Promoting student–athlete interests in European elite sport systems
The analysis of sports policy often focuses on a limited set of stakeholders, and relatively rarely engages in the discourse of rights (as opposed to, for example, discourses of effectiveness, efficiency and economy). There are exceptions, although these tend to relate to general claims such as the UN assertion of the child’s ‘right to play’. This chapter seeks to evaluate through a review of student-athlete lived experience of different systems of provision of higher education services for elite student athletes, whether the individual student-athlete’s rights as ‘student’ and as ‘national representative’ in elite sport are differentially met within the different systems of provision in European Member States. The background to this discussion is the demonstration by the European Union of a significant and growing concern for the protection of athletes in relation to education and training and their integration into the workforce in a post athletic career. This is explicit for example in a number of statements in documents such as the sporting Annex to the Nice Treaty, the conclusions of the French Presidency delivered in Nice in 2000, the White Paper on Sport (European Commission, 2007b) and the recent Communication adopted by the European Commission, entitled Developing the European Dimension in Sport (European Commission, 2011). Promotion of equity or at least good practice thus remains a key concern. The EU has been actively seeking to find alternative means of engaging in dialogue with other global stakeholders to discuss this matter. Presidency Conclusions (11-12 December – Council of the European Union, 2008) in Brussels stated that the European Council Declaration on sport has acknowledged the ‘need to strengthen the dialogue with the International Olympic Committee and representatives of the world of sport, in particular on the question of combined sports training and education for young people’ (17271/08 Annex 5). By including this issue on the agenda, the European Council has demonstrated the increasing importance attributed to the effective management of a dual career of elite sport and education by young sportspersons. Indeed, in 2011-12 the European Commission established an Ad Hoc Expert Group to develop guidelines for Dual Career Athletes, motivated in large part by the wish to protect the rights of young elite sportspersons. While it will be noted that the European Union has to date had limited scope in influencing policy at the nation state level within this context, responsibility to ensure that student-athletes
have access to opportunities and support to combine a dual career successfully has thus lain with the nation state. Bergsgard et al. (2007: 253) observed that the level of ‘priority given to elite sport varies considerably between countries, due in part to different national cultural values and traditions, political and administrative structures, and relationships between governmental and civil society sport organisations’. Thus, it is a matter for each nation state to decide how important sporting achievement is, usually by taking a local democratic decision on whether to invest in promoting elite athletes. However, one of the principal arguments presented in this chapter is that if nation states do invest in elite sport and build on the efforts of elite sportspersons, as demonstrated by the three approaches in Finland, France and the UK investigated by Aquilina (2009) and reported here, nation states have a moral responsibility towards their elite athletes. A critical message here is that nation states should not leverage sporting success by mortgaging the future of student-athletes, and in particular by diminishing their access to educational rights. The athlete may serve the interests of the state, the national federation, or the educational institution by attaining high level performance, and these bodies may serve the athlete’s purposes in developing their athletic potential, but such a system implies a set of mutual obligations in which the interests of all parties (particularly of young athletes who may be most vulnerable) should be protected.