“There is a consensus but tensions prevail.” Takeaways from the EMPLOYS conference in Rijeka

Key stakeholders met in Rijeka in May 2022 to debate Good Governance in the Employment Relations of Elite Athletes in Olympic sports at the fourth EMPLOYS conference. In recent months, the project team had developed a set of athlete-centred principles for good governance on employment relations, grouped into six dimensions, which were now presented and discussed in Rijeka. What improvements are required, what standards are beneficial, implementation of adequate and sustainable policies and what mechanisms and activities need to be in place to improve good governance in athlete relations, these formed the main questions explored in two panels and two keynote speeches.

Prof. Jürgen Mittag, Head of the Erasmus+ funded project, summarised: “There is a consensus [between the different actors], that athlete employment relations in sport are very important, but tensions prevail and might even increase in the near future. We are aware of this aspect because improvements have a financial impact and money is a scarce resource. As for the various stakeholders, they are ready to reflect on the ongoing debates, what might clarify positions, foster understanding and eventually lead to incremental changes.”

After the first phase of the project “(1) Understanding” with two conferences in Cologne and Lisbon, the Multiplier Sport Event in Rijeka as well as the conference in Liverpool focused in phase “(2) Evaluating” on the current practices of athlete employment with a focus on their governance. The final report at the end of 2022 within the third phase “(3) Improving” will include policy recommendations for key stakeholders to improve athlete employment practices.

The work of the project team was honoured in the welcoming words from the University of Rijeka and the Faculty of Law, the City of Rijeka and the Croatian Ministry of Tourism and Sports. Once again, the team welcomed a high-ranking EOC Board member as keynote speaker, Zlatko Matesa, who also holds the position of President in the Croatian Olympic Committee.

The research team presented the state of findings of the project which had resulted in the publication of the Fact Report and the creation of the proposed Good Governance Principles.

Subsequently, representatives from various NOCs, including Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and government representatives of Slovenia and Croatia discussed the situation in the South-Eastern European countries in the first panel.

First panel: Krešimir Šamija, Biserka Vrbek, Miloš Milenković, Borut Kolarič and Rožle Prezelj, hosted by Leanne O’Leary. © EOA

The second panel looked at the athletes’ perspectives and the way in which they are represented in the discussion on their employment. This group was formed by the independent athlete representative body Global Athlete and athletes commissions of the IOC, EOC, ITTF and Slovenian NOC. Walter Palmer from the Centre for Sport and Human Rights gave a keynote speech and participated in the second panel.

The event programme can be accessed here.

Second panel: Petra Robnik, Raša Sraka Vuković, Zoran Primorac, Caradh O’Donovan, Blanka Vlašić, Walter Palmer and Kaveh Mehrabi, hosted by Vanja Smokvina. © EOA

Based on the lively and intensive debates and contributions, it can be summarised that none of the stakeholders present fundamentally rejected the principles. In some cases, different perspectives and weightings are placed on the dimensions and principles. The NOCs have already voluntarily carried out a lot of activities in a high level of cooperation and consensus together with governments, clubs and private stakeholders, whereas a strong focus is placed on dual career and education programmes.

Tensions have been identified between Athletes Commissions (of the NOCs) and other forms of athlete representation, partly with different positions but also with commonalities.

Implementing the expectations realistically seems to be another difficulty. In order to achieve this, an ongoing dialogue between the actors must be maintained. However, the actors are willing to undertake this for the good of the athletes.

Over the summer, stakeholders will be asked for extensive feedback on the good governance principles presented in Rijeka. Next up is the fifth conference in Warsaw in June and the final sixth conference in Brussels in October.

EOA is a practical-oriented partner in the EMPLOYS project. More information, as well as ways to contact the team, can be found on the EMPLOYS website.

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