David Owen ©ITG

Switzerland has a privileged position in the world of sport. Its favourable tax rules and neutrality have helped to make it a remarkably popular location for international sports organisations. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), famously, has been headquartered in Lausanne since 1915. This has been a big factor in attracting scores of other sports bodies to the city and its environs. The Association of National Olympic Committees, the Global Association of International Sports Federations and the Court of Arbitration for Sport have all set up shop there.

Dozens of international sports federations (IFs) have been drawn to the Olympic capital too, while other prominent sports organisations are dotted around the country: FIFA, the world football governing body, is in Zurich; UEFA, the European football body, in Nyon; the International Ski Federation in Oberhofen; and so on.

This ought to afford the country of cow-bells and cuckoo clocks a significant economic opportunity.

Think of all the well-paid jobs this enviably recession-resistant sector can offer. Think too of the servicing needs – everything from office cleaning and catering to secure, high-quality IT systems. Moreover, sports decision-makers based in Switzerland have a big say in myriad other service and product procurement decisions. Some of these, such as the idea of awarding the 2024 and 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games at the same time, may have international ramifications.

But – and it is a significant ‘but’ - the Swiss nation – and the sports sector itself – can only make best use of the unique asset which this concentration of governing bodies and others represents if decision-makers are aware of a) what else is in the vicinity and b) how, with minimal fuss, to make contact with nearby specialists with expertise in the wide array of fields in which they need help from time to time, sometimes without even realising it.

Put the right people together and, as the cliché has it, two plus two may very often equal five.

Recently, a small, not-for-profit, part public-sector-funded start-up stepped into this big picture with the aim of helping to ensure a) that sports decision-makers and others do know what potentially useful expertise is present and available in the area, and b) that mutually-beneficial hook-ups take place as often as possible.

ThinkSport – whose day-to-day operations are focused for now on three people and a website – operates from the Maison du Sport International, not far from the old IOC headquarters at Vidy, a building populated by some of the sports bodies it aims to help.

Its four founding partners are the city of Lausanne, the canton of Vaud, the Swiss confederation and the IOC. According to the website, IOC director general Christophe De Kepper sits on the board of directors, along with Grégoire Junod, Lausanne’s Mayor. The city, the canton and the IOC have put in funding, but the network is also just starting to generate revenue from elsewhere.

Switzerland is the world's sports governance capital, and is home to the IOC ©Getty Images
Switzerland is the world's sports governance capital, and is home to the IOC ©Getty Images

It recently launched a membership structure priced at CHF600 (£485/$625/€525) or CHF1,200 (£973/$1,250/€1,050) and has attracted more than 50 members. "We need to find other revenue streams in a logical way, but where we keep our neutrality," says Anna Hellman, ThinkSport's director. "Because I think neutrality is our strength."

When I last encountered Hellman, she was executive director of SportAccord Convention and we discussed how she had been mapping the ash cloud thrown up by Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic volcano. Its widely chronicled eruption might have forced cancellation of the 2010 convention in Dubai. More recently, what she has been mapping are the contours of the impressive sports cluster whose epicentre is Vaud, but which also embraces the rest of the Swiss confederation.

"I was contacted by someone in the city and the canton who said, 'We have this idea and we have this feeling that we need to highlight and enhance much better this expertise that exists in this capital of sport,'" she says when I ask how she got involved in the ThinkSport venture.

An association, under the name Association Cluster Sport International, was created in March 2015. The website, under the catchier ThinkSport brand, launched in January 2016; when they checked 15 months later, Hellman and colleagues tallied 23,000 visitors to the site, of whom more than half were individuals. Statistics for the average length of visit were also encouraging.

Building the database necessary for effective performance has been a daunting, but rewarding task. Part of the issue is the sheer range of sectors which sports bodies periodically need to have dealings with. This is reflected, in turn, in the five sectors around which ThinkSport is organising its network: sport itself, education, international bodies (of which there are squillions in nearby Geneva), private business and the public sector. One struggles to think of any elements in the wider economy that might not be covered by one or other of these categories.

"All these five sectors touch sport in different ways,” Hellman explains. "Sport for us is everything from grass-roots to infrastructure in the city, to sustainability, health, elite, amateurs.

"We sit in the middle and we try to know as much as possible of what is going on in the different sectors around us. And we then have to be the facilitator: we have to be proactive in finding where there is a link and a synergy between the different sectors and the different companies or organisations.

"It was extremely important for us to say, 'Who is here, and how do we do an inventory?' We spend a lot of time within these five sectors to really understand what people are doing and who is doing it.

"We spend a lot of time with the four sectors outside sport explaining how does sport actually function and how it is structured when it comes to the federation side and the Olympic Movement. And on the sports side, we answer a lot of questions for them about whatever they may be looking for.

"It should not be seen as a regional or national project, but we need to have the time to do the inventory and then see how we connect with the outside world.

"We are really there to bring forward the expertise and experience that we can find in the region and in the country, and connect internationally.

The ThinkSport website lays out its goals ©ThinkSport
The ThinkSport website lays out its goals ©ThinkSport

"It is part of our role to say, 'This is what is happening in the region and in Switzerland that has something to do with sport. This is the expertise you can find in this area, so if you want to make use of it there are lots of things you could do at the same time as coming for a visit.'

"A lot of people do come here because of this concentration of sports organisations. There are other things they could take advantage of - if they know about them.

"This has never been done before: the mapping of all this intellectual expertise that you find around us.

"It is a little bit of Sherlock Holmes work in a way."

This detective work has already been rewarded with some noteworthy finds. When they asked local academic institutes in Vaud to make an inventory of laboratories where someone was working on a project related to sport in some way, the catalogue ran to about 100. "When we put this in front of sports bodies, they said they had no idea," Hellman says. Information on the work being done is now available on the ThinkSport website.

The local education sector has also provided details of the particular courses they offer which might be of interest to people working within sport.

"It is amazing to see how much you find that you had absolutely no idea about," Hellman concludes.

As an example of useful contacts which have been cemented following ThinkSport’s intervention, Hellman cites ties between the World Air Sports Federation (FAI) and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

"The FAI have a new discipline called drones," she says. "They indicated this was an area where they needed specialists and people who knew about the technology. I said, 'Do you know you are two kilometres away from EPFL, where they have a world-renowned centre for drones and related technology?'

"So that was a match for them: they didn't know that they were sitting next to them and that they were neighbours. They are now working with them."

One result of the contact is a three-day event - EPFL Drone Days - consisting of races, a conference and a robotics exhibition, from September 1 to 3.

ThinkSport's approach and philosophy, of course, raise all manner of questions about traditional work practices and how far they need adapting to an ever more extensively networked world.

"I am a strong believer that you cannot sit in your office, in your bubble today," says Hellman. "You need to work in the different sectors to have the input, insights and also get to the expertise to be able to attain the next level.

"It is clear for me: in any sector, you often try to find your own solution. You don't go to knowledge-sharing and you don't contact people. You say, 'I don’t know who I should contact and I don’t have time to look'.

The FAI were assisted with drone racing ©FAI
The FAI were assisted with drone racing ©FAI

"But I think a lot of rights-holders now seem to be thinking, 'How do we do this so that we can be more efficient and have more knowledge-sharing or use of the trials and errors of other people in similar fields in the past?' And I think this is not something specific to sport.

"But we are still not doing it enough because we don't have the time to say, 'Time out; let's take a step back and see how this is done in other sectors.

"If you are in sport, you look perhaps a lot to your own domain, but you don't go outside. Things are similar sometimes. It could be in your interest to exchange ideas."

 Other services offered by ThinkSport include a calendar of relevant events and a job notice-board.

"We are also trying to help some of these events by saying, 'Who would you like to come?' or 'Can we help to promote your event or to invite people?,'" Hellman explains. "Our aim is to make sure people mix and that they don't stay in silos."

ThinkSport has also been involved in a successful sport-related job fair. "We had 15 organisations, including FIFA, UEFA, IMG and Infront," Hellman said. "They came with their human resource departments and put forward 45 different positions. On the other side were six academic institutes and some of their masters students."

Nowhere can quite match Lausanne/Switzerland’s sports ecosystem. But I wonder whether Hellman has encountered other cities or regions which are trying a similar approach to the network being developed by ThinkSport.

The short answer is no. "We talk to a lot of cities and they say, 'What you do, we should be doing too because it would help us when we bid for events or other things,'" Hellman says, adding that it would be interesting for ThinkSport if the idea did spread, enabling it to "plug in with other cities".

She goes on: "This region has an exclusive situation with having all these federations and sports organisations and obviously the IOC here. I don't think that is something you would find elsewhere. But I think other cities have similar questions they should ask themselves. It would help them to be more proactive when they are taking decisions about any facet of physical activity in their region."

It will be interesting to monitor whether other public authorities do in time take steps to set up ThinkSport-type operations of their own.