Nick Butler

It was business as usual at the Lausanne Palace Hotel on Saturday (October 28) for a brainstorming session of the Olympic Summit of sporting powerbrokers.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach was chairing a meeting also attended by a coterie of IOC colleagues and sporting umbrella organisations as well as representatives from "leading" International Federations and National Olympic Committees. These spanned athletics, aquatics, gymnastics, ice hockey, ice skating, the United States, China and Russia. 

A meeting of the "usual suspects" quipped a dismissive senior IOC member Richard Pound last year. "The IOC and a couple of close friends," added my colleague Michael Pavitt yesterday.

As usual, the meeting was closed to the media and had no press opportunities save for a "communique" published at some stage afterwards.

I took my usual position in the lobby of the Palace and resolved to intercept as many attendees as possible on their way out; an ultimately fruitless strategy which prompted a spiral of virtually identical conversations.

"Hello, how are you?" I would say before receiving responses ranging from a polite "I have no option here but to smile and say hello" to the sort of over-the-top hugging and backslapping relished by a particular brand of sporting administrators. (I've learned that this does not mean they necessarily like you or, on occasions, know who you are).

I would then ask about the meeting at which point they would nervously respond "it was very good, but you will receive a press release soon", before scuttling off as quickly as possible. I even began receiving sympathetic looks from other observers in the lobby.

We eventually received our long-awaited "communique". It told us that the main topics had included Pyeongchang 2018, anti-doping and the ongoing Russia investigations and - somewhat bizarrely - esports. It was the latter which received most of the media attention afterwards, and, unlike a lot of people, I found myself understanding their feeling that it is better to take interest and attempt to shape the flourishing new industry rather than ignoring or opposing it.

The great and good of world sport attend an Olympic Summit in June 2016. No pictures have emerged of the latest meeting ©Getty Images
The great and good of world sport attend an Olympic Summit in June 2016. No pictures have emerged of the latest meeting ©Getty Images

But it did seem strange that esports was hogging the headlines rather than the more pressing issues of sporting governance, ethics and corruption.

"What corruption?" answered one attendee when I raised this, before - just as I was incredulously preparing to recite a list of cases - their face broke into a laugh and they muttered "got you there".

"It is not the remit of the Olympic Summit to discuss issues like this," I was told by another. "And, anyway, the independent review we published earlier this year concluded that our governance standards are good."

Hmm. The first excuse there seems very convenient given how the Olympic Summit has no formal existence in the Olympic Charter, but has nonetheless acted as a key forum for major decisions when convenient, such as when Russia was "sanctioned" before Rio 2016.

As for the IOC's good governance, I have discussed before in this column how the aforementioned report by a Lausanne-based business school raised many areas for improvement, all of which seem to have been ignored so far.

Of course, the "communique" probably bore little similarity to what was actually discussed. But, from what multiple people told me, governance was mentioned only briefly in passing during the opening remarks.

As for Russian doping, we now know that final decisions will be made at an Executive Board meeting between December 5 and 7.

I am told that a lot of their discussions centred around better communicating the work they are doing and soliciting more positive public reactions. It does not take a genius to conclude that this coverage will be shaped by the ultimate decision, and, while most people presume that it will amount to little more than a slap on the wrist, the unofficial line coming from the IOC administration is still, "you will be surprised by how strongly we will react".

We will see.

But I was struck about what a missed opportunity the Summit has been the next morning when I stumbled upon a video of a speech given last week by Richard McLaren at an International Sports Law conference in The Hague.

Richard McLaren painted a very different impression of sporting governance to the views held by those attending the Olympic Summit ©Getty Images
Richard McLaren painted a very different impression of sporting governance to the views held by those attending the Olympic Summit ©Getty Images

McLaren, the author of the famous/infamous report accusing thousands of Russian athletes of involvement in the tampering of urine samples, remains a divisive figure in Olympic circles.

At times last year, there was a clear attempt to discredit him and the findings of his report. Nowadays, they are avoiding doing this, but still point out over again how it was not in his remit to produce evidence strong enough to bring about a successful legal case. This is also true, and it is for this reason that the IOC seem to oppose the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) demand for Russia to apologise and admit to the findings of the McLaren Report before the Russian Anti-Doping Agency can be declared compliant once again.

In his speech, however, McLaren spoke an awful lot of sense.

This included in relation to Russia, about which he was predictably damning. There were simply "too many moving parts" for the doping programme to have been orchestrated purely by the former director of the Moscow Laboratory turned whistleblower, Grigory Rodchenkov, he said, adding that there have been a lot of "words" about subsequently reforming their anti-doping procedures, but rather less action.

He relented from commenting on the IOC investigations until they are finished but made an interesting point about the electronic records in the Moscow Laboratory which, potentially, would help reveal which samples were tampered with.

"None of these electronic records were made available to the IP [his report] or anyone else in the world," he said. 

"Although I do find occasionally cases when a sport is going forward with a case suddenly has records from a lab that were 'unattainable' because they were part of a criminal investigation in Russia."

Has the IOC demanded access to these records from the Russians?

McLaren was most interesting, however, when he addressed broader issues endemic across international sport.

On governance structures, he observed that although the legislative body - meaning the Congress or General Assembly - has ultimate final power, it "meets too infrequently" and is "too big and unwieldy to carry out its functions". This means that real and financial power is invariably in the hands of one person, the President, and his allies, and there is no system of internal checks and balances to restrain it. If other people do spot wrongdoing, he added, they are likely to turn a blind eye lest they risk losing the "volunteer"” lifestyle of five-star hotels and first-class air fares.

The example of the IAAF under Lamine Diack, left, was used to highlight sporting governance problems. His successor Sebastian Coe, right, attended the Olympic Summit chaired by Thomas Bach ©Getty Images
The example of the IAAF under Lamine Diack, left, was used to highlight sporting governance problems. His successor Sebastian Coe, right, attended the Olympic Summit chaired by Thomas Bach ©Getty Images

On Ethics Commissions, McLaren observed that "they’ve been used in many instances to put problems into, so they are out of sight and out of mind, and can’t be discussed because it is confidential. And then they die a natural death in the trash can". The IOC and its supposedly "ongoing" case against Kuwait's Olympic Summit attendee Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah is a classic example of this.

"Ethics Commissions need to be independent, vibrant, robust organisations that can effect change when it is required," McLaren concluded.

He added: "I see a complete lack of will from executive-type sporting organisations. Top people just don't have the will to deal with these problems. They don't want to talk about it and want to sweep it under the carpet and ignore them somehow."

The Olympic Summit was a perfect opportunity to prove these statements wrong.

What better occasion than a gathering of the great and good of world sport - FIFA President Gianni Infantino was the only major absentee as he was attending the Under-17 World Cup in India - to reach some sort of collective statement in addressing these problems which are challenging the very fabric of their industry?

Some sort of basic and proactive acknowledgement of challenges rather than pretending they do not exist?

The only governance reference at the Olympic Summit was a call for all sporting Athletes' Commissions to be elected rather than appointed, and even that appeared more a political dig at WADA.

They could also have acknowledged the recent doping allegations made in China, another Olympic powerhouse. They could have followed the lead of other industries ranging from Hollywood to Westminster and announced an immediate clampdown on sexual harassment of women by sports officials - that would certainly root out a few elderly administrators. 

Instead, it is left to self-professed IOC "bachbencher" Richard Peterkin to appear the voice of reason and admit that the organisation can appear "arrogant and aloof" on The Ticket radio programme in Australia over the weekend in comments which should be welcomed but will undoubtedly enrage the IOC leadership.

The Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly taking place this week here in Prague provides another opportunity for a meaningful response.

If not, it all makes you wonder if we would be better off abandoning the concept of sporting "autonomy" and letting Governments and regulators play a far closer role.