David Owen

What do Richard Peterkin, Barry Maister and Hayley Wickenheiser have in common?

Right, all three recently put their heads above the parapet in the name of governance reforms and/or stronger action for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - but what else?

Answer: none of them, almost certainly, has a long-term future as an IOC member.

Peterkin and Maister reach their retirement age of 70 next year; Wickenheiser, as an athlete-member, is entitled to only eight years in the normal run of things anyway. She has until 2022.

I highlight this not in any way to belittle their decision to speak out on behalf of what they doubtless see as the greater good of the most remarkable institution in world sport at a testing time in its history, but to underline the difficulty of achieving sustained momentum behind any move towards meaningful reform of this exclusive club.

Peterkin is a chartered accountant; Maister a former secondary school teacher. Both command considerable respect in international sports circles. Almost invariably, what they say seems to make a lot of sense.

Richard Peterkin - his shelf-life on the IOC is limited ©Getty Images
Richard Peterkin - his shelf-life on the IOC is limited ©Getty Images

However, to repeat, their remaining shelf-life as IOC members is severely limited.

Should their current push achieve any kind of traction, IOC leaders would have the option, should they so choose, of battening down the hatches and waiting for the storm to blow over when the two men make their exit in December 2018.

For the initiative to have bite, it will almost certainly be necessary for some IOC colleagues with decades on the body ahead of them to join the cause.

And there’s the rub: the intricate system of favour trading on which IOC decision-making has always been based renders this problematical.

The IOC leadership cannot get its own way no matter what; however, it wields enormous powers of patronage which, should it choose to deploy them, can generally be relied upon to help bring the IOC Session around to its way of thinking.

Often it does not need to lift a finger: think of it, if you were an IOC member from a country bidding for an Olympic event, or a sport keen to improve its position in the Olympic hierarchy, would you speak out in a manner that risked incurring the leadership’s displeasure?

This deterrent effect can begin to lose its power as individual IOC members near the end of the road.

But there is usually something that perceived rabble-rousers might be thought of as putting at risk.

While neither Peterkin nor Maister will have served the 10 years necessary to become honorary members, they could in theory benefit from a new patronage power that IOC President Thomas Bach’s pet Agenda 2020 project bestowed on the Executive Board: the capacity to extend a member’s term of office, in a few cases, by up to four years.

Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah will have spent over a half-century on the IOC if he remains until the age of 80 ©Getty Images
Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah will have spent over a half-century on the IOC if he remains until the age of 80 ©Getty Images

The imminent exit of these two fine members in 15 months’ time, prompts me to highlight a structural peculiarity of the IOC which has, I think, been most unfortunate: not all IOC members are created equal.

In recent times, there have been three separate classes: athlete-members, who as already stated serve generally for eight years; those elected since 1999, who retire – barring the unexpected – at 70; and those elected in 1999 or before, who can stay - again barring the unexpected – until they are 80.

I am not calling for mandatory retirement at 70: most organisations worth their salt benefit from a sprinkling of elder states(wo)men, and a number of the IOC’s present 70-somethings are among its most valued and valuable members.

But the effect of this quirk in the rules seems to me to have been disproportionate.

On the one hand, admirable post-1999ers such as Maister and Peterkin get a decade or so to make their mark, if they are lucky – IOC membership being a position of such prestige that it is often not conferred until your 50s or even 60s.

On the other, some of the pre-1999 brigade can look forward to extraordinarily long memberships.

Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah will, by my calculations, have clocked up more than half a century as an IOC member if he remains until the end of 2043, the year in which he turns 80. Nawal El Moutawakel, elected in 1998, might stay until 2042; Prince Albert of Monaco (1985), until 2038; Princess Nora of Liechtenstein (1984) until 2030; and so on.

Prince Albert of Monaco, an IOC member since 1985 ©Getty Images
Prince Albert of Monaco, an IOC member since 1985 ©Getty Images

I was amazed to find, on doing the maths, that 18 years on, no fewer than 34 current IOC members are pre-1999ers who may stay until they are 80. That is more than one-third of the total. Still.

Nor, even now, are their numbers set to dwindle all that quickly: I make it that by the end of the decade, there will still be 25.

Some, as I say, are among the IOC’s most distinguished and valuable members; but in an age of such rapid change, with profound questions being raised about sport’s future, that is simply too many old-timers.

As my colleague Nick Butler has reported, Maister is in the process of proposing what he calls “a range of 'good governance' practices specifically relating to the selection, management and education of IOC members” for the IOC Ethics Commission to consider.

I do not know what he will suggest, but given his track record, I have little doubt it will be sensible and well-thought-through: the quiet New Zealander is not a man to grandstand for the media.

For reasons I have tried to outline, I believe the initiative will have a much better chance of precipitating positive changes if it has the demonstrable support of other IOC members.

If Maister and Peterkin were Westminster Parliamentarians, they might table an early day motion to which other MPs could then append their signatures to indicate support.

I think Maister should consider circulating his proposals to IOC colleagues around the globe, starting with Peterkin and Wickenheiser, and asking them to sign up to the text before he submits it to Ethics Commission chair Ban Ki-moon.

With nationalism rampant and scepticism about the sports industry’s capacity to self-regulate seemingly on the rise once again, by getting this pup to fly he might make a significant contribution to saving the IOC from itself.

That would be quite some parting gift.