Nick Butler

As votes were being cast to elect the new President of SportAccord on Friday (April 22), leading candidate Patrick Baumann could be spotted trotting around the Swiss Tech Convention Centre, chatting to delegates while periodically taking phone calls.

Quite possibly, these concerned his day job as secretary general of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), where an ongoing European club versus country dispute is overshadowing preparations for Rio 2016.

“How are you feeling?” we enquired from across the lobby.

“Relaxed and confident,” was the cheerful reply.

Moments later, when the Swiss had been confirmed as having beaten Russian rival Anna Arzhanova by 55 votes to 25, he was asked to celebrate in front of the cameras. He put his arms in the air in apparent elation, but it came across more as mock-triumph rather than genuine passion.

The impression given was of a man who had simply got the job done, certainly not of someone who had achieved a longstanding objective, like Marius Vizer appeared when elected President in 2013 or Thomas Bach did when chosen for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) top job later that same year.

“His [Baumann’s] words assertively signalled his ambition to ensure SportAccord is a unified authority, capable of helping all its members in achieving their strategic objectives,” said sports consultancy JTA when naming the 48-year-old as their “Communicator of the Week” on their website, citing his quote that: "SportAccord can serve as the voice of sport".

The British firm added: “…One of Baumann's ace cards in securing the support of non-Olympic sports members is his communications skills, both on a personal level with Presidents of International Federations - and when addressing the wider international sports movement, especially during the final days of his campaign at SportAccord Convention in Lausanne.

"Through clear and assured messaging, and statesman-like conduct, Baumann convinced members that he is the right person to lead their organisation into a promising future following a turbulent past 12 months.”

Patrick Baumann celebrates after being elected President of SportAccord ©Getty Images
Patrick Baumann celebrates after being elected President of SportAccord ©Getty Images

Baumann is clearly a capable administrator, as well as an affable communicator and personality. But none of his supporters who we spoke to claimed to be enthused by his “clear and assured messaging” or by his “statesman-like conduct”.

He won, so far as we could see, for purely pragmatic reasons.

Arzhanova, the equally likeable 46-year-old President of the World Underwater Federation, was simply seen as too much of a risk for the future of SportAccord. Her nationality and perceived backing by Vizer was a concern for many. This was despite her appearing to have little link to any high-level Russia authority and there was certainly no outward show of support from Vizer.

Most significantly, she was perceived to be a concern for the Olympic Movement in comparison with an opponent who, as an IOC member, was far more “inside the club”.

Many voters from the non-Olympic sports who constitute 58 of the 89 SportAccord members believed that a victory for Arzhanova would result in the complete withdrawal of IOC support and a mass exodus by the Olympic Federations from the organisation.

A win for Baumann, conversely, would not revive the past glory of a body hovering between insignificance and extinction. But it would at least guarantee some sort of future; a platform on which to stabilise and build.

Unlike when Vizer was pushed from power last year following his fateful speech criticising the Bach and the Agenda 2020 reform process, the IOC did not appear to play a particularly prominent lobbying role this time around. They did not need to as their message was clear.

My colleague Philip Barker referred to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 in his Big Read on the IOC’s support for refugees yesterday, and, while crude, this seems a rather useful analogy here. The Hungarians, inspired by the death of Joseph Stalin and the apparent dawn of a new era, gradually increased their power and autonomy until - bang - they went too far and reality returned in the form of Soviet tanks sweeping through the streets of Budapest. Hungary remained independent thereafter, but it was a freedom dependent on the whims of their Soviet masters.

SportAccord’s relationship with the IOC now seems rather similar.

IOC President Thomas Bach addressed the Opening Ceremony of the SportAccord Convention ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach addressed the Opening Ceremony of the SportAccord Convention ©Getty Images

Almost all of the 23 members of the Association of Independent Members of Sport (AIMS) - the grouping who signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the IOC during the Convention - were thought to have voted for Baumann. An alliance with the IOC is, they believe, their best chance of growth and progress.

Many of Arzhanova’s supporters among the less ambitious Association of IOC Recognised Sports Federations (ARISF) members probably voted for her more as a means of protest, along with several disillusioned Olympic Federations, rather than due to a genuine expectation in her chances.

Several others fundamentally disagreed with a paid official from a specific International Federation, like Baumann, being elected to the top job. A valid point, although conflicts of interest are so common-place in the sports world that this seems more of a hindrance than a major concern.

Baumann was given a grilling after his election by journalists still smarting from being banned from the SportAccord General Assembly, despite the era of “transparency” we now supposedly live in and which SportAccord claim to represent. 

He was determined not to announce any specific plans or vision for the future, preferring instead to consult with the Council and the Federations to determine the best way to go forward: be it in appointing new employees, adding new member governing bodies, or in rolling out the responsibilities and events organised by SportAccord.

The IOC are the proverbial elephant in the room here in any decision. In a meeting last week of the 16 Federations interested in reviving the World Combat Games, the elephant was of a literal kind in the form of IOC sports director Kit McConnell and head of sport partnerships Jenny Mann, who were each present.

The message was clear: we will proceed only with the support and encouragement of the IOC, and no Olympic disciplines will be included. Talks have regressed since last year, and a broad "concept" rather than a specific host city is now being sought.

The World Combat Games, last held in Saint Petersburg in 2013, is one event that could be revived ©SportAccord
The World Combat Games, last held in Saint Petersburg in 2013, is one event that could be revived ©SportAccord

“I don’t want to sound rude, but what is the point of SportAccord?” said one journalist. “What do you want it to be, because a lot of people you talk to don’t really know what it is?”

This is a valid question. Jean-Christophe Rolland, President of the International Rowing Federation, represents one of four Summer Olympic sports to have withdrawn last year - along with athletics, golf and shooting. He was present as an observer during the General Assembly, but vowed afterwards only to return if he could see a tangible benefit for his sport.

“A place where 90-plus sports come together,” was Baumann’s reply. “To some extent, it is the voice of sport, bringing together diverse federations in an assembly of world sport. It is also a testing ground for innovation and trying out things - a force for good. At the end of the day, it is about making sure that all of us improve and learn from each other.”

Aside from multi-sport Games, possible anti-doping work and helping organising the SportAccord Convention - with which a merger appears to have been shelved in the short to medium term - this “debating…voice for sport” role was cited by many but is hard to fathom. Where would they find time to debate, for example, when they rattle through their General Assembly in two hours? There are no other meetings planned until at the IF Forum back in Lausanne in November.

Baumann was asked about many pressing issues in sport today, and was at first reluctant to offer opinions. ”I don’t have to have anything to say about that,” he answered when the subject of the World Anti-Doping Agency stripping the accreditation of the Beijing Laboratory was raised.

“Why not?” another riled journalist replied.

“You should have an opinion, you’re the President of SportAccord?”

“Athletes have the right to go to an Olympics and I don’t think it’s a matter of positioning a country versus the Olympics,” he responded, learning his lesson, when Russia’s potential athletics doping ban from Rio 2016 was raised.

“I think every athlete who has done his job properly and is a clean athlete deserves the right to go to the Olympics.”

Patrick Baumann, like his SportAccord Presidential rival Anna Arzhanova, has suggested that clean Russian track and field stars should be allowed to compete at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Patrick Baumann, like his SportAccord Presidential rival Anna Arzhanova, has suggested that clean Russian track and field stars should be allowed to compete at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

Baumann also had more to say when good governance in sporting bodies was raised, utilising one of Bach’s favourite mantras of “Change or be changed”.

“We have to be ready for change and we have to improve ourselves on a daily basis if we don’t want somebody else to change us,” he said. “It is a challenge for every single one of us. Every single Federation has to take this extremely seriously and take a hard look at how we do things so that we avoid as much as possible troubles and the negative titles in the press. That is not what sport needs."

Baumann, in short, is the right and only realistic person to take over for the time being. He is intelligent, personable and a good politician, and is realistic enough to realise that it will be a difficult and thankless task to resolve the differences between the members.

"I am going to try to build an atmosphere where people are not only thinking about divisions, but what can bring us all together in the sports movement," he said. "There are a lot of Federations who like to get something out of their membership of SportAccord, so I have to figure out how that can best be done."

But, in the words of one of the longest-standing observers of SportAccord - or GAISF (General Association of International Sports Federations) as it was previously known - International Federation of Poker head Patrick Nally, Baumann is likely to bring “stewardship rather than leadership”.

He will have far more in common with South Korea’s Un Yong Kim and Dutchman Hein Verbruggen, who collectively presided over an era of IOC-alignment from 1986 to 2013, than with Vizer and the more controversial founding GAISF-head Thomas Keller.

Time will tell whether this is what sport best needs at such a time of conflict.