Last year proved a difficult one for the Olympic Movement, with the challenge of sustaining interest in bidding for major events hardly helped by scandals in FIFA and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which together form the biggest threat to the running of global sport in generations.
There will be plenty more twists and turns to come over the next 12 months, but it is interesting to speculate on the outcomes stakeholders could best hope for in 2016…
Russia to struggle at Rio 2016: It seems somewhat callous, but many of us are quietly hoping that Russia’s athletics ban is not lifted before this summer’s Olympic Games. Given the staggering allegations of state-supported doping that emerged in the first part of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Independent Commission report in November, it would be the only genuine punishment and means to set a precedent for the future. Despite recent suggestions to the contrary from European Athletics President Svein Arne Hansen, it remains likely the team will ultimately be able to compete, however, for cloudy political reasons as much as anything else. And if they do, the best indicator of a cleaner system would be poorer performances: in athletics but also elsewhere, for it appears unlikely such a programme could be confined to one sport.
Release of retested samples from Turin 2006: Russia is clearly not the only country to suffer from doping. One recent example of the scale of the problem concerns Gabriel Evans, an 18-year-old amateur cyclist from Great Britain - a country with a supposedly cleaner record - who casually admitted on an internet forum how he had been caught using Erythropoietin (EPO) after winning a national junior time trial title, and that he had been inspired to do so by a BBC documentary. The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) plan to give WADA greater powers to directly oversee drug testing instead of International Federations appears a good idea, although it remains to be seen how it would work in practice. Another vital response is that they release the findings of retested samples from the Turin 2006 Winter Games ahead of the 10-year anniversary this spring. These were retested in 2013, and we were promised results soon after Sochi 2014, but they are still yet to materialise. They should also speed-up the process to re-test and release samples from Beijing 2008. Speaking of Sochi, it would also be good if there is now a genuine inquiry into the drug testing facilities there, given the questions raised in the WADA Report over possible secret police involvement...
Tightening up the finances of Federations: Aside from their anti-doping procedures, the IOC are also making more effort to improve the governance of IFs. Speculation is growing as to which governing body will be next to suffer a scandal, with swimming and various winter sports currently leading the running. There has been lots of good rhetoric from the IOC and each IF (with “change or be changed” the current catchphrase of choice), but a more concrete measure would be the introduction of sanctions for governing bodies which do not fill specific criteria, such as not releasing detailed annual financial reports. This is something which has been mooted and could be realised in 2016.
A more powerful and independent SportAccord: His methods and timing may have been wrong, but the sentiments of ex-SportAccord chief Marius Vizer’s criticisms of the running of sport in April looked wiser the longer the year went on, particularly his quip that then-IAAF President Lamine Diack was “sacrificing sport for his family” seven months before his arrest for allegedly accepting bribes to cover up Russian doping failures. A body which has genuine independence and impartiality from the IOC and the Olympic Federations is therefore necessary. Unfortunately, SportAccord is losing much of its power and will primarily serve just to organise the annual SportAccord Convention if its new statutes are approved in April. The interim head and International Ski Federation President Gian-Franco Kasper does not appear the man for the long-term and, for me, the SportAccord Convention chairman and Association of Summer Olympic International Federations President Francesco Ricci-Bitti - also up for re-election to the latter post this year - appears too close to the likes of IOC President Thomas Bach to play a genuine impartial role.
A credible contender for the International Skating Union Presidency: An election to select a replacement for the longstanding Italian Ottavio Cinquanta is expected to be held in June, and at present the primary candidate is French Federation of Ice Sports chief Didier Gailhaguet, who was thrown off the ISU Council and handed a three-year ban from the sport in 2002 for his involvement in the Salt Lake City judging scandal. He may have changed for the better since his return, but in the current climate it does not seem appropriate for such a figure to lead an international governing body.
No major problems at Rio 2016 once the Opening Ceremony begins: The next seven months are bound to be littered with concerns ahead of Rio 2016. As well as the final stages of preparations, Brazilian organisers will have to deal with more concerns over security, water pollution, corruption in the financing of venues and a political and economic climate far worse than when the Games were awarded in 2009. Yet recent history has shown that the build-up counts for little if there is success once we are underway. Avoiding major hiccups is therefore key, as well as a strong start at the Opening Ceremony, showcasing all that is good about the host nation and reminding us why the IOC chose Brazil as host over the safer choices of Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago.
Old and new stars to deliver in Rio, and especially Brazilian ones: Once the action begins, it will be left to sporting stars to generate the defining moments. Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps will be looking to make golden swansongs, while Roger Federer will have one final attempt at an elusive Olympic tennis singles title. At the other end of the experience scale, Samoa and Fiji will be chasing a first Olympic medal when rugby sevens makes its debut. Judoka Majlinda Kelmendi, meanwhile, could star as Kosovo make their first Olympic appearance. Brazilian success will be most important, however, and as well as more established footballers and volleyball players, there will be a chance for new stars to emerge, like 17-year-old archer Marcus D’Almeida and canoe sprint talent Isaquias Queiroz
Lifting of ban on women attending Iranian volleyball matches: The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) do not have an easy task in negotiating the lifting of Iran’s ban on women attending matches, a source of global controversy in recent years. They have sympathy from the Iranian Government, but also have to pacify conservative and religious hardliners who are desperate to prevent any liberal concessions. That said, the FIVB have not helped themselves by awarding a World Tour beach event to Iran in February, seemingly in violation of their 2014 pledge not to allocate events to the country until the ban is lifted. They are hopeful of a resolution soon, but if the ban remains in place by the time of their initial deadline of Rio 2016, expect the howls of protests to become storms.
An effective cohort of new IOC members: The first batch of a large number of new members are due at this summer’s IOC Session in Rio. There are currently 98 members, although six of those passed age limits in 2015, and several more will do so this year. Supporters of Thomas Bach are expected to dominate the inductees, although it would be good to have a couple who will ruffle a few feathers. One outspoken figure who would do exactly that is Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee President Brian Lewis, who, through his fervent tweeting, empathises better than most with the general public’s views on sporting administrators, although he appears unlikely to be considered. An impressive list of IOC Athletes’ Commission candidates for three new spots have already been announced, and it is important the chosen trio will have the time to take the job seriously, something which Norwegian biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjørndalen has been unable to do since his election at Sochi 2014.
A strong Paris 2024 bid: A 2024 race which started so promisingly has already been affected by the withdrawal of Boston and Hamburg in recent months. The former has been replaced by a very strong-looking Los Angeles bid, but, at this stage, it still feels unlikely Budapest or Rome will seriously threaten. It is, therefore, key that Paris, a city still reeling from the devastating terrorist attacks in November, continues to challenge in order to ensure a genuine opposition. Support largely seems positive as it stands, but it will not take much for opinions to turn and Western European apathy with all things Olympic to be shown once again.
Genuine change in a new era at FIFA: It will be another big year for Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020 organisers, while more battles can be expected between the IOC and Kuwait as they negotiate an unlikely lifting of the latter’s Olympic ban before Rio 2016. It would be nice also to see some progress with the Olympic TV Channel. The IAAF must deal candidly with whatever revelations emerge from part two of the WADA Report this month, and hope that Sebastian Coe proves more successful in repairing the sport’s tattered reputation than he has been thus far since he replaced Diack as President in August. The final word, however, must be left for FIFA. None of the five Presidential candidates appear perfect ahead of February’s election, but it is vital the chosen one has the power to make the necessary changes. Strong punishments for those convicted of wrongdoing, either by FIFA or by the United States authorities, would also go some way to making a difference, at least in the eyes of the public.
Some of these aims may be realised, others won’t be. It is also likely that there will be fresh scandals: in the IAAF or FIFA, or in other bodies, which will take the Movement to new levels of crisis. What is sure, however, is that we will have another year of drama in an era of unparalleled excitement for those who cover sports politics.