Rob Koehler Q&A: Speaking up for athletes

06 Mar 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

February saw the launch of Global Athlete, a new athlete-led movement which plans to mobilise athletes worldwide to lobby for improved representation within sports administration.

It’s a move in tune with a growing phenomenon of athletes making use of their individual platforms to speak out across a range of issues – with potential implications in areas including doping, safeguarding and even rights revenue distribution.

Sport Industry Group spoke with Global Athlete’s newly appointed Director General Rob Koehler, former World Anti-Doping Agency Deputy Director General, to find out more.

What are your objectives with this organisation?

The initial objective is to spend time mobilising athletes and listening to their concerns. It’s all on the table in terms of what the athletes want to address.

It’s a case of learning what the athletes’ key priorities are and working with them to explore how we overcome these concerns in the future. From what I’ve heard already from athletes, more can be done and more engagement needs to happen.

We benchmarked the first six to eight months for our listening exercise and will then evaluate after six months to judge whether we extend to eight months.

We want to differentiate ourselves from other organisations, as it will be the athlete themselves driving the change. It’s the athletes that need to take a stand in terms of what they want and how they want it.

We are planning regional forms and then a global form in 2020, depending on how the listening exercise goes.

Whilst it’s a global issue, there are local sensitivities that need to be taken into the planning, so the athletes coined the term that we have to be ‘Glocal,’ a global organisation with a local feel.


What do you see as being your remit?

I think it’s still too early to take a stance on what the organisation is going to do beyond the listening exercise.

We want to get an idea of the scope and establish the priorities. We can’t over promise and under deliver. We are not in a rush to start taking positions on specific items until we gauge the tone of how we want to move forward with the athletes’ views.

FairSport (not-for-profit independent organisation dedicated to eradicating cheating) are providing the funding and part of the principle we agreed with them was that whilst providing the funding, we can’t be tied to decision making.

When I came into this position, I said that if we are going to do it, the decision makers have to be the athletes. They are the ones to drive the direction this organisation goes in.

From our initial discussions with the athletes, the anti-doping issue is one small element. It’s an important issue of course, but there are other areas with greater representation, such as having a balanced approach with more athletes representing on boards.

Rights will be another issue that emerges, looking at branding rights for athletes during Olympics, Paralympics and other international events, and athletes potentially getting more compensation for being involved.

As sport grows, the model needs to grow with it. That’s part of what athletes are interested in.

Not everyone is going to agree and not everyone will have the same voice. But I think that’s healthy to be able to engage people that may have dissenting voices, or those that disagree with certain things.

All different views will be welcomed and that’s the way we move forward. If you don’t take on the criticisms, learn from them and try to better the organisations through what we are trying to do, we’ll fall short.


How much of this is about the commercial conversations that are increasingly putting athletes in conflict with their federations?
I think what the British swimmer Adam Peaty has done in terms of pushing the agenda forward (criticising the leadership of world governing body FINA) is another example of showing the power of the athlete voice and the athlete stance.  

It’s very clear that to bring about change the athletes have to be willing to stand up. It’s not easy. It can be very hard for them as they know the potential consequences by standing up and speaking strongly.

You can also look at the World Players Association helping get Bahraini refugee Hakeem al-Araibi out of Thailand. Bringing him back to Australia, having been detained, that was an example of mobilisation and athletes standing together to bring about change. It worked and was extremely powerful.


Should federations be worried about commercial rivals moving into the gap that’s growing between athletes and themselves?

I don’t think it should be seen as a threat. It should be an opportunity for sport to embrace athletes, to be a part of what the future can look like, a future that’s inclusive and engages with everyone.

We held a discussion with the athletes that are involved from the beginning and we took a look at the professional leagues in the United States, professional football in the UK and elite rugby in Australia and New Zealand. At a point in time they each formed a union to bring about stronger athlete rights, better rules and safer rules for the athletes.

As a result, you had happier athletes and put together a great product on the field, seeing the sports grow financially with business booming with that type of engagement. It’s worked.


What can Global Athlete do that athlete commissions of WADA and IOC can’t?

A factor we bring to the table is that Global Athlete is not linked with a sport or governments, nor is it specifically with anti-doping.

The money is coming in for one simple reason, to fund this organisation and strengthen athletes’ ability to have more of an input on how their sport should be run now and in the future.

Our sole interest is the athletes and what they want to get out of it. By having that model, it differentiates itself from everybody else.


Does the existence of your body prove there’s an issue with the independence of those commissions?

I truly believe in having that dialogue to move forward in a more strategic way, ensuring that ultimately athletes’ rights are upheld and when athletes do speak up, that fear of retribution is non-existent.

The last thing we want to do is criticise other athlete commissions because it’s not healthy and not the way to move forward. It’s counter-productive, as everybody brings value. That’s not a political statement. For us, it’s going to be all about engaging and understanding views.

The IOC has an athlete commission and this is where we want to make sure that we engage with every athlete commission, whether linked directly with a sport federation or with the IOC or IPC. Every athlete has a voice and has representation, so to be inclusive is the key.

What other factors do you believe are behind the rise of the athlete voice?

I believe there are definitely mechanisms for athletes to speak out unlike before. They have a stronger fanbase and their social media can garner huge support behind them.

Athletes also realise that the commercialisation of sport has become more evident. Not that they didn’t realise it before, but it has become this multi-billion dollar business that they believe can provide a mechanism for more accountability.

Athletes know they are the ones that fill the seats, sell the tickets and put people in front of televisions, that ultimately generates all the revenues.


Are you surprised it’s taken this long?

In terms of the athletes that we’ve spoken to, it’s difficult, as there are times when they need to stay focused on the competition and don’t want to speak publicly about issues that they potentially have.

However, I think that’s changing. For instance, we recently saw what happened at the FIS Snowboard World Championships in Park City, Utah. Athletes Jamie Anderson and Jessie Diggins took a stance about comments made by the International Ski Federation FIS President, Gian-Franco Kasper.

They are examples of athlete leaders that set an example for others. We are seeing more and more athletes speaking up across the globe, everywhere from Canada, to Germany and South Korea. These athletes inspire more to step forward.

This is part of the reason why we are here, to say that athletes are ready and willing to take a stand in what they believe the future should look like. We want to work with them for support and also work with sporting organisations to help as well.