Nick Butler ©ITG

It is fair to say that 2016 has not been a vintage year for sports administrators. Too old, too stuck in the past and too out of touch with the needs and desires of the modern world are among common gripes. And, for all their powerful rhetoric about youth and innovation shown through gestures like adding skateboarding and surfing to the Tokyo 2020 programme, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have been tarred with the same brush.

There are two notable exceptions and far more positive hopes for the future, however, in the freshly appointed chair and vice-chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission in Angela Ruggiero and Tony Estanguet. Both are young enough and recent enough graduates of the school of professional sport to accurately represent the youth of today far better than those administrators from yesteryear. But both also seem adroit enough to navigate the lobbies and corridors of sports politics and, due to their respective leadership roles within the Los Angeles and Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic bids, are poised to be increasingly prominent heading into 2017.

Estanguet always appears to me as a natural - oozing with Gallic charm and charisma. Ruggiero, on first meeting, appears slightly less so. She comes across as far more down-to-earth, for want of a better term, than many of the IOC officials you meet, who often seem more comfortable hobnobbing with diplomats and politicians than immersed in the world of sweat, trainers and real sport.

Over the last year, it is noticeable that the 36-year-old has evolved and grown more comfortable in debating and holding her own on issues ranging from the nuances of Russian doping to the strengths and weaknesses of America's Olympic credentials. But, and this is rare among sporting administrators, she so far seems to have done this without alienating too many people and making enemies.

"You have to accept that there is politics going on," she tells me. "But I believe in looking beyond that, finding strong ideas and reaching common ground."

Her composure is almost jarred soon after when I claim that most sporting bodies play lip service to the "athletes’ voice" while letting them play only the most minimal of roles.

She immediately points-out the athletes’ pressure led by the likes of Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold and Latvia’s Martins Dukurs which led to the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) stripping Sochi of their 2017 World Championships this month following the McLaren Report’s damning evidence of state-sponsored doping.

The pressure imposed by the likes of Lizzy Yarnold on the IBSF was cited as a good example of athlete power ©Getty Images
The pressure imposed by the likes of Lizzy Yarnold on the IBSF was cited as a good example of athlete power ©Getty Images

"I welcome the fact that athletes are saying what they think," she says. "This shows that they do have a voice. Every International Federation and National Federation is now listening to the athletes’ voice when making decisions.

"All these organisations benefit from listening to the athletes: whether on Rule 40, on eligibility issues, on doping or on anything else."

Finding a way for the Athletes’ Commission to express views more forcibly is her major aim of a, very short, 18 month tenure which began in August and is due to end next February after Pyeongchang 2018.

Ruggiero would not admit this, but there is certainly a view that, despite the good work done behind the scenes, her predecessor Claudia Bokel did not say enough in public to fully instill the confidence of all athletes.

A "high level" review of their strategy has already begun. "We want to evaluate our priorities so we can build a bold vision for the future and make that seat really count for every Olympic athlete we represent," she said.

Born in Panorama City, a suburb of Los Angeles, in January 1980, Ruggiero was barely a month old when the "Miracle on Ice" gold medal match took place between the United States and the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games. Fast forward 18 years, and she was making her Olympic bow as a defenseman while also a high school senior at Nagano 1998. She won a gold medal at the start of a 16-year career with the US national women’s ice hockey team.

This was followed by silver on home ice at Salt Lake City 2002, bronze at Turin 2006 and then another second-place finish at Vancouver 2010. She also claimed a stunning 10 medals at World Championship level, including gold in Sweden in 2005, China in 2008, Finland in 2009 and Switzerland in 2011. In Sweden, she was credited with the winning goal in the final against Canada.

Her career was a time of huge change in the sport, not least because her Olympic debut coincided with the first appearance by National Hockey League (NHL) players in the men's event. Soon after she won in Nagano, she was initially banned from playing in a local game near her Michigan home because it was a "male only" rink. An undercover news report soon after led to this rule being overturned, and already there were signs that the then-teenager was going to play a role off the ice as well as on it.

Angela Ruggiero (front left) pictured competing as a teenager en-route to winning a gold medal at Nagano 1998 ©Getty Images
Angela Ruggiero (front left) pictured competing as a teenager en-route to winning a gold medal at Nagano 1998 ©Getty Images

She spent six years after 1998 combining training with studies at Harvard University, from where she graduated in 2004 with a B.A. in Government. She later returned to Harvard to take a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at the same time as her IOC career began to take off between 2012 and 2014.

Between 2006 and 2007 she served as director of the New York Islanders’ Project Hope and Children's Foundation, aiming to expand the growth of ice hockey into China for young student athletes. More famously, during the same time period she starred in the sixth season of The Apprentice alongside another figure who has enjoyed a 2016 to remember in Donald Trump. Ruggiero, who also went to school with Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, was fired in the 10th week of the show but impressed enough to be subsequently offered a job, which she turned down on the grounds that she was prioritising preparations for her final Games in Vancouver.

Knowing Trump will be "useful" in light of the Los Angeles bid, Ruggiero smiles. She is chief strategy officer for the Californian effort and, as a member of sport’s most exclusive club, she will have vital access to members’ only bars and other lobbying cobwebs heading into the decisive September 13 vote in Lima.

"The most important thing I have learnt is about understanding what is important to the voters," she claims when I probe what she had gleaned from past IOC experience which has included acting as chair of the Coordination Commission for the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games. "It is about more than just the three weeks of the event. How do you help athletes and how do you leave a lasting impression?"

Olympic issues will clearly be the priority in 2017, but next month Ruggiero is due to unveil what appears to be her most serious business venture so far. Together with former National Football League (NFL) linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski and entrepreneur Joshua Walker, the trio are due to reveal a sports-focused technology market research and consultancy firm, the Sports Innovation Lab.

The Boston-based start-up was the reason for our interview and, according to Ruggiero, will be a "game-changer" for sports technology research .

Given how there is now so much new innovative technology across all aspects of sport, the company is aiming to compile more than 1,000 sports technology company profiles in what works, what does not and how and when products can be used. They will then work alongside sporting bodies, host cities, venues, sponsors, investors, and all manner of other stakeholders in order to form an encyclopedia of technological know-how, accessible to clients year round.

According to their website blurb, the company will use "data analysis to reveal compelling stories that mobilise global partnerships among startups, investment capital firms, and corporate influencers". They will "derive insights from a world-class network of international advisors across a wide range of industries and through strong partnerships with leading universities" and, "with a deep focus on the ever-changing world of sports technology and innovation"… will "showcase what is possible today so its clients move with clarity and confidence into the future".

Once you cut down on the business jargon, the concept begins to make sense.

One key aspect, for instance, involves assessing the best technology for athletes to use in order to assist their training. The Sports Innovation Lab is already in talks with several professional players' unions to create an event to showcase and create a competitive analysis across the latest sports technology companies, from activity and fitness tracking devices to advanced position tracking to predictive performance devices. "We want to help all stakeholders make more informed decisions when selecting technology, including the athlete who depends on technology to help them achieve their goals," Ruggiero explains. "It takes inches to make a big difference at Olympic elite level."

The Sports Innovation Lab is due to be officially unveiled in January 2017 ©Sports Innovation Lab
The Sports Innovation Lab is due to be officially unveiled in January 2017 ©Sports Innovation Lab

"Devices have now evolved far beyond the rudimentary heart rate monitors used in my playing days."

Another key part involves "smart venues" and how you can adapt them with the latest technology and environmental standards. This brings back memories for me of a tour I took around the Bolshoy Ice Dome during Sochi 2014, where I learnt for the first time how much chemistry and physics goes in to laying ice - or indeed, grass - in a stadium.

"When you are investing millions of dollars into big capital projects, you want to make sure you get it right: How best can you use the land and the concrete, as well as access and security issues? Our vision is to be the thought leader in the sports technology market so we can help any client understand how to leverage the most innovative companies around the world."

Innovative and technologically-savvy ways by which sponsors can immerse themselves and activate their investment in sport is a third component. A fourth, and most accessible-sounding to me, concerns "immersive media" and how to give spectators more choice when viewing sport.

An agreement has already been put into place with the NFL Players’ Association to pioneer an "athlete-driven business accelerator for innovative companies seeking to incorporate sports strategies to drive growth." More projects are due to be unveiled in January. At present, there appears a distinctly American-bias to their clientele, but they have far more international objectives. Indeed, when talking about ways to improve the coverage of sport on television, Ruggiero mentions a conversation she has had about the broadcasting of wrestling in Mongolia.

"Our goal is hyper-global," she adds. "Technology doesn’t have a language. Our goal is to be truly global in nature. Having a database of all information. We would like to ultimately give information to IFs and as many other sporting bodies as possible."

"Technology is at the forefront of the world today. So this is super-exciting and I think it is going to be a game-changer. You might think ‘why would I want to get involved in something like this’, but this is the reason. We want to invest into sport, into the Olympic bidding world and into teams themselves. The game is changing, but we want to be an objective source of information so anyone making an important decision, recommendation, or investment in sports technology has someone to turn to for a solution."

Change, and how global sport like so many other aspects is being affected, is the key theme of our interview.

Our conversation eventually meanders back to the Athletes’ Commission and to key issues expected to take up her time next year.

Angela Ruggiero (centre) alongside other Athletes' Commission members pictured during a November meeting in Lausanne ©Athletes' Hub/Twitter
Angela Ruggiero (centre) alongside other Athletes' Commission members pictured during a November meeting in Lausanne ©Athletes' Hub/Twitter

First and foremost, obviously, is doping.

"The IOC Athletes’ Commission fully agrees that accusations and discussions should have no place at pinnacle sports events, and that the current climate surrounding sport in Russia would have made it very hard for athletes to be at the centre if competing in a divisive setting," Ruggiero said in a statement after the IBSF verdict.

"I equally hope that all Russian authorities and individuals fully address the current issues and take all necessary actions to re-instill confidence in Russian sport.

"Only with these steps and commitment will celebrating and showcasing athletes’ performances be the focus, and competitions can take place in Russia again."

This comment was not made until after the IOC President had also expressed support. But Ruggiero claims the Commission will now make bolder public statements on issues, even if they differ from those of other sporting bodies or if there is not a unanimous agreement within the Commission.

One example of this could relate to Therepeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) to use otherwise-banned products for medical reasons, she said following Russian criticism of their use. Both the IOC medical and scientific director and the World Anti-Doping Agency have defended the current system in recent weeks, but wider concerns remain, with the "well-timed" use of substances which arguably have a performance-enhancing benefit by Team Sky rider Sir Bradley Wiggins currently causing particular ire in Britain.  

It is unlikely the Commission would reach a unanimous viewpoint on any drugs-related issue given how new members include Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, a fierce defender of Russia amid allegations of state-sponsored doping and the new head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. Ruggiero’s fellow 2010 inductee Adam Pengilly, the Briton who was the only IOC member to publicly oppose the IOC Executive Board stance on Russian doping during a vote of confidence earlier this year, is likely to sit on the other side of the fence.

Navigating a path between rival factions is likely to prove key.

Another key issue close to Ruggiero’s heart involves NHL participation at Pyeongchang 2018. It is "immensely important" they reach a deal to allow them to feature, she says, for the development of the global sport as well as the success of the South Korean Games itself.

"I’ve loved all of the work I have done for the last six years," she adds. "I will be a little bit sad when I leave but I would like to continue. My whole goal has been to propose a new strategy."

She might not have long left in the Olympic world but this "strategy" is going to be key over the next few months.

And if the Sports Innovation Lab proves successful, she could remain influential for far longer.