the initial victory in political contestation of one group over another must be considered contingent. In line with Mahoney’s conceptualization, after the contingent event there are certain path-dependent mechanisms in which power begets power as a consequence of the initial win. Political victory directly affects the distribution of political resources. As resources increase for one group, a future victory over the other becomes more likely. The increase in power is even more decisive if an initial victory not only causes a “one-time transfer but a stream of resources extending over multiple times”, i.e. the alteration of resource flows. (Pierson 2015: 134) In addition to alterations in tangible resources, success in highly visible conflict also sends a signal about the “relative capabilities of the contestant.” (ibid.: 136) As a consequence of the signal, other actors might change their behavior in future conflicts as well.

Lastly, Mahoney identifies a legitimation explanation for institutional reproduction in which an “actor’s subjective orientation and beliefs about what is appropriate or morally correct” (Mahoney 2000: 523) lead to institutional reproduction or, respectively, change. In a similar vein as in the utilitarian explanation, it is again the individual that is decisive for change or stability. However, different from the rational cost-benefit analysis of an actor, the decision to support or renounce an institution in this framework is made on the basis of an individual consideration of the moral rectitude to support this institution. Ultimately, the core variable is individual belief. The reinforcing mechanisms at work in a legitimation explanation point to a process of positive feedback in which “an initial precedent about what is appropriate forms a basis for making future decisions about what is appropriate.” (ibid.: 523) In turn, institutional change is determined by changing beliefs and values of decisive actors.

3 Historic Olympic Institutions: Mechanisms of Institutional Reproduction at Play

The characterization of organizations within the Olympic Movement as conservative is manifest in large parts of current literature. [2] This is especially true for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the spearhead organization of the system (Wright 2014). As a consequence, much emphasis in explaining reforms within the ecosystem around the Olympic Games is placed on external, large-scale developments in the environment that the system is embedded in (Zakus and Skinner 2008; Wenn and Barney 2020; Tomlinson 2012). The main reading of change in such work is that institutional change is predominantly a reaction to a changing environment. In addition, much work analyzing the history of the Olympic Movement points to the relevance of individuals that serve as change agents. The most prominent of such figures certainly is Juan Antonio Samaranch, IOC President from 1980-2001 (Krieger and Wassong 2020). In analyzing which explanations of path-dependent reproduction have been at play in the history of the Olympic Movement, it will be illustrated how the underlying mechanisms of utility, function, power and legitimacy stabilized and destabilized important Olympic institutions, thereby introducing an alternative approach to understand continuity and change in the system.

3.1 IOC Membership Structure

With the establishment of the IOC in 1894 as an elite group of aristocrats, a certain path for the highest decision-making body in the Olympic Movement was created (Wright 2014). Membership to the original IOC was given to individuals who were closely affiliated to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, leading to an original group of 13 mainly European men with aristocratic background (Krieger and Wassong 2020). Today, the basic principle defining IOC membership, co-optation, is still alive. Nevertheless, several changes to the IOC membership structure have occurred, leading to the current composition of, at a maximum, 115 IOC members. Of these 115, 75 are individually co-opted members, 15 are National Olympic Committee (NOC) representatives, another 15 are representatives of International Federations (IFs) and 15 athlete representatives (IOC 2020d: 32). Of the 15 athletes, twelve are elected as members of the IOC Athletes’ Commission by their peers at the Olympic Games. In addition, the IOC President can appoint up to eleven members to the Athletes’ Commission (IOC 2019: 1). These appointed members are also eligible for IOC membership (IOC 2020d: 38).

In essence, the history of IOC membership structure is a battle for the inclusion of representatives of different stakeholders. Some milestones leading to the abandoning of the strict co-optation of members are noteworthy to understand the relevance of path-dependent analysis. After many decades of successfully dismissing the claims of IFs and NOCs, a decisive step towards the integration of the stakeholders was the establishment of the so-called Tripartite Commission (Wassong 2018). Tasked with the preparation of the 1973 Varna Olympic Congress, this body for the first time institutionalized the interests of both the NOCs and the IFs within the IOC and had significant impact on the future trajectory of the Olympic Movement. While many reforms and changes in the relationship between the IOC, the NOCs and IFs were adopted at the Varna Congress, co-optation as the exclusive way into the IOC was upheld (Krieger and Wassong 2020). Still, the Tripartite Commission remained in existence, once again tasked with the organization of the next Olympic Congress, and “the discussion on the IOC’s composition continued throughout the 1970s.” (ibid.: 208) After the 1981 Congress, the Tripartite Commission played an even bigger role as it was renamed the Olympic Movement Commission and saw a widening of responsibilities, now tasked with “relevant and then current issues of the Olympic Games.” (Wassong 2018: 850) After a vote against the institutional representation of IF and NOC delegates into the Session in 1984, the IOC changed its statutes to allow the “Session to especially invite representatives of IFs and NOCs on relevant matters.” (Krieger and Wassong 2020: 210)

Despite incremental changes such as age or term limits, the powerful elite of IOC members was able to protect the institution which preserves their power over decision-making in the Olympic system for over a century (MacAloon 2011; Wright 2014). The initial composition of the IOC as an elitist club provided the members with the sole power over the institution and provided the group with “sufficient strength” (Mahoney 2000: 521) to dismiss reform endeavors of subordinate groups. Leading up to the reform in 1999, several leading figures of NOCs and IFs were co-opted as members to the IOC (Krieger and Wassong 2020). Giving an individual access to a closed circle while at the same time requesting that the individual pledges allegiance first and foremost to that organization by swearing an oath (IOC 2020d: 32) expands the institutional practice beyond its initial reach. In addition to the power explanation, the institution also serves a functional purpose which has secured the survival of the Olympic Movement and the IOC during the Cold War era. MacAloon (2011) argues that with a representation model of membership, the IOC could not have survived this era and the institution had a vital function for the entire Olympic system.

In the face of the 1999 bribery scandal surrounding the award of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games to Salt Lake City, the institution was severely challenged (Zakus and Skinner 2008). Internally, the ever-increasing demands of the stakeholders of the Olympic Movement put pressure on the IOC. Externally, the media, the US Congress and the general public also urged for substantial reform (Wenn et al. 2011). As a consequence of the scandal, several commissions were formed (Mallon 2000). Among the numerous reforms initiated by the scandal and proposed by the IOC 2000 Commission also was an eventual softening of the co-optation mechanism to the still valid rules pointed out above (Mallon 2000). In line with the general assumptions of PET, it can be argued that change to the decadeold institution could only come to pass due to an external shock. This certainly is a fair reading, it, however, neglects the long-established conflicts characterizing the system. The constant increase of influence of the IFs and the NOCs makes change to this defining institution possible. In this sense, the Tripartite Commission of the 1970s and 80s constitutes an initial victory where the stakeholders gained some power over the institution and conflicting interests increasingly entered the IOC in spite of the oath sworn by all IOC members (MacAloon 2011). Power accumulated over time as the commission was given more and more responsibility. While the commission might have been a tool to dismiss several reform endeavors, the culmination of power of the IFs and NOCs reached a critical point in 1999. As the position of the IOC was severely weakened in the face of the scandal, it could no longer uphold the rule against the will of the core stakeholders of the Olympic Movement and institutional change was the necessary consequence.

Despite the changes to the institution, even the “worldwide outrage that rained down upon the IOC” (MacAloon 2011: 307) did not lead to a complete abandoning of the co-optation rule and the majority of members still hold their seats on an individually co-opted basis. Additionally, the oath as a symbol and measure to preserve allegiance of all members was upheld. This explains why critics question the representative capacity of athletes’ representatives in the IOC Athletes’ Commission (cf. Koss 2011). Because of its functional purpose, abandoning the rule completely “never gained any traction” (MacAloon 2011: 296) inside the IOC 2000 Commission, even among non-IOC members. The institution serves to minimize the influence of outside, mainly political, forces and ensures the unity among its members, thereby overcoming partisan interests of stakeholders to preserve the overall functionality of the Olympic system (MacAloon 2011). Thus, despite the changing power relations in the system, the co-optation principle could even be defended against political pressure of the US Senate on functional grounds (Mallon 2000; Wenn et al. 2011).

3.2 Amateurism

From the formation of the IOC in 1894 until the beginning of the 1990s, a core institution of the Olympic Movement, were the so-called amateur rules enshrined in the Olympic Charter. Broadly understood as a set of rules “preventing athletes from profiting from their athletic ability” (Cash et al. 2020: n.p.), these rules have been a central defining feature of Olympic sports. In the most comprehensive volume on the subject, The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism, Llewellyn and Gleaves (2016) show how the individual beliefs and values of IOC members and sports administrators shaped the world of Olympic sports for decades. Laying out how amateurism was seen as a quasi-religious moral law, the institution persisted despite inherent philosophical flaws, obvious hypocrisy, inefficiency and political pressure.

Whilst Pierre de Coubertin showed remarkable flexibility and pragmatism in his interpretation of amateurism as an essential philosophy of the early Olympic Movement, his three successors, Henry Baillet-Latour (1925-1942), Sigfrid Edström (1942-1952) and Avery Brundage (1952-1972) had strong convictions to defend and refine amateur rules in a strict sense. Especially Avery Brundage, of whom Llewellyn and Gleaves speak as “the amateur apostle” (90), defended the rules in a decidedly uncompromising manner. Any push to loosen the rules and “to align amateur policy with the economic and social realities of the postwar world constituted heresy” in Brundage’s eyes (ibid.: 103). He even went that far tobe willing to, if necessary, sacrifice editions of the Olympic Games over disputes on amateur rules. Strikingly, neither economic interest, nor the rising oppositional powers of the IFs, and not even the changing social and economic environment of the Cold War could force Brundage and his fellow conservative IOC members to allow any significant relaxation of the rule. Llewellyn and Gleaves (2016) conclude that the Brundage era was determined by conservative ideology in which amateurism was the only means to preserve the integrity of the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games. The past of the modern Olympic Games and the continuous staging of the Olympic Games served as sufficient evidence and precedent to reassure the strong belief in this universal and unchangeable truth.

In Mahoney’s categories, the institution of amateur rules was reproduced for decades on the basis of the legitimation explanation. Key decision-makers had an unshakeable belief in its virtue. As power transferred to proponents of a more liberal reading of amateurism, the stage was set for other mechanism to alter and eventually dismiss the institution. When Brundage left office, the legitimationbased explanation of amateurism did as well. With the inauguration of Lord Killanin as IOC President in 1972, amateurism entered into a new era (Llewellyn and Gleaves 2016). Under Killanin, amateurism was no longer seen as a fixed metaphysical ideal which must be defended against all odds. From 1972 onwards, the institution was constantly adapted to reflect the realities of a commercialized sporting world, a new moral compass based on equity and democracy, and the power structures and partisan interests so dominant in the Olympic Movement. Until its complete abandonment in 1991, when the former Rule 26 of the IOC Charter did not make its way into the text again, several incremental changes to the amateur rules occurred (ibid.). These changes predominantly trace back to the economic self-interest of the IOC and the International Federations and aimed to secure the successful expansion of the Olympic Games. [3] Amateurism’s teleological character was further diminished by new studies on the ancient Olympic Games and their relationship to amateur athletes. [4]Llewellyn and Gleaves (2016: 167) argue that “[p]rofessional sport slowly entered the Olympic Movement at the precise moment that it best served the commercial and financial interest of the powerbrokers of elite, international sport.” The case of amateurism, thus, illustrates how the legitimation explanation of path dependency has been at play for decades, reinforcing an institution solely on the basis of, arguably ill-informed, values and beliefs of those in power. Despite the ever-increasing forces of change, it was only after the demise of the ever so dominant ideology as a moral law that substantial change to the institution could come about. Once the IOC “was no longer bound to an ideological anchor” (ibid.: 182) functional and utilitarian forces started to play the decisive role in relaxing amateur regulations from the mid-1970s onwards.

As these mini case studies show, ideology, preservation of power, commercial self-interest and system stability are all forces at play in the politics of the Olympic Movement. Furthermore, the role of crises and external shocks in causing instability is illustrated in the case of membership structure and the decisive Salt Lake City scandal. The study now turns to analyzing how Olympic athletes are addressing these exact mechanisms in the current political landscape around the IOC and the Olympic Games.

4 Olympic Athletes: Increasing Power and Far-Reaching Interests

The list of actors included in the introduction already points to a proliferation of bodies which organize athletes independently from the structures of their NOCs, National and International Federations and the IOC. Table 1 illustrates that the three exemplary organizations operate on different levels, represent different sports and were all founded in recent years.

Table 1

Recently created independent, athlete-led organizations (own compilation of data)

Independent OrganizationTraditional body to represent athletes’ interestsLevelSportsYear of Foundation
Athleten DeutschlandDOSB and DOSB Athletes’ Commissionnationalmultiple, Olympic and Paralympic2017
Global AthleteIOC and IOC Athletes’ Commissionglobalmultiple, Olympic and Paralympic2019
The Athletics AssociationWorld Athletics (former IAAF) and World Athletics Athletes’ Commissionglobalsingle, Track and Field2020

In addition to the establishment of new organizations, existing bodies have increased their activities. An illustrative example is a joint press release of 14 athletes’ organizations and 14 National Anti-Doping Agencies published in November 2020. Besides the three athletes’ bodies listed above, eleven athletes’ organizations have signed the statement to significantly enhance the role of athletes in the decision-making structures of world anti-doping (Athleten Deutschland e.V. 2020). This example illustrates two key characteristics of the rising athlete movement. First, the organizations aim to increase the role of athletes in sport policy making and challenge the position that the athletes’ interest is sufficiently accounted for in the existing structures (Athleten Deutschland e.V. 2019; Global Athlete 2020b; Athletics Association 2020). Second, the organizations further specify that their aims and activities are in “network building” (Athleten Deutschland e.V. 2019: 1) or similar activities connecting athletes globally. The most recent joint press release illustrates an example of such an effort. The general emergence of Olympic athletes as politically active players in the Olympic Movement shows some similarities with the above outlined case of the IOC membership structure. The progressive institutionalization of athletes depicts a new challenge to the power structures of the existing system. The case of Athleten Deutschland is illustrative in pointing out how a subordinate group which has been marginalized for decades was able to expand its power.

4.1 Athleten Deutschland: From Neglect to Veto Power?

After decades of representation through an Athletes’ Commission within the German Olympic Sport Confederation (DOSB), the general assembly of athlete representatives voted to establish an independent voluntary club to support the work of the DOSB Athletes’ Commission in October 2017 (Schültke 2017). The athletes claimed that, through the existing structures, German elite athletes did not see themselves in a position of sufficient power to address the pressing issues affecting their sporting careers (Klamet 2019). [5] After the foundation, a fierce battle over power ensued between the DOSB and the athletes. While the DOSB opposed the organization stressing its own representative function of athletes, the athletes kept their stance on more independence and professionalism. A central concern for the athletes was the hiring of staff to support the endeavors of the DOSB Athletes’ Commission. This, however, required substantial financial resources – something which the athletes were not able and the DOSB was not willing to provide. To achieve independence, the athletes’ representatives made recourse to the German parliament and its sports committee. After considerable debate and opposing views among members of the committee, an eventual grant of €225.000 was included in the federal budget law for 2018. In the following years until 2021, the club has been granted €450.000 per annum. With the money at hand, the club opened an office in Berlin and has hired a general secretary and support staff. Since 2018, representatives of Athleten Deutschland have frequently been invited to hearings of the sports committee and have significantly increased their activities and membership (Schweizer and Rieger 2020). Seeing these developments, Meier et al. (2020: 14) argue that the organization now is a “potential veto player” in German elite sport policy.

The success of the organization defies the traditional claim of the DOSB to represent the interests of German sport in its entirety. The decision to fund the organization is of peculiar interest: The German sport system has traditionally been marked by a strong interpretation of neo-corporatism (Meier and Fuchs 2014). In this reading, the DOSB is the predominant partner for the German parliament and the Ministry of the Interior on all matters related to Olympic sports (Breuer and Nowy 2017). The decision to distribute funds directly to an independent athletes’ organization, therefore, constitutes a significant departure from this path. Against the backdrop of the powerful role of the DOSB, the decision must be considered contingent. For the athletes, in turn, the grant represents an initial victory necessary to overcome the path of political neglect based on an uneven distribution of power. The victory directly altered resource flows, enabling the athletes to set up and sustain a professional organizational structure and sent a powerful signal. Over the course of three years, 1000 elite athletes became members of the club (Schweizer and Rieger 2020). While it is still too early to assess the long-term effects, it can be concluded that the organization changed the overall power-balance of German elite sport. Within the three years of existence, the organization’s capacity to potentially disrupt institutions of the Olympic Movement has become apparent in the case of one specific institution.

4.2 Financial Gains for Olympic Athletes: From Breadcrumbs to Honeypots?

While no longer a formal institution enshrined in the Olympic charter, “the ghost of amateurism” (Llewellyn and Gleaves 2016: 191) still haunts the Olympic Movement. Until today, the Olympic Games are one of the few major international sporting competitions where athletes are not given any prize money by the event organizers. In addition, athletes were for long prohibited to make substantial usage of their sporting exploits. Rule 40 of the IOC Charter prevents that athletes connect their participation with their personal sponsors during the so-called “frozen period” (DOSB 2019: 3) of nine days before the opening and three days after the closing ceremony. “As a result, athletes [were] powerless to take advantage of their marketability during what is most likely the most high-profile time in their sport and their careers.” (Jones 2019: n.p) The aim of Rule 40 is to protect the exclusive rights of official Olympic sponsors, partners of the so-called TOP Programme, for the usage of all property rights of the Olympic Games.

In the last quadrennial cycle (2013-2016), the revenues of the TOP Programme amount to approximately $1bn, making up for 18% of the total revenues of the IOC (IOC 2020c). Therefore, the program is an important piece in the financial puzzle of the Olympic Movement and the protection of the sponsors’ interests is a plausible endeavor. In line with the theoretical framework of this study, the rule is reproduced on utilitarian and functional grounds. On the one hand, the utilitarian explanation is based on the fact that the current Olympic Games are a venue of considerable luxury for IOC members (Boykoff 2016). In addition, membership in the IOC not only means a sophisticated 5-star vacation with diplomatlike status on a biannual basis, but also provides lucrative opportunities for personal busines endeavors (Boykoff 2016; Tomlinson 2012). Therefore, it is in the self-interest of IOC members to secure the financial viability of the Olympic Movement and Rule 40 constitutes a measure to protect an important source of revenue. On the other hand, the IOC is eager to point out that money is not an end in itself but serves to secure the development of the Olympic Movement and the advancement of global Olympism (Wenn and Barney 2020). Stressing that the IOC reinvests 90% of its revenues in the organization of Olympic Games and the development of global sports through a solidarity-based model, the institution serves a functional purpose for the Olympic system (IOC 2020c; Bach 2020). The central functional claim is that the solidarity-based model of revenue sharing serves an integrative purpose enabling the development of Olympic sports in all countries and ensuring the participation of athletes from around the globe. As a consequence, neither athletes nor unaffiliated sponsors had succeeded in causing substantial change to the rule until most recently.

Upon a complaint of the Federal Association of the German Sports Goods Industry, the German Federal Cartel Office started investigations into possible breaches of IOC Rule 40 with German competition law in 2017 (Bundeskartellamt 2017). German athletes endorsed the complaint and were consulted in the investigation via the then newly established club Athleten Deutschland. The Cartel Office deemed Rule 40.3 of the IOC Charter incompatible with German law as it was “too far-reaching and thus constitute[d] abusive conduct.” (Bundeskartellamt 2019: 2) As a consequence, the DOSB and the IOC had to adopt a less restrictive version of the rule for Germany. Among others, athletes are now allowed to use certain competition pictures taken during the Olympic Games as long as they do not show any Olympic symbol (Bundeskartellamt 2019). In the aftermath of the decision, athletes from across the globe called on their NOCs to follow suit on the German case and to loosen the rules accordingly (Morgan 2020). In a survey carried out by Global Athlete (2020a), more than 80% of the respondent athletes agreed that athletes should have the right to self-market their sporting exploits through different means including the free usage of their images during the Olympic Games. Pressured by the German case and the worldwide claims of athletes, the IOC adjusted the rule in 2019 to state that:

“Competitors, team officials and other team personnel who participate in the Olympic Games may allow their person, name, picture or sports performances tobe used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games in accordance with the principles determined by the IOC Executive Board.” [6] (IOC 2020d: 76)

In effect for the planned 2020 Tokyo Games, athletes now have more freedom to financially benefit from their participation as the relaxed rule provides more opportunities for effective self-marketing with non-Olympic private sponsors.

While the relaxation offers a very welcomed opportunity for Olympic athletes, other calls for more far-reaching reforms are prevalent among athletes. In an interview in 2018, Max Hartung, President of Athleten Deutschland, stated that athletes should receive a proportion of the revenues generated by the Olympic Games (Aumüller 2018). The claim has since then been repeated and officially presented at the International Athletes’ Forum staged by the IOC in 2019 (IOC 2020b). The above-mentioned survey supports the claim and reveals that 57% of the respondents agree that the IOC should pay the athletes directly (Global Athlete 2020a). Whereas the athletes were successful in achieving their goals with regards to Rule 40, to date no change to the disbursement of Olympic revenues has come to pass. Thomas Bach (2020) repeatedly stresses that the athletes are attacking the important solidarity mechanism thereby endangering the universality of the Games.

4.3 Protests and Freedom of Speech: From Political Neutrality to Human Rights?

Political protests have been a feature of the Olympic Games for long and numerous examples of individual protests mark the history of the Olympic Movement (Boykoff 2017). Furthermore, it is well known that such activism is usually connected to sanctions of the individual athlete. Rule 50 of the IOC Charter allows “[n]o kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda […] in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” (IOC 2020d: 90) From its creation, Coubertin feared that political influence might undermine the values transported through sports and the philosophy of Olympism (Boykoff 2017: 2). Unshakably convinced of the ideology of the movement, it was again Avery Brundage who institutionalized the principle against the backdrop of the Cold War (Boykoff 2014). In a similar vein to the historic examples of IOC membership and amateurism, the rule has served a functional and integrative purpose. To ensure the universality of the Olympic Movement, the rule underlines a principle of Olympic politics: The IOC or any other sport organization cannot interfere with domestic politics (Lenskyj 2014). At the same time, it is based in the believe of core decision-makers that “keeping sport apolitical” (Lindholm 2017: 2) is morally right and legitimate to prevent that “the Games will descend into a marketplace of demonstrations of all kinds, dividing and not uniting the world.” (Bach 2020: n.p.)

Notwithstanding the historic relevance of individual protests, what is new to the current athletes’ movement are organized efforts to challenge the political neutrality policy. In issuing a joint open letter to IOC President Bach in 2018, five athlete groups raised their voice to “adopt an ‘Eighth Fundamental Principle of Olympism’.” (Athletes CAN et al. 2019: 1) In the eyes of the athlete groups, such principle should codify a commitment to internationally recognized human rights in the IOC Charter. With strong words and a sense of urgency, the athletes conclude that “[t]he IOC is dangerously falling behind in quite possibly the most important aspect of the Olympic movement – humanity.” (ibid.: 2) While some efforts to formalize a human rights commitment have been realized through new drafts of the Host City Contracts (Grell 2018), the athletes request a more farreaching engagement.

Recently, athletes have requested clear signals from sport governing bodies towards highly political issues such as the execution of the Iranian Olympic wrestler Navid Afkari (Global Athlete 2020c) or the persecution of athlete activists in Belarus (Klosok and Ilyushina 2020). The most prominent issue, however, is the matter of freedom of speech and expression at sporting events. The death of US-citizen George Floyd in May 2020 caused a new wave of athlete activism and protest against racial discrimination in many sports. As a consequence, and despite the cancellation of all major international sporting events, the topic appeared high on the agenda of many sport governing bodies, including the IOC. The IOC and its Athletes’ Commission as well as the NOCs of Australia, Germany and Canada launched a consultation process including surveys on the matter of political protests (Athlete 365 2020; AOC Athletes Commission 2020; DOSB 2020; COC Athletes’ Commission 2020). While some of the results of the NOC surveys are ambiguous or even contradicting, there is a trend among athletes of the three countries to allow certain forms of protests in support of human rights.

Prominent figures like Thomas Bach (2020) or Richard Pound (2020) continue to defend the IOC’s take on political neutrality in newspaper articles. Yet, other decision-makers have recently shown more openness to protests. In an interview in October 2020, Sebastian Coe, President of World Athletics since 2015 and IOC member since 2020, stated that he would support athletes who take a knee as a symbol of protest against racial discrimination (Wade 2020). In a similar manner, DOSB President Alfons Hörmann, in an interview on German television, encouraged athletes to stand up for their beliefs and values and asked that sport governing bodies react with appropriate caution (ZDF Morgenmagazin 2020). Turning to US sports, National Football League (NFL) commissioner Roger Goodell offered an official apology to Colin Kaepernick, one of the most prominent initiators of the kneeling symbolic (Selbe 2020). The most far-reaching transition can be seen in US basketball. The National Basketball Association (NBA) and the players’ union NBPA agreed to resume the season in June with a commitment to protests and actions supporting the Black Lives Matter movement – other leagues have since then followed suit (Doshi 2020).

5 Discussion: The Bigger Picture of Athlete Activism

The case studies indicate that Olympic athletes are currently challenging major institutions characterizing the Olympic Movement. As to the case of shared revenues, the rules preventing athletes from gaining financial benefit are predominantly reproduced for their functionality to the overall system and the benefits they offer for IOC members. As Chappelet (2020: 795) points out, “this system is built on the performance of Olympic athletes”. It is the performance of athletes that attracts large-scale sums for exclusive broadcasting rights and lures some of the leading companies to become sponsorship partners. While for many decades, in the tradition of amateurism, Olympic fame might have been a sufficient benefit for Olympic athletes, the tide is rising for more commercial opportunities and even shares of revenues. In a recent study among German elite athletes, Wicker and colleagues found that socio-economic factors, such as income, are strong predictors of subjective well-being of athletes (Wicker et al. 2020). This might be another indicator that, despite the myth-like character of Olympic participation and success, economic factors will play an increasing role in the politics of and around Olympic athletes (Chappelet 2020).

The proliferation of athlete-led organizations points towards one of the most serious threats to the stability of the Olympic Movement: unauthorized competitions and breakaway leagues (Kornbeck 2020). Most recently the sport of swimming generated considerable momentum in this respect with the launch of the International Swimming League (ISL) in 2019. ISL is a commercial for-profit organization independent from the aegis of FINA, the global governing body for Olympic swimming. The league held its inaugural season in 2019 after FINA declared that elite swimmers “would still be able to participate in the FINA World Coup [sic] or the Olympics and would not need to fear any bans or other sanctions.” (Kornbeck 2020: 220) Of central importance to this decision are the European Commissions’ (EC) so-called ISU decision of 2017 and an ongoing competition law case before Californian authorities (Kornbeck 2020). Initiated by two Dutch ice-skaters, the EC found the rules of the global governing body in breach with EU competition law. The regulations foresaw a lifetime ban on participation on athletes for the participation in unauthorized competitions (Agafonova 2019). New competitions increase competitive pressure for events staged by the sport governing bodies and provide alternative platforms for athletes to market their sporting excellence. In the long run, this development may lead to different priorities of athletes on the basis of maximizing their economic benefits. Should this momentum gain substantially more traction across more Olympic sports, the defining institution will be severely destabilized.

The above-mentioned competition law cases reiterate an important feature of Olympic institutions highlighted in the above analyzed case studies. Because of their functional purpose, it might be impossible to substantially alter Olympic institutions solely from within the system. Kornbeck (2020: 224) argues that sport governing bodies are “self-conscious actors consciously relying on their considerable massed, worldwide economic, cultural and political power.” This resonates well with the concept of “self-regulating systems” (Mahoney 2000: 521) in functional explanations of path dependency. However, as has become clear from the cases, the sports ecosystem does not operate in a vacuum detached from public authorities. Both, the relaxation of Rule 40 triggered by the German Federal Cartel Office and the decision of the German parliament to financially support Athleten Deutschland illustrate that recourse to public authorities may be an important lever to disrupt institutional reproduction in traditionally self-regulating systems. From a theoretical perspective, such deliberately applied strategy must be distinguished from exogenous shocks as theorized in both PET and path-dependency. As to the latter, external shocks are unrelated and detached from a particular institution and the mechanisms reproducing it (Mahoney 2000; Howlett 2009). In contrast, recourse to public authorities, as seen in the above case studies, specifically aims at challenging and destabilizing the institution of concern. Therefore, the strategy observable in the case studies is best captured by what Meier and García (2012: 2) refer to as “venue shifting”, a process whereby actors leave the initial platform of contestation for recourse to authorities of higher order. In the case of funding for Athleten Deutschland, this strategy led to an initial victory in political contestation vis-à-vis the DOSB, altering long-established power relations. In addition to changing resource flows and sending a signal, the initial victory also allowed an expansion of the body’s capacity to perform venue shifting in future disputes. According to its statutes, Athleten Deutschland can file class action suits on behalf of its members (Athleten Deutschland 2019). History has shown that a challenge to the self-regulating authority of Olympic sports before public courts can result in severe changes to defining institutions of the system (Cattaneo and Parrish 2020). Athletes have been and will continue tobe a driving force in this challenge if the Olympic Movement fails to properly account for their collective interests.

While athletes have thus far refrained from recourse to public authorities on matters of freedom of speech, Lindholm (2017) points out that on the basis of the European Convention of Human Rights, sport governing bodies could be brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on this matter as well. Thus, much could be achieved for the athletes’ cause on this avenue and venue shifting to the ECHR may alter the needs of the Olympic system. In such case, changes to the current rules would become necessary to comply with EU and international law and, therefore, to ensure survival. Without any doubt, the political neutrality policy serves a functional purpose for the IOC and other sport governing bodies, despite its supposed hypocrisy (Thiel et al. 2016). The functionality of the rules becomes obvious when seeing that numerous major sporting events have taken and will take place in countries where human rights issues prevail (Boykoff 2016). In such cases, protests for universal human rights depict an immediate protest against a certain political party or a country’s domestic politics (Lenskyj 2014).

In accordance with path dependency, the current change in values and beliefs of key figures of the Olympic Movement, initiated by athletes around the world, has the potential to result in opposition to the dominant thinking. The cases of US professional leagues constitute first precedents in this respect where sport governing bodies adopted, or at least could no longer sideline, the political convictions of their athletes. Different from the case of historic amateurism, however, the functional aspects of political neutrality weigh heavier in the overall calculation of today’s decision-makers compared to the times of Avery Brundage. As Llewellyn and Gleaves (2016) show, Brundage’s ideological blindness even prevented functionally important, albeit modest, reforms to the amateur rules causing instability to the overall system. Thiel and colleagues strike similar chords when they argue that “[s]ilencing controversies instead of deliberately discussing them is not only undemocratic […], but also harms the system instead of fostering its development for the benefit of all.” (Thiel et al. 2016: 254) Should the move towards a commitment to human rights and anti-discrimination gain further traction among sports officials from more nations and governing bodies, the integrative function of the rule will be demised. While political neutrality may integrate certain countries, others may call for a commitment to anti-discrimination against the threat of disintegration, e.g., in the form of boycotts. Possibility is that, sooner or later, the self-regulatory system of the Olympic Movement will have to address the issue to maintain the functional purpose of its political neutrality institution. Should this be the case, what started with demonstrations of individual athletes will lead to new rules on political protest.

6 Conclusion and Outlook: Striking the Chords of Path-Dependent Explanations

Table 2 summarizes the explanations for the reproduction of defining institutions of today’s Olympic Movement investigated in this study and sheds light on the strategies applied by Olympic athletes to destabilize these institutions. The findings illustrate that Olympic athletes are able to address the stabilizing mechanisms by altering the core variables of path-dependent explanations.

Table 2

Olympic institutions, explanations for reproduction and dominant strategies to disrupt reproduction.

Institutionalization of athletes’ interestsRevenue-sharing modelPolitical neutrality
Explanation for institutional reproductionPower: sport governing bodies claim to represent the interests of athletesUtility: IOC membership and Olympic Games as platform for personal profit Functionality: Integration of nations around the globeLegitimation: Believe in the moral rightfulness of key decision-makers Functionality: Integration of nations around the globe
Strategy to disrupt reproduction applied by athletesNetwork-building Signaling of success to athletes to expand organizations Venue shiftingIncrease competitive pressure through new competition designs Venue shiftingAltering dominant thinking (Venue shifting, possibly)

In addition, the role of venue shifting to achieve an initial victory or to change the system’s needs becomes apparent. Seeing the importance of stakeholders outside the narrower Olympic Movement in fostering the athletes’ cause, future research should take a closer look at these relationships.

From a conceptual perspective, little is known on the defining characteristics of the power relationship between athletes, especially as represented by their newly established organizations, and sport governing bodies. As the analysis shows, the two main features of conflict theory as proposed by Fraser and Honneth (2003), i.e. recognition and redistribution, resonate well with the findings of this study and directly link to the path-dependent explanations applied in this study. [7] Firstly, with regards to the recognition of athletes, athletes are increasingly positioning themselves as independent stakeholders with diverging interests from those governing their sports. This addresses power- and legitimationbased explanations. Secondly, with regards to redistribution, and primarily connected to utilitarian and functional explanations, it has become apparent that athletes are challenging the established structures in which the governing bodies of the Olympic Movement monopolize the resources necessary to carry out and market Olympic sports.

A study by Bradish et al. (2019) which was subsequently used as a position paper by Global Athlete introduces collective bargaining as an alternative model for policy making within the Olympic Movement. This suggestion is directly influenced by the predominant mode of athlete representation in professional team sports in the US where players’ unions have the right to collectively bargain the employment relations, including minimum salaries, of players (Dryer 2008). While the authors of the study acknowledge that “there are more hurdles to clear than [in] other sports leagues” (Bradish et al. 2019: 1), collective bargaining is seen as the way forward for Olympic sports to guarantee a fair share of revenues for athletes. This reiterates that conflicts over recognition and resource distributions are increasingly defining the relationship between athletes and sport governing bodies. Future research should consider these theoretical and empirical aspects of conflict theory and collective bargaining to deepen the analysis and provide additional interpretations of Olympic athletes as political actors vis-à-vis the IOC, national and international federations.

Adding to the identified conflicts and challenges of the analysis, the current COVID-19 crisis constitutes a major external shock to the system. The pandemic confronts the Olympic Movement with uncertainties of unprecedented scope also affecting the Olympic Games. The crisis forced the IOC to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Games for one year – an unparalleled move in Olympic history. The hosting of the Games in 2021 is, at the time of writing, still uncertain despite recent efforts of both the IOC and Japanese authorities (Siripala 2020). The Games must be considered the most important positive feedback mechanism reinforcing the most central Olympic institutions and empowering the IOC (Chappelet 2020). As such, the Games are the predominant source of revenues of the system, sustaining the IOC and securing the solidarity-based revenue sharing model. Therefore, these funds are core to a utilitarian and functional explanation of institutional stability. Besides financial considerations, it is the symbolic power of the Olympic Games that make them a central mechanism for stability and change in the Olympic Movement. From their inception and according to the IOC Charter, the Games are thought to be the central stage for the display of Olympic values (MacAloon 2006). Accordingly, reform within the Olympic Movement predominantly aims to guarantee the successful organization of future Olympic Games (Llewellyn and Gleaves 2016; MacAloon 2016). The consequences of an eventual cancellation of the Games go beyond the scope of this article. It must, however, be assumed that such case would further “puncture […] the status quo” (Boykoff 2020: n.p.) of the IOC and the entire Olympic Movement, destabilizing central Olympic institutions like the solidarity principle.

On the side of the athletes’ organizations, the pandemic has thus far had significant effects. Of the 1000 reported members of Athleten Deutschland, 50% joined the club since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 (Schweizer and Rieger 2020). Similar trends can be observed on the European level. In a recent study, the European Elite Athletes Association (EU Athletes) found that membership numbers increased for 50% of its member organizations and 93% of respondents report an increase for the services offered by player unions and athlete organizations (European Elite Athletes Association 2020).

Slowly but surely accumulating power, Olympic athletes must be considered an evolving stakeholder within the Olympic Movement. The case of Athleten Deutschland illustrates that an independent athlete organization was able to overcome power-based barriers when starting collective efforts and with the help of public authorities. On the international level, the emergence of the organizations Global Athlete and The Athletics Association poses a threat to the powermonopoly of World Athletics, the IOC and other global governing bodies. The stability of the Olympic Movement is severely challenged as athletes continually disrupt the reproduction of institutions detrimental to their interests. By striking the chords of path-dependent explanations as an actor within the Olympic Movement and with the assistance of public authorities and, possibly, a global pandemic, Olympic athletes will play a decisive role in the near future of Olympic governance.


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Published Online: 2021-04-19
Published in Print: 2021-04-27

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