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The Challenge for Sport - Being together while remaining apart.

For country delegates who sit at the board tables of international sporting federations, there is a general recognition that while it’s permitted to argue for the needs of your own constituency, it is never a good idea to offer a prescription to another jurisdiction – such a foolhardy delegate could face being reminded that sovereignty trumps the shared approach. In the time it takes the sharpest simultaneous translators to find the right translation for “keep your nose out of our business”, many months of hard graft to unite parties can disappear into thin air.

The title of this piece is one of bye-lines of the pandemic to date, but the conundrum in the words can also remind us of how international sports bodies succeed – they recognise the dual principle of working together while respecting differences. Harmony can be in short supply around such decision-making bodies, and hence the absolute need to build trust in a shared vision that everybody can support and promises reward for all.

At this time perhaps more than at any period before, sports organisations will be searching for ways to sustain their activity and may be looking for comparisons from history to suggest a way forward. In many ways, no such comparisons exist as there has never been the total disruption of sport that this pandemic has visited on society.

When the Second World War came to an end 20 million American soldiers were released from military employment and sought new work. Employment actually rose by 16 million shortly afterwards which was regarded as a miracle. The most important change that brought this about was the transformation of private industry from producing munitions for war to support the national effort, to producing consumer goods for a re-emerging marketplace. There was a recognition by industry and government that the cessation of government funded war-time production needed to be followed by a relaxation of marketplace rules, allowing business the oxygen to prosper and flourish. The subsequent employment created went a long way to rebuild the economy post-war.

Some sports, including soccer and rugby have been vocal in setting out with stark detail the potential for harm to the foundations of their sports due to the pandemic. The Premier League in England forecasts a £700m loss in revenue if fans don’t return in 2021. Similarly Ligue 1 in France point to a €600m potential pandemic impact, while England Rugby predict £60m is at stake if the Six Nations Tournament takes place without fans.

If we project forward to the end of Covid-enforced restrictions, sport could benefit if governments endorse the value of sport as a post Covid 19 tonic to rebuild the spirit of communities who benefit in so many ways from participating in or viewing sport. A coordinated effort could address many of the challenges that confront sport.

Jim Collins writes in his book “Good to Great” about the Stockdale paradox, which is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, who as a high ranking US military officer was held captive in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp for 8 years during the height of the Vietnam war. When he described how he survived for so long in confinement while enduring torture, he stated that “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Perhaps by adopting the principles of Stockdale Paradox, Sport can confront the brutal facts of its immediate challenges while maintaining the confidence that sport will prevail in all it’s glory. Doing so by being together while remaining apart will ensure that sport will not only prevail but prosper once again.

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