Here is a short quiz for keen students of the Olympic Movement.

Who said this? “All over the world people are tired of the insincerity, the excessive cost and the ceremony which accompany the Games. Their huge success in this century is no guarantee for the future.”

Or how about this? “Cooperation with the International [Sports] Federations (IFs) is more than ever necessary. The federations are, as always, ready to cooperate, but expect that this cooperation will be in a spirit of genuine partnership…In society, the role of sport will be ever more important, either with Olympism or without, and therefore the role of the IFs will not cease gaining importance.”

Or this? “The government of sport is carried out by methods which in some ways are completely out of date. In industry, the success of leading personalities can be measured in figures. This is a yardstick which is lacking when estimating the work of a leader in the field of sport…An administrative career in sport is often misused to satisfy personal vanity.”

Thomas Keller was a long-time President of both the International Rowing Federation and the General Assembly of International Sports Federations
Thomas Keller was a long-time President of both the International Rowing Federation and the General Assembly of International Sports Federations ©Wikipedia

Would it help if I mentioned that the speaker was a big cheese with the IFs and that his words were spoken at a resort on the shores of the Black Sea?

OK, enough pussyfooting around. If you thought that the answer was SportAccord President Marius Vizer and that these were extracts from his explosive recent address in Sochi, then congratulations, you have clearly been paying attention to the latest drama gripping the Movement in recent weeks. However, you are wrong.

These quotations are in fact taken from a speech by Thomas Keller, long-time President of both the International Rowing Federation (FISA, as it was then) and the General Assembly of International Sports Federations (GAISF), which electrified the 1973 Olympic Congress in Varna, a Bulgarian Black Sea resort.

The effect of his remarks can be gauged from the reaction of The Times’s man on the Zlati Piassatzi, or Golden Sands, John Hennessy. “No amount of honey-tongued oratory could have softened the impact of his forthright words,” Hennessy reported. “It all added up to a ringing declaration on behalf of the federations (IFs) that they insisted on a much bigger say in the Games.”

Profiling the 48-year-old Keller - a “new voice in an old movement” - a few days later, Hennessy went further, suggesting, “There are many who believe the Assembly to be coveting the position now held by the International Olympic Committee (IOC)”. He described the man who “more than any other has made a special impact during the 10th Olympic Congress and the first for 43 years” as “a ruggedly handsome Swiss with soft brown eyes, a ready smile and a steely determination”.

Interestingly, Hennessy claimed that Keller had been sounded out about becoming an IOC member himself, but refused. “He regards the federations as more important, since they govern their sports for 52 weeks a year, compared (as he maintains) with the two weeks every four years of the IOC,” the journalist wrote.

When I spoke to former IOC director Monique Berlioux, however, she told me Keller had wanted to be a member of the IOC, but did not wish to resign his FISA Presidency and had lost out to a rival by one vote. Afterwards, in 1967, Keller and international wrestling federation (then FILA) President Roger Coulon decided to group the IFs into an association, GAISF. “As President he wanted to give it too much importance,” Berlioux said.

This is all very well, but why bring the episode up now, 42 years later and nearly 26 years after Keller’s premature death? In short, because “Thomi Keller” were the two words on the lips of some of the more mature witnesses to another set of forthright words this time uttered by Vizer in Sochi. This implied to me that, even if history doesn’t repeat itself, what happened to Keller, who after all was head of the organisation - GAISF - that became SportAccord, might hold clues to the eventual outcome of the present trial of strength that was escalated so dramatically by the SportAccord President last month.  

The arrival of Juan Antonio Samaranch saw the tide quickly turned against Thomas Keller and his vision for the international federations
The arrival of Juan Antonio Samaranch saw the tide quickly turned against Thomas Keller and his vision for the international federations ©Getty Images

As John Boulter, a former Adidas executive who was present in Sochi, observes: “The whole organisation of sport is set up to create a tension between whoever is representing the IFs, the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and the IOC.

“There are three different groups trying to do not quite the same thing, but they all want money and they all have some justification for saying, ‘We are the people on whom it all depends.’ The tension is always going to be there. Usually, though, it is creative.”

So what did happen after the ruggedly handsome Keller laid down his challenge?

Well, at first, things seemed to be going fairly well for the imposing 6ft 3½in administrator. Boulter’s colleague, Horst Dassler, one of the prime architects of elite sport’s modern commercial structure, was on the case and had asked sports marketing pioneer Patrick Nally to try to raise money for the IFs from multinational corporations.

By 1978, the “A” in GAISF had been changed from “Assembly” to “Association” and a permanent headquarters set up in Monte Carlo.

The IOC, meanwhile, had no money and was becoming a political football in the Cold War. This as single-sport world championships were gaining traction, expanding and multiplying.

As President of Swiss Timing, Keller was certainly business-minded and Nally remembers him as being “quite an important broker of relationships. He represented sport more than [then IOC President] Lord Killanin could,” Nally says, “because he was a sports person”.

Nally also remembers Keller orchestrating a number of meetings with Los Angeles in the early days. Most sports, after all, were dependent then as now on the Olympics for exposure.

The Los Angeles 1984 Games ultimately did much to dig the Movement, and the IOC, out of its financial hole by highlighting the product’s commercial value, not least to broadcasters, and demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that political boycotts were generally counterproductive for nations that embarked on them.

But Keller - once a national single sculls champion, who had himself fallen victim to Switzerland’s boycott of the 1956 Melbourne Games over the Soviet invasion of Hungary - was always wary of the pendulum swinging too far in favour of overt commercialism.

Thomas Keller orchestrated a number of meetings with Los Angeles ahead of the 1984 Games
Thomas Keller orchestrated a number of meetings with Los Angeles ahead of the 1984 Games ©Getty Images

“He was always the one who wanted to protect the interests of sports, and not just be taken over by the circus,” Nally says. “Initially, he recognised sport needed the money, but then he saw the momentum getting out of hand.”

With the arrival in 1980 of a cunning, workaholic leader of the IOC in the form of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the tide quickly turned against Keller and his vision for the IFs.

The new commercial models being developed by Dassler, Nally and a new generation of sports marketers were of course open to anybody to try to exploit - including the IOC. Samaranch quickly understood their potential and saw how the enhanced revenue streams they were capable of generating were one of the keys to reasserting the IOC’s primacy.

The key years were 1983 and 1984. A presentation by Dassler to the IOC Session in New Delhi describing the Olympic rings as “the most unexploited trademark in existence” sowed the seed, after much sweat, for the first TOP worldwide sponsorship programme, covering the 1985-1988 Olympic cycle.

At around the same time, Samaranch proposed setting up associations of summer and winter Olympic sports IFs - the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) and the Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations (AIOWF).

While such relentlessly prosaic titles might make it hard today to retain focus amid the swirl of the Movement’s alphabet soup, this was an important moment since it meant that the bodies through which successive Olympic Games windfalls would be channelled back to individual IFs would come under the IOC, and not the GAISF, umbrella.

As long-time IOC member Kevan Gosper put it in his autobiography, An Olympic Life, “It was a way of outflanking Tom Keller…who was trying to stake out a claim that his organisation was more powerful than the IOC.”

A few months later, in early 1984, came the start of the negotiations that former IOC marketing director Michael Payne memorably labelled “Scorpion Wars”. These resulted in a 337 per cent increase, between Sarajevo 1984 and Calgary 1988, in the price paid for US broadcasting rights to the Winter Games. The media rights bonanza from which the wealthiest sports organisations have benefited in recent years was under way.

By this time, Keller - who always believed, as Nally puts it, that “sport should run sport” - was becoming both terrified and despondent at the direction events were taking.

Un Yong Kim succeeded Thomas Keller as President of GAISF in 1986
Un Yong Kim succeeded Thomas Keller as President of GAISF in 1986 ©Getty Images

“He wasn’t a happy man; he was pretty fed up with the way things were going,” Nally recalls. “What he believed was that the IFs should have some control, that sport ought to have more say than it does.”

In 1986 - a year in which he was memorably described as “Maxwell-massive” by The Guardian’s Frank Keating - Keller stepped down from the Presidency of GAISF he had held for 17 years, to be succeeded by Un Yong Kim, South Korean President of the World Taekwondo Federation, who was also closely involved in preparations for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Keller remained head of FISA until his death in 1989, aged 64.

Dassler had died two years earlier, less than a month past his 51st birthday. Afterwards, Boulter, his Adidas colleague, met Samaranch and asked whether the IOC President felt that the modest but vital financial support provided by the sports shoe manufacturer to GAISF should continue. “Yes,” he remembers the always calculating Spaniard replying, “As long as my friend Dr Kim is President, you should help them. But not too much.”

The beast had been tamed.

A generation later, is it merely grumbling, or could it break loose again? Given the way Olympic IFs have rushed to show support for the IOC almost from the minute that Vizer sat down in Sochi, most, at present, would probably conclude the former.

Then again, some IFs could be minded to seek recompense for their loyalty. That may be when we appreciate the true disposition of forces. Should IOC President Thomas Bach feel it necessary to reward them, one big casualty of last month’s showdown might be any lingering hope that Agenda 2020 will somehow lead to paradigm-shifting reform.