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“Associative spirit” the key to grassroots sport’s future Interview with Jean Camy, University of Lyon

Do we need to introduce Jean Camy? As a well-known contributor to ISCA projects and the MOVE Congress, he is a familiar face to the grassroots sport community. But if his name doesn’t ring a bell, Prof. Jean Camy is from the University of Lyon in France and has been a sociologist observing and analysing sport activities and organisations for forty years. He is a “specialist” in human resource management in sport organisations and also has strong practical experience in governance, having chaired several French and European non-profit sport-related organisations.


Carole Ponchon (EOSE PR & Project Manager and CEO of BeInnovActiv) presents his thoughts and ideas below, saying that entering into an exchange with Jean Camy is always an adventure: “You know when and where you start but it will most probably get you somewhere unexpected – a priceless pathway to reflection on the journey backwards and onwards for the sport for all sector.”


Carole spoke to Jean Camy at the MOVE Congress 2013 in Barcelona, delving into the philosophy behind the “sport for all movement” as well as Camy’s recommendations for the way in which grassroots sport should be managed in the future.


CP: MOVE Congresses are the beat-box of the sport for all movement. Yet what may strike us at first is the wide diversity of stakeholders. To your mind, how can we define the sport for all movement?

JC: This is a valuable question for it is important to know what we are talking about. Plus, you are right; the sport for all movement embraces a very broad family of organisations coming from various backgrounds and culture.


When attempting to define a movement you have the choice between two positions. You can either take the stand of the deductive approach (i.e. starting with what exists) or search for its meaning.

While taking the first stand, you will soon realise that sport for all organisations are characterised by their wide diversity and their common positioning against Olympism, or at least sport for performance.


Looking at ISCA’s members and their history, I can identify three main types of organisations:

 - the ones that came from the gymnastics tradition of the 19th century and have their roots in the opposition against modern (i.e. competitive) sport, which was seen as dangerous and elite oriented (cf Germany and Czech Republic);

- others that are mainly defined by their political conception: these organisations are meant to offer a popular sport, that is to say a sport for the people (cf Italy);

- for other organisations, sport is perceived as an educational tool and it is defined within the framework of culture and youth as a way to defend secularism (cf France).


Under the banner of sport for all, we can observe an aggregation of traditions. These traditions all have the culture as a central point. Sport is perceived as a reference to performance only and therefore sport for all organisations tend to position themselves in opposition to what we may define as ‘sport’s lack of education’. Within the framework of the sport for all movement, it is the context which makes sense and serves as a key element.


Let’s take the second stand now and try to find what “sport for all” should mean. What strikes us first is the multiplicity of definition for one single term, “sport”. We are nowadays far from the conception of sport as physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively. Indeed, sport is often referred to as a physical exercise linked to positive values such as health. Therefore the central question behind the definition of sport for all is what can we do to ensure it is made accessible for as many people as possible?


CP: In this context, how important is it to redefine and model the sport for all sector?

JC: Modelling the sport for all movement requires first to get a clear idea of what you are speaking about. That’s why the exercise of defining the movement was a great first step. Considering the wide diversity of the organisations, it is wiser to get the central question of the access to the benefits of being physically active as the main entry point for thinking the model. Such an exercise should therefore identify tracks to follow in order to galvanise formal and informal practices, adapt rules, practice hours... well as simple as it may seem, making the practice accessible and fun!


I believe the roots of sport for all are to be found at the local level and so is its future. Things need to be organised at the local level while pooling together experiences from each other, proposing and inventing adapted solutions. At the moment the organised sport movement, including sport for all organisations, is creating barriers rather than solutions.


CP: What are the new needs for the management of sport for all organisations?

JC: The sport for all movement should be governed through different principles. In order for all organisations to be sustainable and to ensure that the most vulnerable will not suffer, it is of utmost importance to maintain the associative spirit – as a system based on democratic logic and volunteering – alive. The DNA of the functioning of an association is indeed the involvement of its members, who are the co-producers of the association’s outcomes as opposed to having a client status. This embeds the richness of the informal which cannot be found in the mercantile sphere.


In a local context, there is little doubt that the type of organisations needed (as introduced above) supports generic framework. Indeed 99% of the organisations do not have any professional staff. However, they may take opportunity and advantages of a centrally organised system operating at national and international level and which role would be to act as a facilitator and an agent gathering experiences (ie an organisation willing to be a database which serve its members and provide access to tools and ideas that will help and foster the development of a managerial approach adapted to micro structures and local environments).


CP: What is the role of associations in our society?

JC: I firmly believe there are different types of answers to social needs and our challenge is to define a good balance between all of these spheres for society to deliver its best. Indeed the private sphere provides answers to clients’ needs and public services offer answers to users, while associations are the expression of a citizen’s society. They represent a way of life which presupposes a commitment allowing citizens to grow as human beings. That’s the reason why I keep saying that associative management needs to be different (from the other spheres) and yet aim to the professionalization of volunteers through learning communities (i.e. associations should be altruistic and offer opportunities for networking and capitalise on the volunteers’ skills and exchanges).


CP: Listening to you, it seems obvious that the challenge for sport for all (i.e. allowing as many people as possible to access the benefits of being physically active) is at the hand of citizens at a local level. What is, or should then be, the role of the central structure?

JC: Don’t get me wrong; to my mind national and international actors have a major role to play. They indeed should be able to be a creative force. I beg them to find way of inverting the pyramid and put in place a bottom-up process with multiplier effects on national territories. This might not be easy, but they should find a way to question the functioning of their members and challenge them to better take into account the local dimension. The key question should therefore be “how to serve the local level best” and not the contrary! This would imply a thorough reflection on the governance of these organisations to ensure a renewed understanding of local needs.


As a conclusion, I would like to emphasise this simple fact. The key element for the functioning of an association is SHARING. In my opinion, a relevant way to measure the effectiveness of a professional working in a non-for-profit organisation should be his/her capacity to attract new volunteers and not to replace them. That is the reason why I say that a professional working in a sport association needs to be more than a manager, he/she has to understand and share the moral contract that gathers the association’s members together.