Nick Butler ©ITG

I had a brief jaunt westwards last week to Miami for a tantalisingly titled "Best Practices" Seminar organised by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).

It was the first major gathering of the Pan American Sports Organization (PASO) since the election of Neven Ilic as President in April and, while not a goldmine of exploding news stories, it was a good opportunity to chew the fat on the sporting issues of the day.

PASO, a regional bloc consisting of 41 wildly diverse nations and territories, provides a good illustration of where sport has gone wrong in recent decades as well as its potential for future growth if the right steps are taken.

It was led for exactly 40 years by Mexican businessman Mario Vázquez Raña until his death while still in office in 2015. By virtually all accounts, Vázquez Raña operated what was essentially a dictatorship. Any criticism was rejected and invariably resulted in a loss of influence for the individual concerned. Various weird and wonderful whims and procedures were tolerated simply because it was the way "Don Mario" did things and, apparently, it was often impossible for anyone to get in touch with his office and find out what was going on.

He may have ruled well in some ways, particularly in earlier years, but it seems a fairly accepted view that this contributed to the steady decline of the Pan American Games as a sporting event. Top countries such as the United States now consider it as a distinctly second or even third tier competition in which only a smattering of their Olympic-standard athletes participate.

The two most recent former PASO Presidents: Julio Maglione, left, and
The two most recent former PASO Presidents: Julio Maglione, left, and "Don Mario" Vázquez Raña ©Getty Images

Two years of rule under International Swimming Federation head Julio Maglione seemed to have changed little. With hindsight, the Uruguayan’s tenure was notable for an alarming degree of apathy surrounding floundering preparations for the next Pan American Games in Lima in 2019.

Ilic, a 55-year-old Chilean elected by a single vote over two septuagenarians in Brazil’s Carlos Nuzman and Dominican Republic’s José Joaquín Puello, is charged with bringing the organisation forward into a new era.

I wrote at the time how the April election was one of the most uplifting events I have covered in the Olympic Movement. This was mostly because it felt clear the right person had been chosen.

Seven weeks on and the affable Chilean is still in his honeymoon period so it is too early to judge. There is a lot of work ahead. A functioning website has still not been set-up, for instance.

But already it feels as if the culture and style of the organisation is changing for the better. A shift in name to the more comprehensible "PanamSports" is underway along with a process to design a new logo. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in their wisdom, have ruled the current one illegal due to the incorrect positioning of the Olympic Rings, although a change is no bad thing considering the existing design is a nostalgic throwback to Vázquez Raña and the 1970s.

USOC, organising a Best Practices Forum for the third time last week, already seem more engaged after supporting Ilic’s Presidential bid. Miami officials were speaking about a possible Pan American Games tilt in the future.

Lima 2019 remains the big priority. After initially trying to keep the public messaging positive, Ilic is now admitting that they are very concerned. Construction at venues including the Athletes’ Village simply must begin by September, he warned, implying that the whole event could be in doubt if this does not happen. Peruvian organisers talk a good game, and have omnipresent British consultancy firm JTA to help give the public impression of progress, but there is a huge gap between words and action.

Preparations for the 2019 Pan American Games remains a major challenge for PASO ©Getty Images
Preparations for the 2019 Pan American Games remains a major challenge for PASO ©Getty Images

Ensuring the success of Lima 2019 will be vital to the reputation of the event and the aim is to encourage sponsors and partners to come on board.

PASO currently seems a good case study of the benefits of a change in leadership. Other organisations, cough, International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), cough, might do well to learn this lesson.

Ilic surely must be a shoe-in to become an IOC member either at this year’s Session in Lima or next year's in Pyeongchang. The interesting thing about him is that he never really comes across as a politician, at least not in the sporting sense. He was never one for "brown-nosing" Vázquez Raña, I was told, and I cannot see him doing the same to IOC head honcho Thomas Bach.

Given how the likes of Adam Pengilly, Richard Pound and Richard Peterkin are all due to lose their IOC membership over the next few years, it is important that a new generation of constructive critics emerges. If not, the organisation will become even more of a rudderless Bachean echo chamber than it already is.

That would not be good for world sport, and it will be interesting to see if someone like Ilic could fulfil that role.

Announcements made by Bach and the IOC Executive Board a few days earlier in Lausanne were constantly being discussed on the edges of the USOC Seminar.

On the joint awarding of the 2024 and 2028 Olympics, I was surprised at how much criticism I heard about the way it is being implemented. In the past, people have generally spoken of the idea primarily as a good thing before moving on to the potential pitfalls, but here the negative aspects were being addressed first.

"How can the process be changed halfway through?" many said. "How can the IOC members be so undermined?" and "How can Bach so shamelessly talk about the 2028 Olympics being a 'present' despite all the problems?".

On several occasions, I found myself in the unfamiliar position of defending Bach and arguing, as he does, that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Neven Ilic, left, alongside IOC President Thomas Bach ©Twitter
Neven Ilic, left, alongside IOC President Thomas Bach ©Twitter

I found it harder to defend the German's intelligence-insulting claims that they have not started negotiating with either Los Angeles or Paris. This is nonsense, and American officials are clearly aggrieved by what they see as attempts to essentially bully them into accepting the 2028 edition.

I cannot see much of this rumbling resentment becoming genuine opposition, though, and I expect Bach will get his way without too much fuss from either inside or outside the Olympic Movement in September.

There also seemed to be general approval for the IOC decision to threaten the IWF with expulsion from the 2024 Olympics if they do not address their "massive" doping problems by December. It remains to be seen if this is a real threat, but the sheer fact that Bach came out and issued the ultimatum shows how an astonishing 49 failures - so far - from retested samples at the Beijing and London Olympics has not been ignored.

People are also constantly speculating about the future of Kuwaiti "kingmaker" and Association of National Olympic Committees President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah as he attempts to clear himself of allegations, which he denies, linking him to bribery in a US Federal Court case. He certainly seem very low profile at the moment and is playing a minimal role in the joint-awarding discussions.

Another elephant in the room, or mouse in the hole, surrounds the question of Russian doping. This was a topic conspicuous by its absence during both the USOC Seminar and at the IOC Executive Board meeting. It was discussed sporadically in the bars and lobbies, but less so than the 2024 and 2028 plans.

There has been little progress over the last 10 months but expect another explosion of action, or inaction, later this year.

I have a feeling that part of the reason Bach is keen to sort out 2024 and 2028 before Lima is so there will be less attention focused on the Peruvian capital when the results of the twin IOC Schmid and Oswald Commissions into Russian doping at the Sochi Olympics are heard. We do not yet know if this will happen there, but he is targeting a decision on sanctioning individual athletes and defining their participation in Pyeongchang "before the start of the winter season".

Evidence of Russian doping at Sochi 2014 remains an elephant in the room in IOC circles ©Getty Images
Evidence of Russian doping at Sochi 2014 remains an elephant in the room in IOC circles ©Getty Images

It still seems unclear what they will do, and I doubt they even know themselves. 

It is decidedly unlikely Russia will face any sort of blanket suspension from the South Korean Games. But IOC attempts to downplay the strength of the evidence and claim Russia are resolving their problems are constantly being undermined by the contrary hardline positions being taken by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the International Association of Athletics Federations and the International Paralympic Committee.

From studying delegates at the USOC Seminar, there is a growing consensus in private that Bach is not the best ambassador to represent the Olympic Movement. Yet there appears no-one currently prepared to stick their heads above the parapet and call him out. Many people remain mindful of the rapid isolation and fall of Marius Vizer as SportAccord President after he did exactly that in 2015.

But if the last year has not already defined Bach’s legacy as IOC President, then the next few months will be crucial.

He needs to listen and learn from his critics and adopt a leadership style more akin to an Ilic than a Vázquez Raña.