Liam Morgan ©ITG

The Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) General Assembly was in danger of being a somewhat understated affair from a news standpoint a few weeks before the annual meeting took place here in the Japanese capital.

But that was never going to be the case as soon as Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah announced his decision to temporarily stand aside from his roles and responsibilities at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after he was one of five people accused of forgery.

Before we had even touched down in the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic host city, it was clear the situation surrounding the prominent Kuwaiti powerbroker - who strongly denies wrongdoing - would dominate the discussions in the plush lobby of the General Assembly hotel.

Even the impending IOC decision on the crisis-hit International Boxing Association and the sport’s Olympic future was a footnote in the days leading up to the gathering of 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) from across the globe.

After insidethegames had exclusively revealed he had been personally told to do so by IOC President Thomas Bach at the start of the week, Sheikh Ahmad stepping down to fight the charges against him seemed inevitable.

While it was a case of when and not if, the circumstances surrounding his self-imposed sabbatical from an organisation he has led since he was among those supposedly behind a campaign to drive former President Mario Vázquez Raña out of the job in 2012 were unclear, both before and during the General Assembly.

Eventually, the Presidential election was postponed after Sheikh Ahmad made a triumphant return to the stage to plead for the General Assembly to accept his wish to stand aside.

But that came after a frankly farcical exchange on the first morning of the meeting, which some interpreted as an orchestrated demonstration of power by one of the Olympic Movement’s most influential figures.

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah announced his decision to temporarily stand aside from his roles and responsibilities at the IOC before he stepped down as ANOC President ©Getty Images
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah announced his decision to temporarily stand aside from his roles and responsibilities at the IOC before he stepped down as ANOC President ©Getty Images

Bach privately telling Sheikh Ahmad it was best if he took some time away from ANOC led to a public show of affection from the NOCs to their popular leader.

By having those talks with the 55-year-old Kuwaiti, Bach was hoping he would be able to make a tricky and uncomfortable go away quietly. Instead, it had the opposite effect on the ANOC membership.

One by one, several NOC representatives lined up to pledge their support for Sheikh Ahmad, with many insisting he should be re-elected immediately despite the latest set of accusations lingering over him.

Members of the Executive Council chimed in, too. Kevan Gosper’s words bordered on nauseating when he said ANOC "idolised" Sheikh Ahmad, while others spoke of how he was "one of the symbols of the Olympic Movement".

Another interesting element was the silence from those NOCs from the Western world; the likes of Britain, the United States and Canada - vocal when it suits them – refused to have their say. Instead, they left it to Guyana, the Central African Republic and Morocco. Their choice not to intervene spoke volumes.

Sheikh Ahmad had already exited stage left before this point but some thought the way in which the whole fiasco was conducted had his fingerprints all over it.

Perhaps perturbed by Bach’s insistence that he remove himself from the helm of ANOC, he wanted to highlight how this was his house and his turf. He wanted to show the IOC President and the administration he controls just how strong his power base within the NOCs is.

He may have also desired to put across his own displeasure at Bach himself. After all, the IOC chief has seemingly performed a rather large volte-face by turning his back on someone who yielded considerable influence in his elevation to the top job within the Olympic Movement five years ago.

IOC President Thomas Bach personally asked Sheikh to temporarily stand aside as head of the umbrella body last week ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach personally asked Sheikh to temporarily stand aside as head of the umbrella body last week ©Getty Images

Bach had the chance to have his say during a lengthy address to the General Assembly the following day. It was a typical speech, one which included claims such as how every organisation in the world was envious of the "stability" the IOC enjoys and featured a verbal attack against officials not elected by the sport movement who say they speak on behalf of athletes.

The IOC President then went on to insist Sheikh Ahmad’s decision to step down until his future is resolved was an example of good governance and was "taken on his own will and in the interest of all of us", ignoring the pressure he himself had put on the Kuwaiti to do so.

Numerous NOCs speaking out in defence of Sheikh Ahmad might not have looked great from a perception point of view – the forgery allegations represent the second time in just over a year that he has been accused of wrongdoing, though he has stressed his innocence in both cases - but, to the smaller countries in particular, his leadership is crucial.

As well as being ANOC President, he also chaired the Olympic Solidarity Commission before he temporarily stepped aside from the IOC. This group distributes millions to NOCs all over the world, money which is the lifeblood for the majority of those in the room at the General Assembly last week.

For many of them, he is the face of that cash and his departure leaves a gaping hole at the umbrella body. Olympic Solidarity will, of course, continue but it will be interesting to see the direction ANOC takes under interim President Robin Mitchell, who has so many hats he will never need to buy one.

Given Mitchell’s other positions within the Olympic Movement, it is unclear how much time he will be able to devote to ANOC.

The Fijian also sits on the IOC Executive Board, ANOC Council and WADA Foundation Board, while he has also replaced Sheikh Ahmad as Olympic Solidarity chairperson, all while juggling his role as head of the continental organisation for Oceania and his other commitments in that part of the world.

"A lot of change has come my way and we just have to deal with it," Mitchell told me here in the Japanese capital.

"I will try to link it [being acting ANOC President] with my travels for the IOC. If we have a meeting I will do ANOC at the same time."

Robin Mitchell has assumed the position of interim President in Sheikh Ahmad's absence ©Getty Images
Robin Mitchell has assumed the position of interim President in Sheikh Ahmad's absence ©Getty Images

One area Mitchell might look to improve is decision-making and governance. Aside from the shambolic way the circumstances surrounding the President and the scheduled election were handled, every other motion put forward to the General Assembly passed with applause and acclamation. Not one actual vote was held for anything.

Other decisions made in the "resolutions" read out at the end of the meeting went completely under the radar and were barely mentioned at all.

Spin doctors will tell you it is a sign of unanimity and consensus but, to those who take a sceptical view, it looks planned and scripted. In fact, some believe it is proof the leader in charge harnesses too much power as it shows members are reticent to go against the grain for fear of potential political ramifications.

In fairness, there were plenty of intelligent and well-thought out interventions – which are often lacking during IOC Sessions – from members who had genuine points to raise. One example came when the Finland and New Zealand NOCs highlighted the lack of gender equality on the newly-created ANOC Ethics Commission, which features six men and one woman.

It is also worth mentioning how that woman - Papua New Guinea’s Karo Lelai - only has a place on the panel as a result of her election as the new chairperson of the Athletes’ Commission. Had that person been a man, all seven members would have come from the same gender.

ANOC does deserve credit, however, for establishing a Gender Equality Commission - even if it was among the resolutions that passed us by.

Saint Lucian Olympic Committee secretary general Alfred Emmanuel was also on the money when he questioned why the General Assembly even needed to vote for the Ethics Commission members when the ruling Council had proposed seven candidates for seven positions.

But all the motions, rulings and decisions were overshadowed by what the future holds for ANOC and the Olympic Movement without their embattled President. 

It remains to be seen whether or not he will return but, whatever the outcome, you can be sure it will make headline news.