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Independent Integrity Units - the Future Model in Sport?

Independent integrity units are becoming more common to ensure sport can effectively manage integrity issues. The Tennis Integrity Unit, Athletics Integrity Unit, Badminton World Federation Integrity Unit, International Hockey Federation Integrity Unit, Equestrian Community Integrity Unit are all existent independent units charged with managing any integrity violations within their sport. The winter sport of biathlon has been one of the latest sport federations to introduce this model with the inception of the Biathlon Integrity Unit in October 2019. Cases involving two of these units, the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) and the Biathlon Integrity Unit (BIU), have attracted the attention of media in the last month. The two cases strengthen the necessity of independent control mechanisms in sport.

At the Institute of National Anti-Doping Organisation’s (iNADO) Annual General Meeting for 2020 the keynote speaker David Howman, former Director-General of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and current Chair of the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) highlighted the need for independent integrity units in sport. Howman noted four key reasons why independence is vital in integrity issues: it removes the potential for interference in decision making; it ensures the right expertise is in the right places; it minimizes conflicts of interest and; it regains the trust of stakeholders.

Through the formation of the AIU in 2017, athletics was the first International Federation to delegate the management of its integrity programs to an independent body, which although receives funding from World Athletics, reports to its own board and has full authority to oversee the sport’s integrity issues. Although born out of necessity, due to the doping and corruption scandals in athletics over the past decade, it has demonstrated its ability to rigorously protect of clean athlete and fair sport.

This month, the AIU have issued sanctions to five former high level Russian officials, including the former president, board member and executive director for anti-doping rule violations, all who are now banned for four years. The ability, resource and willingness to prosecute organized cheating in a consequent way is vital for sport. It gets to the root cause of the problem by banning those who are responsible for systematic doping, so when an athlete is sanctioned the next athlete in line cannot simply be doped under the same regime.

In November 2018 the International Biathlon Union (IBU) commissioned an External Review Commission to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in the sport, the findings of which were published last month. The scope of the review included the criminal investigations into doping, fraud and corruption against the organization’s former president and secretary general. The external review commission uncovered evidence of “systematic corruption and unethical conduct for over a decade.” Damningly it assessed the governing bodies former president of having “no regard for ethical values and no real interest in protecting the sport from cheating.” This scandal, as a scandal did in athletics, has confirmed the need for an active independent integrity unit.  

The creation of the BIU was one of the reforms the sport has undertaken in the last two years to safeguard the future of the sport. Going forward, the BIU will independently manage all integrity related issues in the sport, starting with a thorough review of the conclusions External Review Commission. Ensuring this is done to the highest standard of integrity is a vital step in demonstrating biathlon can be a clean and trusted sport. As per the stated mission of the BIU, this is a governing sport organization that needs to “earn the confidence, respect and support of the Biathlon family.” An independent unit is an important step towards achieving this, as it is concrete evidence that the sport is taking action to change its culture from the top and prevent corruption and cheating in the future.

Multiple sports have already recognized this need for independence, some following a scandal within their organization resulting in a need to take decisive action, but should it take a scandal to implement a unit that has the ability to monitor and sanction breaches of integrity at all levels within sport, or should sport look to be more proactive in this area?

The full report of the IBU External Review Commission can be found here.