In January 2020, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) fined Canada Basketball $227,138. It was punishment for the Canadian organization having withdrawn from two Americup qualifying games, citing concerns about player safety.
Many people involved with Canada Basketball have stressed how baffling they found these actions to be against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The fine clearly ignores the restrictions placed on international travel to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
However, FIBA’s actions should come as no real surprise. International sports federations (IFs, for short) around the world are notoriously corrupt and venal entities, and this is just one small example of their usual practices. From FIFA to FIBA and everything in between, IFs have been accused of fixing games, taking bribes, perpetrating wire fraud, and even committing acts of murder.
The case for root and branch transformation of the IFs is overwhelming. What would a socialist alternative to such bodies look like?
What Purpose Do IFs Serve?
The importance of international sporting competitions cannot be overstated. Half the world tuned in to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. They have become a stage on which previously colonized nations have asserted themselves against the old imperial powers. The recognition of Palestine at the Olympics has been a key opportunity for its people to establish international legitimacy and develop a “national consciousness.”
The role of an IF should be to regulate and promote an international sport, provide a level playing field for competition between unequal countries, and facilitate international cooperation. In practice, IFs have been more likely to promote colonialism, exploitation, and corporate power.
FIFA, for example, played a crucial part in maintaining the international legitimacy of South Africa’s apartheid government, going as far as to impose sanctions on dissident, multiracial leagues inside the country. More recently, it has turned a blind eye to the slave labor being used to construct stadiums in Qatar for the World Cup.
IFs like FINA, the governing body for competitive swimming, have been accused in US courts of using their monopoly role to facilitate the exploitation of athletes. The mercenary ethos of IFs enables them to maintain a multibillion-dollar web of sponsorships, tourism money, hosting bids, and international recognition.
It wasn’t capitalism that made sports popular. Rather, it’s the global popularity of sports that supplied these opportunities for ruthless commercial exploitation. Sports can play a positive role as a political and cultural force if we transform the framework in which they operate.
Cuba offers one example of how things could be done differently. The country’s National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) has created cooperative programs for sports development around the globe. This includes sending coaches abroad, offering free scholarships to students from around the world, and helping develop international, community-based sports programs.
The academic Robert Huish describes Cuban sports initiatives as a unique phenomenon that poses a direct challenge to the idea of sports as being based on individual achievement and success that result from hard work. The Cuban model does not deny the role of competition in sport, but places it in the context of human, cultural, and national development.
Cuba has facilitated the creation of national leagues for major sports. The most prominent, baseball’s Cuban League, organizes teams regionally by province, rostered by skilled local players. The best players from these teams play on the national team.
There are opportunities for virtuoso players to make teams, play abroad, and represent Cuba on a grander stage, but that doesn’t deny others access to sports. As Huish describes it: “Young athletes en route to elite performance have access to top training facilities, but so do others who are not in elite programs.”
INDER’s work and the support its programs offer underline the way that many nations and their athletes have been disenfranchised by the modus operandi of international sport organizations. That work has also paid off for Cuba on the world stage. The country has won a total of 226 medals at the Olympics — more than either Spain or Brazil.
Of course, along with its own efforts, Cuba also takes part in International Olympic Committee (IOC) events and plays host to World Baseball Softball Confederation tournaments. Established IFs still have a near-monopoly on organizing competitions.
Without the grand stage of traditional competitions, the opportunity for alternative IFs to establish a foothold in sports will remain limited. Writer Mark Perryman has advocated pressuring the IOC to adopt a new approach to bids from cities looking to host tournaments, rewarding the best achievers in social provision. The deeply entrenched structures of power and corruption in the IOC make this modest proposal seem rather utopian.
Alternative international sporting events, such as the International Workers’ Olympiads during the interwar period or the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) that were organized by the Indonesian leader Sukarno in 1963, have not been able to break the monopoly. The IOC stamped out GANEFO by working with other IFs to punish nations and athletes for taking part in “whatever way possible.” It wasn’t long before the Indonesian Army ousted Sukarno himself with US backing in a parallel move to squash autonomous projects in the Global South.
The most promising alternative in recent times is the International Workers and Amateurs in Sports Confederation (CSIT). Founded in 1913 as the successor to the Socialist Workers’ Sport International, the CSIT has since remolded itself as an organization that seeks to make sports more accessible to amateur athletes around the globe, with membership available to anyone. It also hosts its own international competitions, the CSIT World Sports Games.
Many IFs hold dual membership within the IOC and the CSIT. Since 1986, the IOC has recognized the CSIT as a “sport for all” organization. However, this may be down to a sense on the IOC’s part that the CSIT poses no real threat to its power, or to the IFs that govern individual sports.
Looking to the Future
Private-sector alternatives have had much more success — and attracted much more controversy. The International Swimming League was formed in 2019. It aimed to give the world of swimming a slick makeover in the mold of major American team sports. The league boasts sports teams from major cities and a raft of sponsorship deals. It has also offered steadily increasing salaries and a generous prize pool.
The backlash from FINA was sharp. It refused to recognize the ISL and threatened participating athletes with bans. At least one sports observer has suggested that the emergence of private sports corporations such as the ISL and the Ultimate Fighting Championship means “the day of the sports body is ending.”
Transferring the governance of sports from bodies like FIFA and the IOC to such private bodies would be the very definition of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. However, the growing popularity of private organizations with athletes does show that alternatives to traditional IFs are possible. They simply must offer something better.
INDER provides one such template. If we imagine it scaled up to an international level, with the resources to match, the Cuban model offers a glimpse of what future IFs could look like. Socialists have already developed compelling alternative models for the provision of housing, health care, employment, and culture. Sports are a vital part of life for countless people around the world — it’s time we developed a socialist vision for them.