There are a number of purposes to the creation of international sport federations. Each federation is a symbol of the global nature of the athletic discipline represented; sports are often seen as the only meaningful common bond that is shared between otherwise diverse global communities and cultures. Sport federations usually seek to reflect the diverse nature of their membership, an important quality as many international federations are supported with government funding of a direct or an indirect nature.
The most visible work carried out by an international sports federation is the conduct of its competitions. The effort to ensure championships that are demonstrably fair, efficiently conducted, and profitable where possible, creates positive promotion for the particular sport. This is the overriding objective of the work carried on by most international sports federations.
The least glamorous aspect of federation business is the governance of the operations of the organization. Worldwide sporting bodies are complicated and often highly dynamic structures that require diverse and often imaginative management systems. International sports federations are generally one of two types. The first are those organizations that are responsible for large-scale events or festivals that include many different sports. These events are annual, biennial, or quadrennial, such as the Olympic Games or the Maccabiah Games. The second type is the individual sport federations that are responsible for those sports contested on an international basis. The Federation de Football Internationale, or FIFA, is perhaps the best known of these world organizations.
The best-known and the most powerful of the event-centered international federations is the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC is selected from the representatives of national Olympic organizations from around the world. In addition to physically administering the competitions that comprise both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games during the designated period, the IOC is responsible for coordinating the very intricate processes of host city and venue selection for upcoming games, determining the selection process and qualifying standards in each Olympic sport in advance of each competition, and the negotiation of immensely valuable games sponsorship and worldwide broadcast rights. The IOC also works with national governments in the coordination of its work; it is also a partner with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in the regulation of the sensitive and high profile in-competition doping tests. The process through which the Olympic host city for a Summer or Winter Games is selected is entirely controlled by the IOC. To be named host Olympic city is of particular benefit to the successful bidder, as the value of the construction of new facilities, the huge influx of tourism, and the lasting benefit to a community associated with the Olympics all make the pursuit of an Olympic bid lucrative.
The IOC has faced numerous international political stresses during its history. In 1972, the Summer Games at Munich was marked by the hostage-taking of 11 Israeli athletes by a group of Palestinian terrorists. In 1976, the Summer Games of Montreal were the subject of a boycott by a number of African nations over the participation of then-apartheid South Africa; the Winter Games of 1980 in Moscow and in 1984 in Los Angeles were each affected by boycotts: the 1980 action by the United States and countries sympathetic to its position, and the 1984 refusal by the former Soviet Union and certain of its political allies to participate. Each boycott was motivated by politics conflict, not athletic issues.
The IOC sits at the apex of an Olympic pyramid that is constructed upon national Olympic committees that are powerful in their own right. Organizations such as the United States Olympic Committee work in concert with the IOC, as the supreme body for all Olympic-related competition in the United States.
There are other international sports federations that are responsible for major, multi-sport competitions. The Commonwealth Games, which is open to athletes from countries that form the British Commonwealth (the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and India are prominent examples), are an event similar to the Summer Olympics in the scope of the sports contested; the Commonwealth Games are held every four years, at the mid-point between Summer Olympics. The competition is directed by the Commonwealth Games Federation. The Pan American Games are staged every four years (in the year prior to each Summer Olympics). The Pan American competition is open to nations and competitors in all 42 North and South American countries; it is organized by a permanent international body known as PASO, the Pan American Sports Organization, which is based in Mexico City.
The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) is an international body with a span of influence within its discipline that is as broad as that of the IOC in the Olympic realm. Track and field events in North America encompass a wide variety of sports; the IAAF convene annual world championships within each athletics discipline, ranging from cross-country running to the hammer throw. Every two years, the IAAF stages a world track and field championship, where all of the athletic disciplines are contested in a multi-day event. As with the Olympics, the IAAF world championships are subject to a nationally based selection process, as determined by the national athletics/track and field federation in each country.
Virtually every sport that is contested on any international basis is directed by an umbrella international federation. In many such situations, the international body is supreme in all matter that impacts on the sport in question; in others, the federation is structured as a clearinghouse for the resolution of issues that impact on the particular sport or international competition. The features of these single sport federations that are common to each include: world governance of the sport; all regulatory and discipline matters associated with international competition; division or responsibilities between national federation members and the world body; consistent rules of play; technical development, including training and coaching; convening and supervision of international championships.
Federation de Football Internationale (FIFA) and the World Cup, are synonymous in any description of world soccer, the unquestioned most popular sport in the world. The quadrennial World Cup championship, which is the culmination of three years of qualifying play, is entirely controlled by FIFA, from the determination of the host country, the venues in which the game swill be played, rule changes, and technical innovation, including ball construction and the use of goal-line cameras. Every soccer competition that is intended as being recognized as an international match must be sanctioned by FIFA. A measure of organizational cross-pollination in soccer has been achieved as FIFA is now partnered with the IOC in the conduct of Olympic soccer, a technique employed by the IOC in many of its Olympic sports.
FIFA is not the only international soccer federation. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) is the governing body of European soccer. UEFA convene a Champions League, the annual European club championship, various European age group championships, and the immensely popular European Cup, held every four years. The Cup is the second most-watched television event in the world, next to the World Cup. UEFA, with 52 member countries, is a powerful federation. It is entirely autonomous within its own sphere in terms of how the competitions are organized, the provision of anti-doping testing, and other qualification matters. It is not subordinate to FIFA in the administration of its own affairs, but it operates a game that is entirely consistent with that overseen by FIFA.
The Federation de Basketball Amateur (FIBA) is modeled in many respects after the FIFA example. FIBA administers a truly world game, and its competitions culminate in a biennial world championship, with a selection process that draws from every region of the world. The growth of FIBA did not always parallel its influence, as for many years the United States—the preeminent basketball power in the world—was reluctant to commit to the provision of its best players at the world champion level. The best American players, professionals in the National Basketball Association (NBA), were not readily persuaded to compete in FIBA championships.
The other points of contention between the FIBA model of basketball and the American game have traditionally centered on the differences in the playing rules. FIBA has steadily persuaded all of its member nations to implement the FIBA standard at all levels. In the United States, with thousands of high schools, over 1,500 university programs, and the professional leagues playing American rules, it is doubtful that a regulatory harmony can be negotiated.
The United States is not isolated from FIBA; the rise to prominence of successful foreign-born players in the NBA has given a truly international perspective to the game, a development encouraged by FIBA.
Other world sports are organized in similar fashions. The Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) is responsible for both the traditional six players per side indoor game, as well as the world beach volleyball championships. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) regulates all international ice hockey competitions; the IIHF encountered a problem for much of its history that paralleled the tensions that existed between FIBA and United States basketball, namely the influence of Canada, the world's most dominant hockey nation.
International cricket, cycling, rugby, and swimming are all directed by powerful international organizations, selected by the member nations to provide overall direction and to convene the international championships. There are a number of international sport federations that do not purport to influence the direction of the conduct of the sport at large, but which have a measure of hegemony over an aspect that is well entrenched. Examples of sole-purpose, one-sport organizations include the Americas Cup competition, a challenge sailing event first contested in 1851. In recent years, when a challenge has been issued, a number of yachts will compete to determine the ultimate challenger to the trophy. The current Cup holder typically forms a consortium to maintain control of the revenues and the rules of the event.