They agreed to look into serious allegations of improper conduct by the SWA executive, including account-keeping and governance irregularities, and breach of their constitution.
It is claimed a minority has maintained control by manipulation of the SWA club structure in defiance of democracy. This is alleged to have included the formation of new clubs with minimal membership, resurrection of a defunct one and athletes being coerced into the new ones in an attempt to inflate voting rights.
The governing body of freestyle wrestling is to receive £223,000 in the coming year, according to sportscotland budgets. That is £50,000 more than last year and has been granted following the Commonwealth Games. This has astonished even those within the sport, given that they won no medals in Delhi.
Sportscotland accounts state that they awarded the SWA grant aid of £181,400 in 2009/10 and £150,150 the previous year. That is a total of £550,000 on what is stated to be just 80-100 wrestlers, according to data openly available on the GB governing body’s website. Many of these are children.
The SWA last held an annual meeting in October 2009, which was actually the annual meeting for 2008. The constitution states that an annual meeting must be held in each calendar year and that no more than 15 months must elapse between these meetings. It also dictates that their financial year ends on December 31 and that “an audited statement of accounts shall be represented by the treasurer to the Annual General Meeting immediately following the end of each financial year”. There is uncertainty over precisely when the last available accounts were presented, but certainly not since that meeting in 2009 which gave data for the year ending 2008.
The SWA treasurer is Michael Cavanagh, a former international wrestler and chairman of Commonwealth Games Scotland.
The allegations are hugely embarrassing for sportscotland, particularly after criticism of lack of transparency in their funding process earlier this year when they reduced support to certain governing bodies by substantial amounts. There was no discernible pattern to these cuts, which were revealed exclusively by Herald Sport.
Sportscotland claimed that a lack of data, questionable figures on governing body membership, declining numbers and under-performance were among the reasons for reduced support to other sports. Failure to evaluate and support sports even-handedly would expose what some consider cronyism and partiality, or worse. Some may even argue there has been victimisation of sports which have been critical of sportscotland.
The disbursement of funds to a governing body whose accounts have been unavailable for so long raises questions about sportscotland’s oversight, governance and audit procedures. “Sportscotland has trusted governing bodies, and that trust has been betrayed in the case of wrestling,” said Sandy McNeil, a former SWA president and one of the concerned group from the sport who met at sportscotland HQ last week. Members of the executive were also present.
The quango’s most recent statement on corporate governance focuses on “arrangements to ensure effective systems of internal control, prevention and detection of fraud and irregularity, standards of conduct and prevention and detection of corruption. We are pleased to report that governance arrangements at sportscotland are generally strong.”
At the time of publication of that statement, the SWA’s annual meeting and accounts were already long overdue.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that wrestling itself has blown the whistle on what appears to be a catalogue of maladministration. Three clubs which represent more than two thirds of the SWA membership are so embarrassed by the depths to which their sport has fallen that they sought the meeting with sportscotland.
Allegations aired included the existence of clubs whose purpose was to retain voting rights and preserve a power base used to block legitimate protest and funding administration to the detriment of the sport by a hierarchy with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
The meeting closed with an assurance that the agency would look into the allegations. “Sportscotland were responsive to our concerns, which we appreciate,” said McNeil. There was, though, no guarantee that these would be concluded before a long-delayed SWA annual meeting finally called for July 6.
“In normal circumstances we would have been happy to await the outcome of sportscotland’s investigation but we fear that, if we do not act, this much-delayed agm might confer legitimacy on what has been happening.”
Weight was lent to this concern by the fact that the agenda for this annual meeting first appeared just hours after the conclusion of their meeting with sportscotland, on the final evening of the required 21-day deadline. These fears have prompted a decision to write to MSPs and a possible appeal to Shona Robison, the sports minister.
The sportscotland meeting came a month after wrestlers had voiced concerns in a letter to Stewart Harris, its chief executive. Sportscotland had apparently suggested the SWA annual meeting be delayed, in order that a new constitution could be introduced. “We believe sportscotland did this under the mistaken impression that this was the agm for 2010, not 2009,” said McNeil, “but the delay gave the SWA time to form new clubs, revive old ones, and get their voting rights up. They did this by juggling members around clubs.”
The haste in which this was done is exemplified by the fact that the GB website mentions just four Scottish clubs, while the Scottish website shows eight, several of them recent arrivals. An executive representative said an additional two clubs had been formed in recent days.
Despite denials of manipulation, a spokesman for the parent of two wrestlers at the Milngavie club confirmed that two of his children had recently been transferred from one club to another not once, but twice, without him being informed.
A sudden orgy of laudable development, or preserving the political status quo? Sportscotland must judge.
Gerry Malone, the SWA president, attended the meeting with the disaffected clubs, and acknowledged the delays, “but we totally refute allegations of manipulation of clubs”, he said. He explained that a new development officer, John Keogh, had been appointed in April, tasked with expansion, and there would be many more clubs this year. He added that the delay over meetings was because they were attempting to move to a limited company “a more fit-for-purpose body, with a new constitution”.
He said the recent egm had been unconstitutional and that had been explained to clubs who had declined to attend a public meeting.
The disaffected clubs’ counter-claim “malaise and incompetence” within the sport’s governing body executive, and “an abuse of power without moral or legal justification”. The number of new clubs created had denied them the numbers required under the constitution, they said.
A reluctant spokesman for the group, which involves the Milngavie, Denny and Cumbernauld’s Tryst clubs, McNeil confirmed that letters are being sent to MSPs. “A more detailed report to the sports minister, urging her intervention, is also being considered,” he said.
“The integrity of our sport is at stake,” said McNeil, “and we feel we have been disenfranchised. Some athletes have been coerced into changing clubs, to newly created ones. Memberships have been transferred between clubs, to secure voting rights. We have made these points to sportscotland.”
Cavanagh, as treasurer, is not on the SWA executive council, but said: “It’s the first I have heard of any kind of reference to member manipulation. I have no idea what that is about, and would rather not comment. You are right that the last annual meeting was in 2009.”
Sportscotland said last night: “As part of our ongoing discussions with Scottish governing bodies of sport, and consideration of the levels of investment made to them, we have recently met with representatives of the Scottish Wrestling Association and its member clubs.
“We continue to have an open dialogue with the sport which includes consideration of governance, performance of the sport, and its development moving forward. These ongoing discussions will be conducted in private. When the appropriate time comes we will make public the investment information in relation to SWA in the same way we have with other sports. We understand that the SWA is to hold its agm on July 6, when members will be able to comment on the structure of the organisation moving forward and on its accounts.”
They declined to confirm that they had confidence in the sport’s governance.
The governance of freestyle wrestling in Scotland is under scrutiny after allegations of malpractice and maladministration. Doug Gillon reports