*Cross posted on The Rabbit Hole*

It was recently (quietly) reported that the United Nations Office on Sport and Development and Peace (UNOSDP) closed on April 30, 2017 as a cost-saving measure, a fact that is interestingly not noted on the actual UNOSDP website. The UNOSDP was created to capitalize on all the ways that sport can be used as a vehicle to achieve development goals. Wilfred Lemke was appointed as the Special Adviser to the UN on Sport for Development and Peace in 2008 succeeding Adolf Ogi.  The job of the Special Adviser is three fold:

  • lead and coordinate sport projects that contribute to poverty reduction, HIV/AIDS prevention, universal education, sustainable development, and inclusion of persons living with disabilities etc.
  • encourage dialogue, collaboration, and partnerships between the UNOSDP and member states
  • represent the Secretary General and the UN at global sporting events/meetings such as the Olympics, Paralympics, and World Cup.

The closing of the UNOSDP means that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) now has a direct line to the Secretary General.  Given that the IOC is not a nation state, one wonders why the IOC is so invested in having the ear of the Secretary General. I asked my friend and colleague Dr. Nicolien van Luijk (@nicolien_vl) to offer her thoughts on the matter.

Dr. van Luijk completed her PhD at the University of British Columbia in early 2016. Her research focused on how and why the IOC is able to hold Permanent Observer status at the UN General Assembly when this position is only meant for non-member nation states and the intergovernmental organizations. Throughout her dissertation she looked at the historical interactions between the IOC and the UN, and also critically examined the ways in which the IOC has been growing its authority beyond what is traditionally expected of an NGO – to the point where its power has become so normalized that we fail to question its role at the UN.  She is currently working as a Post-Doctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne looking at the impacts that the IOC has had at the UN since obtaining Permanent Observer status in 2009.

*bolded portions are my added emphasis*

What was the purpose of the United Nations Office of Sport for Development? How many people worked in the office?
The UNOSDP was opened in 2001 and this office supported the role of the UN sport for Development and Peace Special Advisor, Mr. Wilfred Lemke who had been in this role since 2008 until December 2016. The website states that the purpose of the office was to “raise awareness about the use of physical activity, sport and play as powerful development tools in the advancement of development and peace objectives, including the Sustainable Development Goals.” The office did this through creating conferences, reports, providing policy support, engaging in media outreach and also working with Member States to promote the use of sport in international development.

I am not sure how many people worked there before it was closed, however, back in 2013 when I was an intern, there were approximately 8 employees and 4 interns, plus the Special Advisor. The main office was based in Geneva and there was also a small office in New York. I think that the goals of the office were really shaped and influenced by the Special Advisor. When I worked there, and also up until its closing, the office was focused on promoting the use of sport as a tool in international development. Many people working in the area of sport for development (SfD) and also academics (like myself) had hoped that this office could provide more than simply the uncritical promotion of all sport. However, there seemed to be little willingness to engage with critiques of sport and the negative impacts that sport may have on UN goals.

In the last Annual Report published on the UNOSDP website for 2014 it states that the office and the Special Advisor fully rely on voluntary contributions for fulfilling their mandate. The office received contributions from a few members states (including the Government of Germany who helped fund the German Special Advisor, Wilfred Lemke) and also private organizations such as the IOC and Korean Air.

How was it funded? Do you believe this closure to be a “cost-saving measure”?

I know that the UNOSDP was consistently searching for more funding and were not very successful in obtaining consistent funds from member states. Knowing this, the Secretary General’s (SG) statement that the decision to close the office was a “cost-saving measure” doesn’t make a lot of sense because the UN didn’t provide funding for the office. However, it could have been that no Member States were willing to provide sufficient funding anymore, or, that the SG simply didn’t see the need for this office at the UN.

What should we know about the IOC’s relationship with the UN?
In the 1980s the then IOC President, Juan Antonio Samanranch made it his goal to align Olympic values with UN values. Ever since, we have seen subsequent IOC Presidents further develop the partnership and promote the Olympic Games and the IOC at the level of the UN. Over the last 30 years the IOC has partnered with many different UN organizations such as the UN Environmental Programme, the World Health Organization, UN Women, UNICEF, and UNESCO etc.

I personally believe that the most significant development occurred in 2009 when the IOC was awarded Permanent Observer status at the UN General Assembly. This is something people should be looking at in more detail. This is highly unusual that only a few other select non-governmental organizations (NGO) hold (the IOC is one of five). The General Assembly is the main policy making organ of the UN. This status enables the IOC to sit a representative at the meetings, and to participate in policy making. This position is very useful for the IOC enabling them to influence policies and also importantly provides them with behind the scenes access to representatives of Member States from all over the world.

I believe that the important take away from the IOC’s relationship with the UN is that the IOC has gone from being viewed as a potential partner with different UN organizations on different projects to now being a political insider at the UN. We have to question what this means for SfD, physical education and the promotion of other types of physical activity at the level of the UN.

What do you think the closing of this office means/signifies?
If the office closed without the SG’s announcement that the IOC would partner even more with the UN then I would struggle to answer this question on its own. But because of this announcement, I believe this means even less diversity of voices and even more of a focus on Olympic style of sport for development, which often lies in opposition with alternative SfD objectives. The decision to close the office also signifies that the IOC is not satisfied with funding other organizations to promote SfD and that they desire control over the process themselves. The reason I say this, is because the IOC was one of the funders of the UNOSDP. If they are truly concerned with sport representation at the UN why did they not commit to continue with this funding and help in promoting this office?

The fact that the SG himself announced the decision to not only close the office but instead create an even closer partnership with the IOC demonstrates that there is very little critical thinking at even the top level of the UN as to the role the IOC plays in development. Issues surrounding corruption in elite sporting organizations, questionable human rights violations at sport mega events, and lack of democratic governance or accountability in global sports organizations are very widely known.  Neither member state representatives nor the SG can pretend that they are not aware of this. This is a concern because it signifies that the UN is willing to develop its relationship with a private organization despite the fact that the organization often operates in conflict with UN values.

Former UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon. Photo from Cooperation with the UN.

Is there a need for a UN office dedicated to sport?
I do think there is a need for more critical examination of sport and sport organizations at the UN. This is especially important because international sport organizations operate with very little regulation. The UN, as the international “government” so to speak could provide much needed regulation and suggestions for reforms. I also believe that with the explosion of the number of SfD organizations over the past 30 years, the UN could provide much needed guidance in this area. I think this should have been the intention of the UNOSDP, rather than simply be a “promoter” for sport. The UNOSDP had the opportunity to provide policy guidelines, research expertise and connections with other development organizations to new and sometimes ill-equipped SfD NGS.  I am less sure about whether the UN needs an entire office dedicated to sport, especially since other UN organizations have already been working in this area for many years, such as UNESCO and UNICEF (and other organizations have useful areas of expertise such as the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization) but more resources would definitely be needed in this area.

What can the IOC provide the UN?

I don’t see what the IOC can provide the UN, other than continuing to promote sport. And at the risk of sounding too cynical (although perhaps this should have been my opening line) I think we have all been made well aware of sport and its supposed benefits. What we don’t actually know is if the benefits that the IOC and SfDs promote are real, we don’t currently have much research that shows this. Furthermore, we continue to struggle with the negative aspects of sport such as racism, sexism, spectator violence, doping, match fixing, corruption, unsustainable mega-events, worker rights violations, human rights violations and the list goes on. While the IOC is a very successful organization, and they do have some intelligent and dedicated employees, the IOC is not in the business of critically analyzing these issues; it is in the business of promoting the Olympic Games.

Even if you are a staunch supporter of the IOC and everything it represents, and even if the IOC is entering into this with the best of intentions, the IOC’s representation at the UN should still be viewed as inappropriate, or at the very least be questioned.  The IOC is not an institution focused on equitable development or human rights. It is not a democratically elected organization, nor is it publicly accountable.  The IOC is a private elite sporting organization that is accountable to its corporate sponsors and broadcasters, and is responsible for organizing a successful Olympic Games. The IOC represents the interest of the Olympic Movement, not of SfD.

What should citizens be aware of when their city is bidding for an Olympic Games? How might this connection with the UN affect cities and governments?
I think citizens are becoming more aware that sports mega events, specifically the Summer and Winter Olympic Games and the FIFA Men’s World Cup can have significant negative impacts on the host community and that more often than not the promises made in bidding for the event do not come to fruition. We are seeing more and more democratic cities and countries pulling out of bidding for these events because communities do not want them.  Without significant changes to the ways in which the IOC and FIFA are governed or the ways in which the events are organized the over blown promises just can’t be met – regardless of the great intentions of the organizing committees.

It is difficult for me to say how the IOC’s connection at the UN might affect cities and governments, but if I were to speculate I might say that the UN or Member States could be less willing to be critical of the Olympic Games because of their close ties to the IOC. The IOC has been working to promote the autonomy of sports organizations at the UN, which suggests that the IOC is creating an environment where governments and/or UN organizations are being discouraged to speak out against issues to do with sporting events.

Learn more about the history of the IOC’s relationship with the UN from Dr. van Luikj’s work here.

Courtney Szto is a PhD Candidate in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.  Her doctoral research explores the intersections of race, hockey, and citizenship in Canada.  She is the Assistant Editor of Hockey in Society and writes for her own blog The Rabbit Hole. Learn more about Courtney here and follow her on Twitter @courtneyszto.