Nick Butler

Fencers, it seems, are all the rage in sports politics these days.

As well as International Olympic Committee (IOC) boss Thomas Bach, we also have a mass of Russian officials led by Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov and Stanislav Pozdnyakov - the favourite to be elected as Russian Olympic Committee President tomorrow. We can now add sabre swordsman Max Hartung, the world ranked number 10 and German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) Athletes’ Commission chair who is starting a crusade to rip up the fabric of Olympic administration.

Hartung’s panel last week sent an open letter to Bach in which they proposed radical changes to the current way by which the IOC distribute revenue and support athletes.

It began by criticising the infamous Rule 40.3 restrictions which stops athletes showcasing sponsors not directly affiliated with the IOC for the duration of an Olympic Games. It then moved on to more general attacks on the IOC’s funding model as athletes "participate negligibly in the marketing profits of the IOC, even though they provide their far-reaching image and personality rights".

The letter concluded by calling for 25 per cent of IOC revenues to go directly to athletes and another 10 per cent to be paid to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

It was left to the DOSB to respond about Rule 40, with the National Olympic Committee appearing to concede how there may be increasing flexibility for exceptions in the context of ongoing proceedings by the Federal Cartel Office in Germany.

Max Hartung pictured celebrating winning the European individual sabre title last year ©Getty Images
Max Hartung pictured celebrating winning the European individual sabre title last year ©Getty Images

But the IOC darted down the piste in a swift attempt to foil the revenues blow.

They focused on their favourite statistic of how they redistribute 90 per cent of their income back into the sports movement before deploying IOC Athletes’ Commission chair Kirsty Coventry to recount her personal story.

The seven-time Olympic swimming medallist, who left her native Zimbabwe when still a teenager to swim at Auburn University in United States, claimed her career was only possible through the support of Olympic Solidarity funding from the IOC.

“Without this support I could never have participated in the Olympic Games and for sure not to have won a gold medal,” she said. "And there I am only one example from many hundreds of athletes around the world, in particular in developing or small countries, and even for the refugee athletes.

"To put this solidarity model in question to put the universal participation in the Olympic Games in question and would be highly detrimental to the equality of chances for all athletes from around the world, no matter what their background or financial means."

Bach, who won Olympic team foil fencing gold at Montreal 1976 before being among the first athlete representatives on the IOC, soon joined the attack. He invited the German athletes to Lausanne so he could “discuss and explain” the solidarity model, as he claims to have done with Winter Olympians in the Athletes’ Village during Pyeongchang 2018.

"We talk about it for 20 minutes and then decide I was right,” English football manager Brian Clough famously said about disputes with players.

Bach appeared to channel his spirit here and the IOC do not seem prepared to concede any ground.

Hartung, though, does not give the impression of somebody who plans to roll over too easily.

“Finding a date will not be easy because the World Championships are in July in China, so it might be a while,” he told insidethegames. “But I will definitely go [meet with Bach.] 

“In a big bus with a lot of athletes.”

Kirsty Coventry benefited from Olympic Solidarity throughout her career ©Getty Images
Kirsty Coventry benefited from Olympic Solidarity throughout her career ©Getty Images

Hartung does not criticise the solidarity system but claims it does not help enough people.

“Kirsty was very fortunate to benefit,” he said. “I would assume she would wish more athletes to benefit as she did...I believe solidarity is a great concept. But I also believe it is important to offer the participants a fair deal for accepting the frozen period [of Rule 40]. Both can be achieved with the money made.”

There are two points here. Do the IOC currently support athletes enough? And how would an alternative model work?

My colleague David Owen attempted a breakdown last year of the IOC income of approximately $5.7 billion (£4.4 billion/€4.9 billion) received during the 2012 to 2016 Olympic cycle.

Over 30 per cent went to Olympic and Youth Olympic Games Organising Committees, he found, while almost 14 per cent went to International Federations (IFs), 11 per cent to NOCs - most of which goes towards Olympic Solidarity - and a further seven per cent to the United States Olympic Committee alone. Another 10.6 per cent was spent on broadcasting costs and almost 12 per cent on other matters including culture and heritage, the Olympic Channel and grants to WADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The remaining 11.1 per cent went to IOC central/operating costs, although this figure included culture and heritage spending in 2013 alone, which they count as part of the 90 per cent.

Olympic Solidarity funding has since risen slightly to over $500 million (£370 million/€423 million) for the 2017-2020 cycle of which all goes, in theory, either directly in support of athletes or indirectly through educational or social programmes, or funding to coaches.

Of course, the IOC will rightly argue that a lot of their other expenditure also assists athletes as there would be no Olympics if there were no Organising Committees and IFs to maintain them.

I have not really focused on the anti-doping element, a topic we have covered extensively elsewhere, but the IOC argue that the total sporting spending on anti-doping is as much as $300 million (£242 million/€279 million) each year. 

A graph showing increases in the IOC's Olympic Solidarity budget ©IOC
A graph showing increases in the IOC's Olympic Solidarity budget ©IOC

Hartung’s general view is that the theory is better than the reality.

“I cannot understand what happens to the funds when they go to a NOC or IF, just to trust that this money will really be spent on the sport and will not end up in the wrong bag, that's a bit much,” he told German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, before questioning the other 10 per cent. "Does the IOC really need so many millions? Does the IOC need a glass palace in Lausanne?"

The new headquarters currently being built in Vidy, for the record, is set to cost CHF160 million (£107 million/$159 million/€137 million), but up to 80 per cent of this total should be borrowed.

Another nugget buried deep within the IOC financial report for 2017 is that the salaries, short-term benefits and post-employment benefits of the “executive management” of the IOC amounts to $9.531 million (£7.16 million/€8.19 million).

I have not yet had the maths confirmed, but the IOC website suggests there are 20 different departments, each with a director, so the average total across the directors and director general is a not-too-shabby $454,857 (£341,600/€390,813).

Bach, the President, does not receive a salary but received expenses of $286,000 (£215,000/€245,000) in 2017 plus an annual amount of $109,000 (£82,000/€94,000) to cover Swiss income taxes.

I am not disputing that they deserve to be paid well, but it is interesting for purposes of comparison.

So how would Hartung change things?

“We have some good experience and ideas how athletes funding can be spent in Germany worked out with Stiftung Deutsche Sporthilfe, including scholarships, retirement funds and social security,” he told insidethegames.

“There are a lot of ideas but also including a participant lump sum for signing over your television and picture rights. It is important for us would be that the money reaches the athletes and does not dry up somewhere in big structures. There would be 100 per cent transparency and tracking the path of every dollar spent.”

He has a point on transparency, as how can we track what IFs and NOCs do with the money when many of them do not publish audited accounts?

Notice also how he did not call for prize money for medal winners but advocated a more egalitarian approach.

Hartung’s other point is that most Athletes’ Commissions today generally represent the organisations they belong to rather than actual competitors. The IOC athletes' panel claim they do act independently, but their activities, including an ongoing process to form a "Charter of Athlete Rights", never seem to challenge the status quo.

“Our goal is to implement a worldwide athletes representation that can function independent from federations or Governments influence,” he said. “I believe that is not the case today.”

The IOC Athletes' Commission, pictured meeting last year under former chair Angela Ruggiero, from left, are often criticised for being an IOC mouthpiece ©Athletes' Hub/Twitter
The IOC Athletes' Commission, pictured meeting last year under former chair Angela Ruggiero, from left, are often criticised for being an IOC mouthpiece ©Athletes' Hub/Twitter

I questioned whether many other athletes from outside Germany would be prepared to stick their heads above the parapet while competing and challenge the organisations that butter their bread?

“I believe by moving first we can encourage others,” Hartung replied. “It is important that athletes feel safe to speak about what is on their mind concerning all topics. If they did tragedies like in US Gymnastics eventually can be prevented or detected at an earlier stage. It is time athletes speak up united to change the sport system for the better.”

This point regarding gymnastics is also interesting, as many athletes either felt not prepared to speak up, or not listened to when they did. 

One caveat I would add concerns Major League Baseball, where I was told last week that the short doping suspensions awarded in comparison with WADA-affiliated bodies is partly due to negotiations with the powerful Players’ Union.

It could therefore be argued that athletes do not always make the best and most independent decisions.

However, the system of genuinely powerful athletes’ panels in professional sports leagues works well and Olympians certainly have a right to demand more.

Hartung will have his work cut out but looks determined to stop the IOC pushing his proposals off the piste.

Who would have guessed that a meeting between a foil and a sabre fencer from Germany could be among the most interesting of the year?