David Owen

The Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) is to be commended for its recent report on the future of global sport.

The 46-page document sets out and contextualises the many challenges confronting the sector trenchantly and mercifully devoid of sloganising and waffle, even if its prescriptions for the path ahead are not exactly earth-shattering.

There is the odd passage though that must have had readers steeped in Olympic history chuckling into their whisky tumblers.

One such occurs on page nine: "The long-term outcome of the project," it reads, "perhaps ambitiously, aims to culminate in a global conference and declaration to achieve a consensus on the status, function and role of the [International Sports Federations] IFs among inter-governmental organisations, public authorities, commercial entities and the Olympic and Sports Movement stakeholders".

IFs have been striving after such a definition for decades. 

This is what Thomi Keller, former President of the International Rowing Federation had to say on the subject in 1973, in the midst of the barnstorming, knock 'em dead speech in Bulgaria that established him as one of the big beasts of Cold War-era sports administration.

"The importance of sport in modern society requires cooperation from all organisations dealing with these problems," the towering former Swiss international oarsman pronounced.

"If this is to come about it will be necessary first of all to have a clear definition of our objectives and to ensure an appropriate distribution of our necessary tasks."

Keller later irritated International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch by asking if it would not be "desirable to have a clear definition" of what the Olympic Movement was.

To this, the artful Spaniard retorted that he "wondered in fact whether it would be a good idea, since the Olympic Movement changed so much".

As John Boulter, a shrewd former Adidas executive, once told me: "The whole organisation of sport is set up to create a tension between whoever is representing the IFs, the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and the IOC.

What could the future role be for the he Association of Summer Olympic International Federations? ©ASOIF
What could the future role be for the he Association of Summer Olympic International Federations? ©ASOIF

"There are three different groups trying to do not quite the same thing, but they all want money and they all have some justification for saying, 'We are the people on whom it all depends.'"

It is interesting that Boulter uses the phrase "whoever is representing the IFs", since the other passage I wanted to highlight from last week's report touches on just this subject.

It occurs on page 39 in a section entitled, "What role for ASOIF?"

It reads: "As IFs and governing bodies are increasingly challenged, the role of umbrella organisations such as ASOIF must also be amended and upgraded.

"A number of our contributors viewed it as ever more important to have an effective 'umbrella' organisation working to promote and defend IFs' collective interests given that no single IF can tackle these alone."

This must surely have had our Olympic history students howling into their whisky glasses, not out of disagreement, but because of the circumstances in which ASOIF and its slightly older Winter Olympic sports counterpart, the Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations, were created in the early 1980s.

The two bodies were conceived by Samaranch specifically to undermine another umbrella body of IFs - the General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) - which, under Keller's leadership, had by then become far too staunch a defender of IFs' collective interests for the new IOC President's liking.

Samaranch explained this with pristine clarity to the journalist-turned-historian David Miller for his biography, Olympic Revolution.

"We had the means to destroy [Keller], and did so," the Spaniard is quoted as saying.

"Without the television money, the proportion for the Olympic Federations coming from the Games, GAISF was finished.

"Keller wanted the Summer and Winter Games' finances amalgamated and then shared.

"I realised the solution was to split the Olympic Federations, summer and winter, into two associations.

"These were created in '82-'83 and they had the right to deal with the IOC on television income.

The summer and winter umbrella bodies were initially set-up to undermine GAISF ©GAISF
The summer and winter umbrella bodies were initially set-up to undermine GAISF ©GAISF

"This left GAISF without power."

This raises the question, if IFs need a body watching out for their collective interests - they plainly do - should it not be GAISF, which is still around albeit with a slightly modified nomenclature and was making great strides until cruelly deprived of the late Patrick Baumann's leadership, rather than ASOIF?

After all, if IFs can use, say, a dedicated central team passing on good advice about sensible digital approaches, why should Winter Olympic and non-Olympic sports federations require this any less than their Summer Olympic counterparts?

This question in turn sparks me to wonder whether the purpose of this broadly meritorious ASOIF initiative might be partly political, i.e to carve out a solid role for itself in the heavily disruption-prone sports environment - an environment in which television rights fees, ASOIF's original raison d’être, might be of dwindling importance in future.

It might be argued, moreover, that ASOIF's old rival GAISF - which this week announced a late and less-than-exhaustively-explained switch of host-city for the inaugural World Urban Games from El Segundo, the district of LA in which singer Robbie Williams' monkey left his wallet, to Budapest - is rather on the back foot at the moment.

So there you have it; an unworthy thought on which to end, perhaps, but I am afraid that’s me all over.

In any case, this is a space that I surmise will be well worth monitoring, as traditional sports bodies wrestle with the consequences, good and bad, of advancing digitalisation.