Nick Butler

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach was only present for two days of last week’s SportAccord Summit in Bangkok before dashing off to India. 

He still had time to make his influence felt, however, when chairing a joint meeting of the IOC Executive Board and the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF).

There were two key points on the agenda.

The first concerned strategies to confront the growing trait of countries boycotting sporting events hosted by political rivals or stopping certain nations come to theirs. Ukraine and Russia, Serbia and Kosovo, and Israel and much of the Islamic world are the three most obvious examples. The IOC urged all IFs to work together and use their collective diplomatic muscle but, if this doesn’t work, they will “show their teeth” and resort to sanctions, possibly including the non-awarding of events to a specific country.

The second involved Russian doping and a reminder that all IFs must follow-up individual disciplinary cases against athletes. Interestingly, though, Bach also proposed a second “collective” response which is to strip quota places from countries, including Russia, where the anti-doping system is deemed not good enough. The meeting took place in private, although nobody appeared particularly secretive about it and we eventually received a full recording.

I felt that Bach was unburdened by the diplomatic guard he displays in press conferences and sounded like a man who wanted to sort the issue out. If there was any double-meaning or secondary focus; then he hid it much better than usual and it was lost on me.

Thomas Bach spoke at a meeting attended by all 33 sports on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic programme ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach spoke at a meeting attended by all 33 sports on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic programme ©Getty Images

The IOC feel they did their bit in Pyeongchang and, while people were quick to point-out on social media that they could have done more - a topic we have already devoted many columns to - they are right to urge IFs to up their game. Some, like the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the quota-stripping pioneering International Weightlifting Federation acted strongly, even if this was partly because they had no choice as they were worst hit. Others, like the International Rowing Federation, have shown willingness to do so when the time is right. Too many others have looked for excuses to avoid tackling head-on an issue fraught with political complexity.

Bach’s words at the beginning of the joint meeting were prescient.

“At the end we should never forget that we are all measured by the weakest,” he said.

“We can have excellent benchmarks and most of you are working in an excellent way. But when it comes to the perception in the outside world and by people who do not go in depth and look at each organisation individually, the weakest chain is the one we are measured by. We have to make every effort there also we have to stand together so we do not have such weak chains.”

He did not mention it by name, but surely the International Biathlon Union (IBU) was foremost in his thoughts here. Anders Besseberg and Nicole Resch, the now-ex IBU President and secretary general, are at the centre of a police investigation into the possible accepting of money to ignore Russian doping problems and grant a generally favourable stance to the world’s largest country. Both deny wrongdoing.

Could this dissuade cities mooting bids for the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics? It certainly provides ammunition for opponents, if nothing else.

I did not really know either personally, as they made it their mission to avoid the media, but I heard the same thing over and over last week.

Anders Besseberg was an elephant in the room at the SportAccord Summit ©Getty Images
Anders Besseberg was an elephant in the room at the SportAccord Summit ©Getty Images

Most said that Resch was not somebody you would expect to get caught-up in this sort of mess. Besseberg, on the other hand and to be blunt, came across as an absolute dinosaur. The Norwegian, who has been IBU President since 1992, was well-known to enjoy paid hunting trips in Russia and, according to German media who cite a World Anti-Doping Agency report, Russian-financed prostitutes. There are all sorts of other rumours doing the rounds about him, most of which I cannot print and, while he was praised for the marketing overhaul of biathlon under his watch, virtually everyone agrees he should have been moved on a while ago.

So why was he able to stay?

We have delved before into the unique concept of a sporting President and how they are often far more powerful than a “first-among-equals”-style chair prevalent in business and many political systems. This is not necessarily a bad thing. They are, after-all, the public face of the sport so are accountable for all decisions while they are also subject to regular elections to prove their popularity.

A strong President can be preferable to a weak one as this often means that real power is held by an unelected and unaccountable executive director operating in the shadows - cough, International Swimming Federation, cough - and in the conservative world of sport, they often need a few terms to make a real difference.

At the same time, the recent past has shown that a Presidency enjoying absolute domination can end in disaster. The International Boxing Association in recent times, for instance, or the Lamine Diack-era IAAF. 

How can we be confident that there aren’t more cases yet to be uncovered? Was Russia really likely to have targeted just two federations?

ASOIF published the latest part of their governance review into each member federation last week. Trouble is, the study seems largely dependent on theory rather than practice and they are steadfastly refusing to publish which sports have done well and which have not.

They have their reasons for doing this, as they believe it ensures more honest and willing answers, but you have to wonder if this incremental and behind-closed-doors reform is enough?

A good governance survey is being pushed by ASOIF but the rankings of IFs are not being published ©Getty Images
A good governance survey is being pushed by ASOIF but the rankings of IFs are not being published ©Getty Images

The IFs are, in the large part, extremely effective in running their own sports. It is no secret that they effectively saved the Rio Olympics from incompetent local organisation and their willingness to criticise aspects of Tokyo 2020 preparations last weeks shows how they are not prepared to stand idly by in the future. The IOC must make use of this expertise.

Interestingly, several IFs were grumbling about the impact of the IOC’s well-intentioned “New Norm” reforms which are supposedly being used by Tokyo to justify cuts in areas considered vital for a successful competition.

Many IFs have taken steps to open-up and improve their communications, branding and transparency in recent years, but huge discrepancies remain.

The ASOIF review showed, though, that seven of the 28 full sports still did not publish any sort of audited accounts last year. Some have hired the same few PR companies to professionalise their “comms” and, while this can help, you often get a more honest and useful response at those IFs where you can go straight to the chief executive or comparable figure.

ASOIF have repeatedly urged IFs to introduce term limits but are either unwilling or unable to coerce sports into doing this.

The International Modern Pentathlon Union is generally considered one of the worst and most backward IFs in terms of communication and innovation. It cannot be a coincidence that their President Klaus Schormann has been there since 1992. Surely it is time for a new hand at the tiller, particularly given the well-known figures they have in their ranks in the likes of Juan Antonio Samaranch, Joël Bouzou and Ivar Sisniega?

Non-Olympic sports are also a mixed bag and, having attended the Association of IOC Recognised International Federations General Assembly last week, I think their head Raffaele Chiulli needs to really step-up his chairing of meetings if he is going to do a good job in replacing Patrick Baumann as Global Association of Summer Olympic International Federations President in 2020, as he is scheduled to do under the new rotating system. The official, who also heads the International Union of Powerboating, appeared barely in control at all at times and there were several concerns raised by others regarding his openness in decision making.

And then we have the winter sports.

The Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations General Assembly was closed the media in Bangkok ©SportAccord
The Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations General Assembly was closed the media in Bangkok ©SportAccord

It was no coincidence theirs was the only General Assembly of any of the umbrella groups which make up GAISF which was closed to the media. A row shrouded in intrigue took place over who to nominate as winter representative on the IOC President Gian-Franco Kasper, who is now too old. Ivo Ferriani, the President of the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, was proposed after an International Ice Hockey Federation-led motion to delay the vote until after Presidential elections later this year narrowly failed by four votes to three.

Ferriani is now bound to use this position as a major part of his campaign for re-election. At least he could face opposition. Kasper is expected to be confirmed tomorrow as the only candidate for yet another term at the International Ski Federation. The 74-year-old was first elected in 1998.

Surely it would have been a good look for skiing and sport in general if he had stepped-down in favour of his energetic secretary general Sarah Lewis, who seems to largely run the organisation operationally and politically anyway?

Only two of the 40 federations currently on the Olympic programme have a female leader: Marisol Casado at the International Triathlon Union and Kate Caithness at the World Curling Federation.

The IOC are by no means perfect, as we spend a lot of our time attempting to point-out.

But Bach is right to urge IFs to step up their game, on anti-doping as well as many other issues, because their problems can affect the whole reputation of sport.