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Passage of National Sports Act revisions hardly a cure-all (update)

2017/09/27 18:33:41

CNA file photo

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

In a long-awaited move, Taiwan's Legislative Yuan passed revisions to the National Sports Act (國民體育法) on Aug. 31 that aim to make local sports associations more professional and open and create a better environment for developing top athletes in the country.

The bill's passage was seen as a gift to Taiwanese athletes who had just completed the 2017 Taipei Universiade a day earlier with 26 gold medals and 90 total medals, far surpassing expectations.

The better-than-expected performance gave reformers a major boost in pushing to overhaul individual sports bodies long criticized for lacking transparency and accused of being ruled as personal fiefdoms by a select few individuals.

Following passage of the revisions, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) praised the new revisions in a Facebook post as the best way to make sports associations "better, fairer, and more transparent in taking care of our athletes."

"This is just a beginning. Never underestimate the government's determination in pushing reforms," she wrote.

The amendments took effect on Sept. 20, when they were promulgated by the Presidential Office.

So what exactly do the amendments do?

Essentially, they stipulate greater transparency in sports bodies' management and finances and lay down guidelines for sponsorship arrangements between associations and athletes before major competitions.

The starting point is a requirement to hold elections for top association posts within six months to bring new blood to the administration of individual sports in Taiwan.

Dynastic rulers outlawed

Term limits of no more than two consecutive four-year terms have been set for association presidents to end monopolistic control of these sports bodies, and rules are in place to prevent nepotism or people with criminal records to serve as association heads.

In addition, at least one-fifth of the board members of each association must be active or former athletes from the national team of the sport concerned to ensure that athletes' voices will be heard in the future.

Oversight will also be strengthened, with a possible loss of funding for associations that do not cooperate.

The revisions were hailed by many as a solution to root out nepotism and prevent similar disputes between athletes and associations that have been commonplace for decades.

Among the most memorable cases was tennis star Hsieh Su-wei (謝淑薇) dropping out of the Rio Olympics after a heated debate with Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee Vice Chairman Tsai Szu-chueh (蔡賜爵) over the latter's selection system for coaches and players.

Tsai had already come under heavy fire from reformers who accused him of monopolizing the travel arrangements of Taiwanese national team members traveling abroad to compete in major sporting events since at least the late 1980s through Winner Express (運佳旅行社), a travel agency owned by his family.

Winner Express has secured the travel contract for national teams every year despite regulations stipulating that it should be open to public tenders.

Other association chiefs linked to scandals or excessive control are Chinese Taipei Volleyball Association (CTVA) chief Chang Chin-rong (章金榮); swimming association head Tony Hsu (許東雄) and Angus Hsu (許安進), head of the Taekwondo association and president of the Chinese Taipei Equestrian Association, according to Fair Game! Taiwan! (體育改革聯會), an organization dedicated to the reform of Taiwan's sports bodies.

Chang has served as head of the CTVA for nearly three decades. Tony Hsu has being accused of lacking transparency in the selection of national team members, most recently by Mitzi Ting (丁聖祐), a top-ranked swimmer who made the accusation ahead of the Taipei Universiade.

Angus Hsu has a criminal record that includes kidnapping and forgery of documents, the organization said.

Even from a procedural perspective, however, are the revisions a cure-all for what ails Taiwan's sports associations, as President Tsai suggested?

Fair Game! Taiwan! thinks not, and has charged the Sports Administration with not being genuinely interested in reforms, taking particular aim at the requirement for new elections of people in top posts.

The group argued that the amendments still favor existing board members of sports bodies because they will play a major role in screening future board candidates. Also, those wishing to register for the elections must do so by November, hardly enough time for potential candidates to make the necessary preparations.

Such half-hearted reforms will hardly overhaul the system, the group said, and it announced its withdrawal from the sports reform campaign in protest.

Sports Administration Director Lin De-fu (林德福) rejected the accusation, telling CNA that the new rules will definitely infuse new ideas into the individual sports bodies.

Taiwan's baseball association, for example, currently has 13 directors representing 13 different organizations, but under the new rules, 20 local sports associations, four professional teams, 10 amateur teams, 121 college teams and 208 high school teams can all apply to be represented in the association, Lin said.

With the input of new organizations, existing members will no longer have control over the body's direction, Lin argued.

The broader question, however, is whether the focus on simply procedural and legal issues within sports bodies is enough to improve Taiwan's sports culture and treatment of athletes and whether Taiwan's government is truly committed to sports development.

Public funding still limited

If one looks at public funding, a key measure of commitment in a country where private sponsorship of sports is limited, the answer is "no."

The budget for the Sports Administration, from which the sports associations get a large part of their funding, has been cut to NT$4.7 billion for the 2018 fiscal year, down NT$3.3 billion, or 71 percent, from the 2017 budget.

Even if the NT$3.3 billion from the Sports Development Fund (運動發展基金) earmarked for next year is added, total sports funding will be NT$8.0 billion, still significantly lower than the NT$11.1 billion spent on sports in 2017.

Premier Lai Ching-te recently proposed adding another NT$1 billion to the Sports Development Fund next year because of Taiwan's performance in the Universiade.

But even then, total sports funding would not only fall short of spending in 2017, when the budget was inflated by spending on the Taipei Universiade, but also total spending in 2016, not exactly a ringing endorsement for sports development.

Taiwanese pole vaulter and national record holder Hans Hsieh (謝佳翰) told CNA that the new regulations will do little to help athletes if the funding problem isn't addressed.

"Taiwanese sports associations are all NGOs with limited funding from the government," Hsieh said, and overhauling board membership will not make them any richer.

He also noted that not all sports associations are controlled by "bad people" looking to embezzle government funds.

The Chinese Taipei Athletics Association (中華田徑協會), for instance, has taken good care of him, and its director-general has often spent money from his own pocket to support athletes' participation in international events, Hsieh said.

"If our government is genuinely interested in supporting sports development in the country, it should increase the financial support it provides," he said.

Another athlete, Sam Hsieh (謝昇諺), one of Taiwan's top triathletes, did welcome the requirement that current or former athletes have seats on association boards.

In the past, most athletes were directed by association heads to participate in sports events without room for discussion, but now athletes' voices will be heard, he said.

The revisions should also bring greater transparency and fairness in the selection of coaches and national squad members, he said.

"They (the reforms) are definitely well-intentioned. However, the most important thing is how we carry out these proposed reforms," he told CNA.

For better or for worse, the legal revisions have been passed. The question now is whether they will actually spur real change in Taiwan's sports environment and give athletes more opportunities, or whether they are simply window-dressing that glosses over the many problems that still need to be addressed.