Nick Butler

I sometimes wish Richard “Dick” Pound would stop sitting on the fence and refrain from giving his opinion on anything and everything.

Said absolutely nobody... ever.

The veteran Canadian was in fine fettle yesterday during a panel discussion at the Play the Game conference in Eindhoven. He delivered some usual softly spoken but deliberately calculated barbs against the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for “fumbling the ball, pretty seriously” before Rio 2016 and urged its President Thomas Bach not to “stuff it up” when they eventually make a decision on Russian doping sanctions in eight days’ time.

This was just a loose warm-up for his main course assault on the structure of world governing bodies.

"International Sports Federations feel pain in only one place...and that’s their wallets," Pound remarked before turning his attention to their supposed anti-doping apathy.

“The problem is that you’ve got a whole bunch of people out there who don’t want it to work, and, if we’re in the business of being provocative [when is he not?], I would lay most of that blame at the foot of the International Federations," he said.

“The prime directive in most IFs is not ‘how can we advance the sport for benefit of President and athletes’? It’s, ‘How can I get re-elected as President?’ And you don’t get re-elected as President if you start to try and change things…so the result is ‘denial, denial, denial’.

"Our view, I think, is that every time you catch a cheater and take him or her out of the competition, it is a small victory leading to others. The opposite [view] is to say: ‘Oh, well, it’s a bad reputational risk if we say there’s any doping in my sport, it might affect sponsors, television rights or people’s perception of me as the President'.”

Richard Pound has been on predictably provocative form at the Play the Game conference ©Twitter
Richard Pound has been on predictably provocative form at the Play the Game conference ©Twitter

Is this fair?

There are certainly some IF Presidents who appear to have absolutely no genuine interest in prioritising clean sport and others who have only begun to take it seriously when they have no choice.

There are others who do care, however, and the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations have made some recent progress in coaxing governance and anti-doping improvements out of the lax ones.

But Pound is right that the underlying structure of sports politics does not encourage such an approach.

I don’t conform with the view held by many Olympic figures that the 75-year-old is simply an attention seeking rent-a-quote who can’t bear to see his name out of the headlines. He is a weary and battle-hardened administrator who realises that he is in a virtually unique position to come out publicly and say what many believe needs to be said without fear of effective reprisal.

But it is also true that, because he has no role other than on the back-benches, he has no need to play politics.

Others do not have that luxury…even if they would like to.

Take Brian Cookson, for example, whose four years pressing the peddles of the International Cycling Union included effective reforms improving a body tainted by the Lance Armstrong-years. He was then voted out, however, because his French opponent David Lappartient offered a better political option to the sport’s electorate.

Brian Cookson introduced much-needed change at the International Cycling Union but was still not politically strong enough to be re-elected ©Getty Images
Brian Cookson introduced much-needed change at the International Cycling Union but was still not politically strong enough to be re-elected ©Getty Images

In real politics you have to appeal to million of ordinary voters, but in sport it is usually about the whims of under 100 grey men or women - mainly men - in suits. And this includes those from many parts of the world who have different priorities and standards from those of us in the West. So I am not saying Pound is wrong or the sporting system is right, but it is a bit more complex than something that could be changed in a heartbeat.

As Pound pointed-out, the best organisation to bring about real change across world sport is the IOC and I am yet to see them really perform anything more than lip-service so far under Bach. They have still made absolutely no progress towards reforming their woefully inadequate ethics system, as far as we can see, which sets a precedent for those of most other IFs and sporting bodies.

At the European Olympic Committees (EOC) General Assembly in Zagreb last week, the IOC warned about the future of the existing "European sports model" as expectations grow that the European Union could soon deliver a landmark ruling granting more power to "rival" leagues and bodies.

"We are deeply concerned about certain interpretations of the European treaty and EU competition law with regard to sports,” Bach said. “If everything in Europe is looked at only from a business perspective, the social value of sport is lost - sport is about so much more than business."

Thomas Bach, left, lobbied the European Union last week to safeguard the existing sporting structure ©IOC
Thomas Bach, left, lobbied the European Union last week to safeguard the existing sporting structure ©IOC

This is a complex issue which it would be best to delve into in more detail at another time. But you do get the instinctive feeling that the IOC are more worried about a loss of power, money and influence than the “social value of sport”.

Elections for the EOC Executive Committee in the Croatian capital provided a perfect example of sports politics in action.

I sat in a quiet corner of the Westin Hotel bar on the eve of the vote and observed as the likes of Frenchman Jean-Michel Brun and Greece’s Spyros Capralos schmoozed and courted the great and good of European sport. Britain’s Bill Sweeney seemed far less comfortable with all the hugging and back-slapping but had-a-go nonetheless - egged on by his more lobby-savvy British Olympic Association director, Jan Paterson. Germany’s candidate Gudrun Doll-Tepper was nowhere to be seen.

Fast forward 24 hours and Capralos and Brun received a whopping 41 and 40 votes. Sweeney was also elected, albeit with a more modest 29, while Doll-Tepper missed out and was criticised for her poor campaigning effort after only mustering 21.

You have to play this political game if you want to succeed in international sports administration.

An even better example came on the final night of the General Assembly when a Croatian band was doing a good impression of a Rolling Stones tribute act at a farewell reception. As the wine flowed, delegates began taking to the stage to sing themselves before Faroe Islands official Jon Hestoy spotted an opportunity.

The Faroe Islands are only an “observer” EOC member and had been reduced to sitting on the benches at the back with media and other such slime. Hestoy grabbed the microphone and, after a mixed attempt at stand-up comedy, performed a surprisingly tuneful rendition of Irish song Molly Malone. He later admitted that he had deliberately made a fool of himself to stand-out so, if in some din and distant future the question of Faroe Islands recognition is ever on the table, people may remember him and be more supportive.

It is absurd and arguably wrong that this is a clever strategy, but it is the reality - this is how sport functions.

Russia used to play this game better than most. Vladimir Putin, unlike his ex-American counterpart Barack Obama, understood how the IOC world worked and his performance at the 2007 IOC Session in Guatemala, where he surprised everyone by speaking in English, was considered a masterclass of Presidential bidding. He also made an effort to congratulate and build relations with Bach following his election shortly before Sochi 2014 and for the next 18 months after.

Bach would deny it, of course, but many still argue that their relationship affected the IOC stance on the Russian doping scandal when it first arose. 

In recent weeks, the Russian rhetoric and language has completely changed. All officials are now coming out one after another to bash the IOC before a December 5 decision considered increasingly likely to go against them. Attacks by ex-Sochi 2014 chief Dmitry Chernyshenko and Sports Minister turned Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko struck a nerve as did the death threats issue by Russian Olympic Committee Honorary President Leonid Tyagachev - even if the IOC refused to criticise him publicly.

Vladimir Putin pictured speaking in favour of Sochi at the 2007 IOC Session in Guatemala ©Getty Images
Vladimir Putin pictured speaking in favour of Sochi at the 2007 IOC Session in Guatemala ©Getty Images

There are many reasons pushing the IOC one way or another on Russia and the evidence - solidified by the World Anti-Doping Agency obtaining a treasure-trove of leaked Moscow Laboratory data in recent weeks - is certainly significant.

Yet Russia’s increasingly hysterical response and unwillingness to continue playing sports politics is similarly crucial. Instead of talking and negotiating with the IOC to find a mutually beneficial solution, as they initially were, they have resorted to bombastic vitriol and left Bach almost with no option but a strong sanction in order to protect his and the IOC's reputation.

I still suspect Bach is playing a game and has another trick up his sleeve, hopefully not of the the “stuffing it up” variety. But the view of most observers now is that Russian athletes will be made to compete neutrally at Pyeongchang and, if they then decide to boycott, the IOC will rightly say that this was their decision taken against the interests of athletes.

Pound is therefore certainly right that the underlying system of world governing bodies and sports politics requires sweeping changes.

But some strong leadership by the IOC to encourage gradual change could also make a difference in the shorter term.