Nick Butler

Just like in American politics, election season is upon us in sport, and lobby bars are becoming full of a familiar combination of plotting and campaigning as strategies and alliances are put into place.

The United States Presidential race is one of diversity so far, with Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and virtually all the other contenders each polar opposites in terms of outlook, background and supporters.

In sporting ballots, the problem is usually an opposite one of a lack of diversity; a homogenous bunch of ageing males standing for positions. This is a complaint which can certainly be made against the FIFA  candidates ahead of next week’s Presidential election, which takes place on February 26 in Zurich.

The need to appeal to every country in the world is an obvious reason for this, meaning you cannot afford to preach extreme opinions because they are bound to upset at least one influential voter. But the structure and culture of sport politics also contributes. Those that are well-known members of “the club” are more likely to succeed than any risky unknown.

It is interesting to apply the same logic to two other races unfolding here in Lillehammer over the last few days, namely the contests for the Presidency of the Pan American Sports Organization (PASO) and the International Skating Union (ISU).

Both organisations have been subject to the whims of one-man for an awfully long time. PASO had 40 years of rule by Mexico’s Mario Vázquez Raña until his death at the beginning of last year. Uruguay’s octogenarian Julio Maglione then took over but has repeatedly claimed to have no intention of standing at elections to be held at a yet-to-be-confirmed point later this year.

The ISU has been led since 1994 by Italy’s Ottavio Cinquanta, who was meant to stand down in 2014 before managing to wrangle an extra two years.

Sporting candidates are rarely as controversial as the likes of Donald Trump, but can prove just as divisive ©Getty Images
Sporting candidates are rarely as controversial as the likes of Donald Trump, but can prove just as divisive ©Getty Images

Three candidates have confirmed their intentions to stand for the top job at PASO, with two others widely expected to join them.

José Joaquín Puello, a 75-year-old neurosurgeon from the Dominican Republic, was the first to enter the fray, before being joined by Keith Joseph, general secretary of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Olympic Committee, and then Chilean Olympic Committee President Neven Ilic. The outstanding favourite, however, is Brazilian Olympic Committee and Rio 2016 boss Carlos Nuzman, who is yet to officially declare, while St Lucia’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Richard Peterkin is also lodging a mischievous, if unlikely, attempt.

No election date has been confirmed and it is still theoretically possible that one could be held before the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, although a date soon after appears far more likely.

What makes PASO arguably different from all the other continental federations is the lack of common ground between the 41 member nations and territories. What does Canada and the US have in common with Latin America, Portuguese-speaking Brazil and the tiny island nations that make up the Caribbean? It is thus very difficult to bring all these groups together, something made even harder by the sheer number of contenders.

Nuzman, currently the second vice-president, is seen as the favoured candidate of much of the PASO hierarchy, including interim boss Maglione. Joseph, the third vice-president who was born in Trinidad and Tobago but has also served as President of the Grenada Olympic Association before switching allegiances once again, is perhaps his strongest opponent but his chances of even securing the Caribbean vote are dented by the presence of Peterkin and Puello.

Ilic is the dark-horse and, at 53, the young whippersnapper of the quintet. He could also pick up votes in the Caribbean, although it remains to be seen how much success he will ultimately achieve.

Carlos Nuzman is widely considered the favourite to become PASO President, if he can negotiate the stern hurdle of Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Carlos Nuzman is widely considered the favourite to become PASO President, if he can negotiate the stern hurdle of Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

A potential sixth candidate, PASO first vice-president Ivar Sisniega, a former modern pentathlete and Sports Minister from Mexico, is now thought unlikely to stand because of doubts he would not be supported by the Mexican Olympic Committee.

At 57, Sisniega is not exactly young, but he is a genuine talent, and, when Maglione left last year’s Pan American Games in Toronto to attend the World Aquatics Championships in Kazan in his other capacity as International Swimming Federation head, he was a breath of fresh air to deal with as a journalist.

Two issues are currently adding to the tension, both concerning the proposed Extraordinary General Assembly due to take place in Brasília on May 4 and 5, where new statutes will be voted upon.

The first is the location for this meeting in the Brazilian capital, due to take place the day after the Rio 2016 Torch Relay is due to pass there. Most other bodies would not allow a prospective host city or Presidential contender to have a meeting in their own country so soon before a key election, and it thus gives Nuzman unprecedented and arguably unfair opportunities for wooing and impressing voters. It is possible the location could be moved, particularly if the Zika virus continues to intensify, but the decision is certainly creating ruptures.

The second concern relates to one of the Statute proposals, which, if passed, would mean all contenders for the PASO Presidency and other key positions would have to have served three years’ experience as a “top” National Olympic Committee (NOC) official “immediately preceding” a Presidential candidate’s nomination. This has been taken to mean being either President or secretary general of an NOC. If, as expected, this would come into force before the election, both Puello and Peterkin would be ruled out, despite being longstanding former Presidents of their respective NOCs.

This is virtually unprecedented within any sports organisation and is meeting fierce opposition. It does seem fairly preposterous to omit talented candidates for this reason and, if they do want to avoid people standing from the wilderness, surely they could at least stretch the criteria to include those already involved in PASO and the IOC. And if he did decide to stand, Sisniega would also be excluded if this rule is passed.

It is also thought that delaying the vote until after Rio 2016 would benefit Nuzman because he would ride the wave of a successful Olympic Games. Obviously, this is only true if Rio 2016 goes well. If it doesn’t, at 73, he could decide to no longer have anything to do with the sports world.

But it conforms with the view that the powers-that-be are in the Brazilian’s corner.

Detailed manifesto proposals are still to be heard, but a race which is currently about personalities, power-blocs and the intricacies of age-old rules have been set into motion. What is clear is that PASO is not an organisation which is currently innovative or accessible to young people, and it is vital the new President remedies this problem.

Ivar Sisniega (centre), pictured representing PASO at the Pan American Games in Toronto, is seen by many as the best possible President but now seems unlikely to stand ©Getty Images
Ivar Sisniega (centre), pictured representing PASO at the Pan American Games in Toronto, is seen by many as the best possible President but now seems unlikely to stand ©Getty Images

The ISU is another organisation not currently seen as inclusive as a similarly competitive dual begins to replace Cinquanta at the ISU Congress in Dubrovnik in Croatia from June 6 to 10.

The only candidate to have currently declared is French Ice Sports Federation (FFSG) President Didier Gailhaguet. Considering he served a three-year ban from the sport for involvement in the Salt Lake City 2002 corruption scandal, the sheer fact he is standing opens a whole new can of worms. Gailhaguet did not appeal the verdict but denies any wrongdoing and claims to have spent the last eight years rebuilding his reputation.

It is hard to ascertain how true this is, and the world of internet forums and those I have spoken to show some support but also plenty of criticism. When meeting him for an interview here, I was impressed with the 62-year-old. He was friendly, clearly passionate about the sport and restoring his and the ISU’s reputation. He was also open in addressing in detail every sceptical question I could muster.

The sheer fact he has served a suspension for corruption will taint him, however, and he will find it hard to gain the support of the IOC and other bodies desperate to avoid another sporting scandal. If successful, Gailhaguet will become the first figure-skating official to lead the ISU in 36 years. Speed skating is yet to confirm its single or multiple candidate, but the two names currently being mentioned are Dutchman Jan Dijkema, the ISU vice-president for speed skating, and Hungary’s ISU development coordinator, György Sallak.

Didier Gailhaguet's bid for the ISU Presidency is splitting opinion ©Getty Images
Didier Gailhaguet's bid for the ISU Presidency is splitting opinion ©Getty Images

Considering many believe none of the candidates are either young or appropriate enough, a compromise solution would involve letting one of these figures become President this year, then, because the next term is only the second two-year half of Cinquanta’s, positioning a new candidate by the time fresh elections are held for a four-year term in two years' time.

Whatever happens, both PASO and the ISU are clearly reaping the consequences of having had one dominant ruler for a generation. Rather like the British Monarchy, where 67-year-old Prince Charles is still waiting to succeed his 89-year-old mother, it would almost be better to skip those whose opportunity has never come and move on to a younger generation.

This is realistically impossible, however, and whatever change is brought about by the arrival of a new figurehead is likely to be incremental and gradual rather than wide-ranging and immediate. 

Because that is how sports politics works, and despite the reforms, the basic structure remains unchanged.