Nick Butler

Sporting authorities were no doubt hoping for a brief moment of respite last week after the end of the Olympic Games; a chance to recuperate and rally themselves for whatever fresh crisis is lurking around the corner in this most turbulent of years.

Instead, in the - admittedly rather long - time it took me to pack my suitcase after a month in Brazil, another three-pronged assault of fresh governance challenges had emerged. We had the Government of Kenya dissolving the National Olympic Committee due to alleged mismanagement in Rio. We had the authorities in Kuwait going a step further and appointing new officials in what is essentially a rival NOC. And in Ireland we had the Government convening an investigation into the NOC, led by European Olympic Committees President Patrick Hickey, chiefly focusing on an alleged ticketing scandal but also tackling all aspects of “corporate governance”.

A triple-bladed attack on the autonomy of the Olympic Movement? Or a case of National Governments belatedly clamping down on the ineptitude, unaccountability and, in some cases, possible corruption, of sporting bodies?

Kuwait, where Government forces are locked in a personal vendetta against members of the sporting hierarchy, appears a case of the former. Ireland, where Hickey remains in a notorious Rio de Janeiro prison as a ticketing scandal unfolds, is allegedly the latter. Kenya is the least obvious of the three, but responses so far belie a sports world less confident in its approach.

Taking a more proactive role to preserve independence, or “autonomy”, from meddling Governments has been a big aim of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) under Thomas Bach.

The German told the United Nations’ General Assembly in November 2013, barely two months after he had replaced Jacques Rogge as President, that Governments around the world must do more to preserve the autonomy of sporting organisations. In return, he claimed, sports bodies must better demonstrate that infuriating buzzword known as “good governance”.

He made similar comments time and time again over the next year and, in October 2014, a UN motion "supporting the independence and autonomy of sport as well as the mission of the IOC in leading the Olympic Movement", was adopted amid much fanfare and backslapping.

Patrick Hickey (left) had been the IOC member responsible for preserving autonomy ©Getty Images
Patrick Hickey (left) had been the IOC member responsible for preserving autonomy ©Getty Images

A few months earlier his lieutenant Hickey had been appointed the IOC delegate responsible for preserving autonomy. "Thomas Bach believes a big a problem in the Olympic Movement as doping and illegal gambling is autonomy," the Irishman told insidethegames editor Duncan Mackay when announcing his new role. “There are crisis' breaking out in NOCs, international federations, national federations and it's going to get worse. At the moment we are firefighting and the President believes that there is no-one senior enough in charge. He wants to get a firm grip on it because it is going to take a lot of work into the future. I will be acting directly for the President. My role will be going and sorting out these problems." 

“So you will effectively be an ‘autonomy tsar’?” pondered Mackay, possibly with a touch of irony. “Yes, that’s exactly what I’ll be,” cried an excited Hickey, and this moniker has stuck ever since.

The Irishman has since played a key role in responding to such flash-points in countries including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Kuwait, The Gambia and Mexico, among others. 

Clearly, sport must have a central authority at the helm as, if there was not, how could you maintain harmony of rules and conduct?

But it always appeared strange that the IOC, a private organisation subject to virtually no public scrutiny, should have the power to effectively lecture Governments how they should or should not behave. It was inevitable that questions would emerge over their political neutrality in making such decisions, and, most importantly, it seemed too easy to use “autonomy” as an excuse to justify a lack of scrutiny.

Inconsistencies quickly emerged. There were no concerns about Government interference in Belarus, Azerbaijan, Qatar and Turkmenistan, four countries in which the President of the country was also the head of the respective National Olympic Committee. Chinese Olympic Committee President Liu Peng is the closest thing China has to a Sports Minister, and there seems no significant separation there between sporting and Government bodies. The same could be said about Russia, and we will return there later. Hickey also had no qualms about awarding the first European Games to Baku despite the distinctly interfering role played by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, who even made his wife chair of the Organising Committee. 

No problems were expressed with clear Government interference at the inaugural European Games in Baku ©Getty Images
No problems were expressed with clear Government interference at the inaugural European Games in Baku ©Getty Images

“The same standards apply to everyone,” said Bach when addressing these alleged inconsistencies in March 2014. “There is no difference in our approach between considering these NOCs and others."

Unfortunately, and rather like with his more recent claims that “no organisation had provided more help for the [whistleblowing] Stepanovas than the IOC” and that Rio 2016 had been pulled-off without any public money, Bach was taking his audience for fools.

In 2015, we had major sporting scandals in FIFA and at the top of the International Association of Athletics Federations. Sport, many people claimed, was in need of greater regulation and interference, as it was proving incapable of governing itself. At October’s Play the Game 2015 Conference in Aarhus, Denmark, Canada’s IOC stalwart and critic Richard Pound duly described autonomy as an “outdated relic from an earlier era”.

But still the IOC pressed on and in November the autonomy tsar threatened to suspend Mexico from Rio 2016 after Alfredo Castillo, head of the country’s National Commission of Physical Culture and Sports, started poking his nose into possible wrongdoing within national federations.

This reaction already seemed behind the times considering how suspicious people now were of sporting corruption, and, after Castillo dismissed the Olympic Charter as an "invention created to avoid monitoring public money", a more diplomatic solution was found as Mexico was coerced back into the fold.

Fresh scandals this year have made things worse and the IOC’s much criticised response on Russian doping has undoubtedly eroded Government trust in many parts of the world. Nineteen European Sports Ministers, including in Hickey’s Ireland, even signalled their opposition by declaring their support for the contrary stance of the World Anti-Doping Agency earlier this month.

The arrest of Hickey in a police dawn raid on the Olympic Family Windsor Marapendi Hotel days later was about the most brazen assault on autonomy you could possibly get. If the allegations against the 71-year-old are proven, the autonomy tsar has provided the perfect reason why sport does not, after all, deserve its freedom.

To return to our other two latest episodes: Kuwait, a complex situation which can be broadly simplified as a personal dual between IOC bigwig Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah and his cousin, the Sports Minister Sheikh Salman Sabah Al-Salem Al-Homoud Al-Sabah, remains in a state of stand-off.

Kuwaiti shooter Fehaid Al-Deehani became the first ever Independent Olympic Athlete to win a gold medal at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Kuwaiti shooter Fehaid Al-Deehani became the first ever Independent Olympic Athlete to win a gold medal at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

Kenya’s situation is fascinating. Sports Minister Hassan Wario listed a catalogue of organisational problems which supposedly “damaged the morale of athletes” when justifying dissolving the NOC. Issues ranged from poor accommodation and travel arrangements to a peculiar scandal in which a coach seemingly borrowed the accreditation of an athlete in order to get a free lunch only to suffer the “bad luck” of being called for a drugs test. Athlete and public opinion seems largely on the Government's side.

But the response also appears a classic case of interference, and against an NOC headed by Kipchoge Keino, the man who received the Olympic Laurel in front of the eyes of the world at the Opening Ceremony, no less. In 2014, or even last year, you feel the Olympic Committee of Kenya would have been swiftly suspended as IOC pressure ramped up behind the scenes.

Now they seem less certain. “We have seen media reports and are currently gathering information in order to assess the situation,” an IOC spokesperson told us last week. The Association of National Olympic Committees, whose President is Sheikh Ahmad and first vice-president is/was Patrick Hickey, have also stayed quiet.

Later today, and after this article had been first published, they added: "The IOC is following the situation of the NOC of Kenya very closely. We are extremely concerned by the situation and recalls that the presumption of innocence should prevail in these circumstances. The IOC is currently investigating the situation, however will not accept any action or interference from Government authorities that would go against the basic principles and rules of the Olympic Charter."

So they are belatedly sticking to their guns, albeit in a slightly more hesitant way than before.

It is possible the slower response may have been due to a post Rio holiday or malaise. Yet it appears more likely they are adopting more of a wait and see approach to assess who is right and wrong before getting involved. Perhaps they no longer completely trust NOCs to merit their independence. Or do they no longer think they can justify their autonomy agenda internationally? The UN have indeed said little to defend sporting autonomy in recent months and their patience may be wearing thin.

And yet, on the other hand, is it not the Russian Government and Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko who are most to blame for the alleged “state sponsored” doping harming the reputation of the IOC more than any other? The Russian Olympic Committee, if you believe the IOC mantra, have been innocent bystanders affected by undue pressure from authorities. Many people think problems in Russia will never be resolved until Mutko has been removed from the picture. In Kazakhstan too, doping problems have been blamed on weak laws and “totally stupid” political interference. 

So perhaps sporting autonomy is important; just not in the self-serving and inconsistent way it has been carried out in recent years.