Liam Morgan

World Sailing currently stands alone in a sea of International Federations (IFs) who have been contemplating the effect of COVID-19 on their elections.

At the time of writing, sailing’s global governing body is the only IF, summer or winter, that has decided to hold its Presidential election virtually this year.

Of the nine other Summer Olympic bodies facing this particular coronavirus-related issue, four - those governing hockey, modern pentathlon, gymnastics and canoeing - have granted their respective Presidents an extension to their terms after postponing their electoral Congresses.

Four others, the International Triathlon Union, United World Wrestling (UWW), the International Fencing Federation (FIE) and the International Boxing Association – are yet to decide either way.

This is unlikely to be too significant for the UWW and the FIE, whose Presidents - respectively Nenad Lalovic and Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov - are set to be re-elected unopposed. A rubber-stamping exercise masked as a vote will be all that is required, which should allay any concerns over the best course of action for their Congresses.

The triumvirate of winter federations in a similar situation to their summer counterparts have all opted for a Congress postponement and the subsequent mandate extension for their Presidents.

Kim Andersen is facing at least two challengers in his bid to be re-elected President of World Sailing ©World Sailing
Kim Andersen is facing at least two challengers in his bid to be re-elected President of World Sailing ©World Sailing

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) told insidethegames several weeks ago that it was advising IFs and National Olympic Committees facing an election dilemma on a case-by-case basis and, initially, I thought that was a sensible idea.

On further reflection, could the IOC not have spearheaded a unanimous approach from Federations tackling this issue?

The IOC held a virtual Session last month which included an actual election - somewhat of a rarity for the membership these days - between four candidates for two places on the ruling Executive Board.

To oversee and conduct the vote, the IOC retained English-based company Lumi. While it is clear not every federation has the financial might of the IOC to pay for such services, perhaps the organisation could have pointed IFs in Lumi’s direction to help them hold their elections as planned this year.

World Sailing being the only one which seems set to choose the remote election path as it stands shows that, by and large, Federations have shown consensus by postponing their Congresses.

But for some, the delay to democracy could have been avoided, while others may feel that citing force majeure is an all too convenient way for the incumbent to retain power for a while longer.

World Sailing’s hands are also tied as it must have its election this year under its constitution. Ignoring the fact that plenty of IFs have been found to have disobeyed their own rules in recent years, this left the global body with little other option.

Yet the fact that it seems capable of staging a virtual election - set to be contested by incumbent Kim Andersen, Spaniard Gerardo Seeliger and at least one other - will understandably leave those to have opted for postponement scratching their heads. If they can do it, why can’t we?

The IOC held a virtual election for two places on its Executive Board last month ©IOC
The IOC held a virtual election for two places on its Executive Board last month ©IOC

World Sailing banning consultants from working with candidates in campaign - overly strict or necessary?

Speaking of World Sailing, the election rules for the vote, due to be held in November, were published late last month.

The regulations, essentially a code of conduct for those standing for President and vice-president, ban candidates from working with consultants and communications agencies during the campaign.

The document states candidates are "not permitted to receive marketing, public relations or professional campaign management assistance", marking a rare example of a Federation explicitly preventing consultancy companies and agencies from involvement in a Presidential campaign.

Typically they have been a staple of elections in the Olympic Movement, providing their candidates with public relations support while simultaneously attempting to smear a rival through the press and social media.

At first glance, the ban on consultants appears archaic, unnecessary and unfair, considering Andersen and Carlo Croce, the incumbent he ousted, were each able to enlist their services in the 2016 election.

The majority of IFs have freely allowed consultants to operate in their election campaigns, and it is difficult to recall any who have suffered as a result.

Consultants have been banned from working with candidates in the World Sailing Presidential election ©World Sailing
Consultants have been banned from working with candidates in the World Sailing Presidential election ©World Sailing

Perhaps World Sailing is frightened of further reputational damage, given the slew of negative headlines about the governing body in recent months, but ironically enforcing such a rule suggests a lack of transparency, hardly a positive for any organisation.

Attempting to ensure a level playing field could be a factor, seeing as not everyone can afford a consultancy company, who charge considerable amounts to run a candidate’s campaign.

Others have suggested privately that it protects the incumbent. In this instance, Andersen can campaign safe in the knowledge that he will not be publicly tarnished by those trying to remove him.

The rule also deprives consultancy companies, many of whom are facing challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, of vital income.  

While the exact motivation for introducing it is unclear, there is little doubt the election campaign, especially from a media perspective and even for the candidates themselves, will be worse off for it.