As an organisation that earns and spends/invests billions of dollars over each four-year cycle, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) needs a shrewd head for business.

It is all to the good therefore that this uniquely diverse and powerful 100-strong sporting club includes alongside its various sporting champions people like the former chief executive of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (Camiel Eurlings), a partner of the East Caribbean arm of accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (Richard Peterkin) and a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (Richard Carrión).

As of August, the IOC has added to its formidable constellation of business talent an individual who could be labelled the Serbian Anita Roddick.

But while new IOC member Nenad Lalović’s accomplishments do include setting up a natural shampoos business - “absolutely natural shampoos”, he croons, briefly walking the marketing walk - and hence pursuing the trail blazed by the Body Shop founder, he has led such a varied and eventful life that all manner of headline-friendly labels might aptly be applied to him. The Mirror Man might be another, about which more later; Saviour of Wrestling a third.

Having got to know this bear-like, Belgrade-born diplomat’s son a little over the past two and a bit years since he was elected the seventh President of the international wrestling federation now known as United World Wrestling (UWW), however, I would say that the most important attribute he will bring to the IOC is a hard-won appreciation, generally masked by his fondness for wisecracks, of the importance of compromise and the immense value of the bridges sport can build.

“[Through] what I lived in my country,” he told me when we sat down recently to reflect on his entry to sport’s most exclusive club, “I learned that everything is possible and there is a solution to every situation. We don’t find it always, but I am sure that there is always a solution or a compromise.”

What Lalović lived, by the way, included repeated assassination attempts on his father and having to start from scratch when war broke out at a time when he was a Serb working for a Croatia-based business.

We start at the beginning.

Lalović was born in Belgrade in 1958. “Then we left immediately for Tunisia.

“Then back to Serbia, Belgrade. And Brussels and again Belgrade and Switzerland…

“That has helped me to have an understanding of different nations and cultures.

“But I never imagined while growing up that something [like this] could happen.

“Life reserves surprises.”

How many languages do you speak?

“I speak three foreign languages that I can say that I really speak - French, English and Russian.”

He has a deep, rounded voice and the unhurried demeanour of a man used to figuring things out for himself.

He goes on: “Of course, I speak all our local dialects and languages.” He also has more than a passing acquaintance with some other tongues that will stand him in good stead in the polyglot club he has just been admitted to. “I will never stay hungry in Italy,” he chuckles.

Nenad Lalović could be labelled as the Serbian Anita Roddick
Nenad Lalović could be labelled as the Serbian Anita Roddick ©Getty Images

If his status as a diplomat’s son gave him access to tools that have clearly been helpful as he has risen to prominence in international sport, it also gave him early warning that life is no fairy story.

His father Milos - whose name I have encountered in papers relating to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the Group of 77 and a review conference of parties to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons - served his country when it was the Yugoslavia of Marshall Tito.

It was a tense time in Europe, with the continent still divided, and I had heard mention of an assassination attempt.

When I ask him this difficult question, he answers it straight, while making it clear it is not a subject he wishes to dwell on.

“Yes, in Brussels,” he replies. “They tried to kill him a few times. That was in the ‘70s…That was a long time ago.”

Lalović holds a mechanical engineering diploma from the university of Novi Sad, but, as he explains, he completed it relatively late in life, having left academia in the late-1970s after being offered a job that was too good to turn down.

“I was manager of a travel agency and a representative of different travel agencies on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia [and] I was the manager of a car rental company…

“At that time that was really a golden opportunity. Doing that job you had many contacts.

“Today this kind of job is not very interesting any more: with everything that has happened with new technology, nobody needs a travel agency.”

He was still working in that sector, also co-owning a tennis club, in 1991, when the Balkan war broke out. “I was working for a Croatian company,” he recalls. “All the links between the republics were cut.”

It is little surprise, all things considered, that he now describes himself as a “Yugo-nostalgic”.

This was when shampoo took a prominent role in Lalović’s life, while he also moved in 1995 to Russia to work in a relative’s construction company. “I am still a partner there.”

Wrestling only really entered his life in 2000, when his son, also Milos, took up the sport.

“I found out that one of his coaches was a childhood friend of mine,” he tells me. “I helped their club and they asked if I would help the federation. So I became the President of the national federation.”

After staging first a European junior wrestling championship and then the European championships in Serbia, he was named to the Bureau of the European Wrestling Federation in 2004. Two years later, he was elected to the Bureau of the international federation, then known by the acronym FILA.

It was more than six years after that, on 12 February 2013, that the roof of wrestling’s world came crashing down. The IOC’s Executive Board recommended that it be removed from the programme of core sports after Rio 2016. This left this particularly ancient sport facing the imminent prospect of exile from an Olympic programme it had first graced in 708BC. The financial consequences would have been disastrous.

Within four days, Raphaël Martinetti, FILA’s President, had been ousted, and Lalović installed on an interim basis. Some three months after that, the Serb was overwhelmingly elected President at an Extraordinary Congress in Moscow.

Wrestling entered Nenad Lalović's life in 2000 ©Getty Images
Wrestling entered Nenad Lalović's life in 2000 ©Getty Images

This was where the battle to save Olympic wrestling got under way in earnest with a memorable coup de théâtre that only a leader facing a stern challenge would have attempted, and only a confident leader would have pulled off.

After Lalović’s election, delegates were asked who they thought could reverse wrestling’s catastrophic situation. Their attention was then drawn to an envelope each had received containing a small mirror. “I told them to open this and look inside, and then they saw their own face,” Lalović recalls. “They are the people who can save wrestling - if [they stay] all together united.”

It was a brilliant stroke, but one which he is too honest to claim credit for. “To be frank,” he tells me, “this was not my idea. This was the idea of the consultants working to save wrestling. TSE Consulting. We spoke about the need to have something unusual. That was a general idea.”

Four months’ later - after a campaign that made full use of the sport’s Ancient Olympic pedigree whilst also conveying that it got the message and had understood the need for change - wrestling’s Olympic future was secured at the 2013 IOC Session in Buenos Aires.

Now Lalović’s achievement in bringing about this U-turn and giving his sport new impetus and a new lease on life has been recognised with IOC membership. “He is a real leader,” said Francesco Ricci Bitti, President of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), when asked why Lalović had been nominated for this honour. “He has done a lot in his sport to evolve very fast an old conservative environment to one open to innovation, rule changes and the future.”

What does the UWW President hope to use his new position to achieve?

“I think that the IOC, and other sports, can benefit from me because we need to transmit all our good experiences to other sports on the Olympic programme who are in a similar situation,” he replies.

“That means we have to update the sports constantly, permanently. We have to exchange our experience. We have to learn one from another.

“It is always better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than from your own…

“I don’t see my position in the IOC in order to protect wrestling. It’s not the idea. If I had this idea I would certainly not be invited to the IOC.

“You need a much wider view in order to serve the Olympic Movement in the way that the Olympic Movement needs it.”

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Wrestling's presentation at the 2013 IOC Session in Buenos Aires, where its Olympic inclusion was reinstated ©Getty Images

To my astonishment, Lalović tells me he is the first top official from the international wrestling federation to become an IOC member.

When I express my surprise, he speculates, I think half-jokingly: “Maybe the wrestlers or their governors have a complicated personality. Often they have a very developed individuality and that doesn’t always help.”

I suppose that’s possible, I reply, because you are alone on the mat.

“There are no substitutes,” he concurs.

There are no substitutes either for the sense of perspective, leadership instincts and negotiating flair that Lalović will bring to the IOC.

“We have many more generals after the battles than during the battle,” he observes in the context of a discussion about the IOC’s founding figure, Pierre de Coubertin. Like the Frenchman he so admires, the IOC new boy has proved himself a general during the battle.