Interview with: Johannes Herber, Managing Director Athletes Germany
Anton: According to the website, Athletes Germany (original: Athleten Deutschland) was founded in 2017 to give the athletes starting for Germany a real say for the first time. Why did it need another representation of the interests of the German athletes then and now, besides the Athletes Commission of the DOSB (German Olympic Sports Association)?
Johannes Herber: Athletes Germany was founded because of the feeling of the Athletes‘ Commission of the DOSB that they felt overwhelmed, first of all by the abundance of tasks and the complexity of the tasks they had to face and at the same time also because of the realization that they felt powerless, that they were always only one voice in a committee which, if it had a dissenting opinion, however well researched it might be, was outvoted. That is why it is important that there is an independent voice, an organization that is professionally set up, that can react quickly even in pressure situations, that can research well, that can network well, that can also network the athletes among themselves. An Athletes‘ Commission that can work semi-professionally or not professionally at all, so to speak, would not be up to all these tasks.
A: Athletes Germany has set itself the task of representing the interests of the athletes strongly and independently while protecting, expanding and enforcing athletes‘ rights. What does this look like in everyday life?
JH: Our tasks are naturally very diverse. On the one hand, we have a strong sports policy and framework component that we really try to work at the root, where the rules are made for international and national sport. At the same time, we are very close to the grassroots, i.e. directly in exchange with the athletes, trying to help them when they get into conflict with their federation or when they have questions about their personal development, all questions they experience in their everyday life and challenges they face. We want to help them further. And there we have a wide range of possibilities to deal with the very political, sports-political matter and at the same time with the problems of the athletes‘ everyday life.
A: What exactly belongs in the Athlete’s Rights section?
JH: We have these three pillars: voice, protection, perspective. Protection is really about rights and rights are specifically about, for example, Rule 40 of the IOC, where we try to expand the advertising opportunities for athletes. But it is also about the prevention of sexualised violence, about ensuring that the rights of athletes are not violated. It is also about the enforcement of rights, which means, for example, that if an athlete has a dispute with an association about a nomination, we have to consult there and make sure that the procedure is transparent and fair. Therefore we provide legal advice to the athletes
A: So far, athletes who make political statements during competitions are punished by the IOC. The underlying Rule 50 has been heavily criticised, but the IOC is now showing a willingness to talk. You said in a press release: „I think it is dangerous to limit possible changes to Rule 50 in advance to the subject matter of the Olympic Charter because it does not mention a commitment to fundamental human rights.“ What exactly do you mean by that?
JH: This means that Alfons Hörmann (president DOSB), for example, says that he welcomes it when athletes show attitude and support positive basic attitudes which are anchored in the Olympic Charter or the DOSB statutes. Thomas Bach (president IOC) said the same thing, that he likes it when athletes stand up for the Olympic spirit and the values anchored in the charter. However, when we compare the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the values enshrined in the association’s statutes, we have to counter that by saying that they are not identical at all. All we actually have in the statutes of the federations is the ban on discrimination of any kind, but there are many different rights that are worthy of support, and which athletes stand up for, but they are not in the federations statutes. That is why it is important to us that the debate should focus on what sport actually wants to stand for. Is it the whole range of human rights, or is it just the values that have been picked out? It is very important that we conduct the debate ourselves. I believe it must be recognised that human rights are not a general store. It is not the time to say that I want one thing and I do not want another, but I do believe that it is important to take a clear stand on this.
A: As early as 2019, you and other athlete organizations have called for the inclusion of an eighth fundamental principle of Olympism in the Olympic Charter. This should include all internationally recognized human rights. Can you explain how this demand came about and how it was responded to?
JH: In 2018 there was already the ‚Athletes Rights and Responsibilities Declaration‘ of the IOC, where athletes‘ rights were formulated, but also duties. The result of this was that nothing changed, so no new right was added, rather the bad legal position of the athletes was cemented by this declaration. At this point it was important for us as athletes Germany and the other athlete groups internationally, who were present, to say: We think it is incredibly important that the IOC commits itself to the whole range of human rights. Not only for the reason that the athletes benefit from it, but also all people who are touched by the organisation of the Olympic Games. This includes of course those who build the stadiums, those who work in the supply chains, those who volunteer there, those who may have to vacate their homes because new infrastructure is being built. All of these are, so to speak, in this danger zone of human rights violations, and that is why it would actually be very important for the IOC to make a clear commitment to this, so that it can then take action to enforce the rights of these people.
A: On the topic of ‚Planning the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2021‘, especially for German athletes. What concrete human rights issues do you see in the run-up to and during this mega-event, in addition to those just mentioned?
JH: From an athlete’s point of view, I think it is always important to discuss this topic right now. It is also very welcome that the IOC has at least opened such a small window. We will continue to play a constructive role in this. At the same time, this right to freedom of association, which is also a human right, is a very important one for athletes, because the way in which participation in international sport is currently regulated is a very controlled participation of athletes. It is more a form of consultation than actual participation. This is one of the rights that are of course very important to us as independent athletes‘ representatives and which we will continue to insist on in the future.
A: Is there an international best case in a federation or Sport, where you would say: We would like to go there?
JH: I believe that the best case in terms of athlete representation is always with the players‘ associations, which actually negotiate a kind of collective agreement in a bilateral relationship. For example in the American professional leagues, but also in Australia in cricket, in rugby. There are similar constellations in England. The football players‘ union FIFPro has concluded a kind of framework agreement with FIFA. I think these are all good examples, not all of which can be applied one-to-one to the Olympic and Paralympic sports. We know that because there is no such clear employer-employee relationship. Nevertheless, I think that this is what we should aim for in the medium term and that a good solution could be found.
A: Which current protection concepts (e.g. against sexualised violence and for children’s rights) on the subject of human rights due diligence are you familiar with in German sport and how do you evaluate them?
JH: I believe that there is already an abundance of good concepts and that the problem lies more in the implementation. I also believe that the German sports youth, for example, is doing good education within its possibilities. I can see that a lot has been done in the associations, for example in terms of the appointment of ombudsperson or contact persons. I believe that the biggest hurdle that is emerging is probably the cultural one, in other words that a cultural change is actually taking place and, as Hörmann says, a culture of looking at things is being established. I see a problem in the fact that there is of course still a very strong fixation on success, which simply puts the athletes in a very vulnerable position. There are very strong hierarchies in sport. Trainers have great power. Athletes have a big dream of a medal or a big career and they are always dependent on these people who nominate them and who can exercise a lot of power over them. I think there is still a lot to be done. Nevertheless, I believe that the concepts are all there. Whether it be police certificates of good conduct, codes of conduct, or the demand that there should be more women on committees, I think it is a very good thing that this female perspective is being given greater emphasis. There is a range of measures and I believe that we in Germany are well on the way to implementation. However, there are always cases, and that is sad, and we must continue to work against this in any case.
A: Last: How do you see the role of the athlete himself between top performance and human rights due diligence? I am thinking of Germany’s high profile athlete Jan Frodeno in the Bahrain Elite Endurance Triathlon Team, who is running for a country where, according to Human Rights Watch, are particularly serious violations of human rights.
JH: I think it is a very difficult situation. Jan Frodeno said himself that he would rather be active and get close to the people there in Bahrain and inspire and enthuse them for the sport. To bring something good into the country. At the same time, of course, he is promoting a country that has a proven record of human rights violations. That is problematic. I believe that every athlete has to make decisions individually and make his or her own considerations, and above all, to be well informed in advance about who he or she is competing for. It is also a difficult decision because athletes‘ careers are short, and because they are trying to get the best out of their careers, including financially. I believe, however, that when it comes to human rights violations, which in cases of doubt are then washed away by one’s own performance, in other words when one commits this sportswashing, then one must weigh up very carefully how this is in relation to the financial benefit.
This interview has been conducted by Anton Klischewski, 30 July 2020.