International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach urged Athletes’ Commissions to make their opinions heard as the International Athletes’ Forum began in Lausanne, insisting they did not need others “who pretend to speak on your behalf”.
Bach delivered an opening speech at the three-day forum, which is taking place at SwissTech Convention Centre.
Around 300 athletes are participating from the 206 National Olympic Committees (NOC) Athletes’ Commissions, as well as their counterparts from International Federations (IFs), the World Anti-Doping Agency, the International Paralympic Committee and upcoming Olympic host cities.
Bach suggested Athletes' Commissions knew best about the needs of athletes and claimed they were in a powerful position.
The German, whose words were reminiscent of his keynote speech at the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) General Assembly in November, then dismissed the views of officials and organisations who claim to speak on behalf of athletes.
“I know you can speak for yourself,” Bach said.
“You do not need others, who pretend to speak on your behalf.
“You are sitting there, you are having the first-hand experience as an athlete.
“You are sitting in the decision-making organisations and on the boards of your organisations.
“You know best what athletes need, what the athletes want, what the athletes require.
“You are in a much more powerful position than just commenting on decisions from outside.
“You are the decision-makers.”
The IOC has publicly criticised those who claim to speak on behalf of athletes, including the WADA Athlete Committee, repeatedly stressing how its own Athletes' Commission is "democratically elected" – even though appointments to the body have been made in the past.
The IOC has come under increasing pressure in recent months, particularly from the independent German athletes’ group, Athleten Deutschland.
They urged the IOC to distribute a larger share of revenue generated by the Olympic Games to athletes and to provide increased independent representation for competitors, without the influence of sports bodies, in a statement earlier this month.
The group also outlined proposals which it claimed would "ensure athletes' rights are sufficiently respected and upheld" in the position paper.
The IOC claimed in the build-up to the forum that "many of the initiatives" raised by the group had been taken on board.
Several athletes have also spoken up in recent months to demand increased representation in the decision-making process within major sports bodies.
Bach claimed during his speech that there was “no single truth and way to do something”, with the IOC President encouraging athletes to take part in a “lively debate”.
“This is what it is about, being in the heart of the action,” he said.
“I encourage you, be in the heart of this action and speak up here during this forum.
“Make your voices heard.
“Express your opinion openly, but also listen to others who may have a different opinion.
“Try to put yourself in their shoes and, hopefully, come up with new ideas and creative approaches which help everyone in the Olympic Movement.
“So it is not the athletes and then the IOC on the other side, it is altogether.
“Altogether in solidarity and that allows us to accomplish this mission and shows us how we can improve.”
Today’s agenda also includes sessions on direct and indirect support to athletes, as well as on anti-doping.
Breakout sessions will also be held for the Athletes' Commissions from NOCs, IFs and Olympic Games Organising Committees.
The following day will begin with a focus on the “changing landscape”, as well as sessions on the Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities declaration, and protecting athletes.
Proceedings will conclude with a question-and-answer session with Bach.