David Owen

It is quite a feat if you stop to think about it.

We are now six years out from the eruption of the Russian doping scandal, one of the most outrageous such episodes in sporting history, and yet this vast, mysterious, much misunderstood territory's pursuit of soft power through sport seems scarcely to have paused for breath.

This was underlined last week when Umar Kremlev was elected President of the International Boxing Association (AIBA).

This means Russians head up three of the 28 Summer Olympic International Sports Federations (IFs); a quick glance down the list confirms that this will soon be more than any other country.

Yet even this crude yardstick, I think, understates the true scope of Russian sway in the international sports movement.

Just off the top of my head, I could list another three or four Summer and Winter Olympic IFs where Russian influence seems, well, influential.

The country is also often quick off the mark when it comes to hosting sports competitions.

International Ice Hockey Federation President René Fasel recently confirmed that Russia had offered to host next year's World Championship in that relatively high-profile sport, now that serious concerns have been raised over Belarus co-hosting the event with Latvia as scheduled.   

And this after Moscow and Saint Petersburg staged the 2016 event.

Russia has long attempted to wield soft power in sport ©Getty Images
Russia has long attempted to wield soft power in sport ©Getty Images

Willingness to host, particularly when some broader strategic purpose might be furthered, seems also to have been a trait in Soviet days.

My scrutiny of International Rowing Federation (FISA) minutes from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s a few years ago suggested that Moscow was often prepared to offer its services for events that the federation was not finding straightforward to place - though one frequently suspected that this may have been part of a process of favour-trading playing out just under the surface. 

I suppose, indeed, that since the disintegration of Moscow's empire - the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics - did little to undermine the Kremlin's influence in the field of international sports, except perhaps in the very short term, it could be argued that there is scant reason to suppose a mere bagatelle like a doping scandal would do so either.

I must admit to being surprised when the 2019 edition of the Sports Political Power Index, a valuable biennial exercise conducted by the National Olympic Committee and Sports Confederation of Denmark (NOC Denmark), showed Russia edging down the rankings.

The country descended two places to fourth - behind France, Italy and Germany - in the European Power Index, and dropped five spots to seventh in the international ranking.

The NOC Denmark report ended with five conclusions, the second of which stated: "Despite the political turmoil over the state-sponsored doping scheme and its sanctions by the international sports community, Russia is still able to hang on to the top five in Europe and the top 10 in the international rankings.

"Sanctions, however, seem to have some effect as Russia have lost in excess of 20 points in the European and international rankings."

While that may be so, I would be frankly astonished if the country of Dostoevsky and Gagarin does not in future start to rise back up the standings.

There is little mystery about the chief weapon Moscow uses to retain its influence in what one might surmise as difficult circumstances.

It is money - even though the country does have a tradition of able sports administrators who well comprehend how to navigate the obscure committee systems which usually line the winding roads to power and influence.

If you doubt this, just consider the examples of the three current Russian Summer Olympic IF Presidents.

Fencing chief Alisher Usmanov, right, pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin ©Getty Images
Fencing chief Alisher Usmanov, right, pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin ©Getty Images

As I revealed on insidethegames last year, Alisher Usmanov at that time appeared to be on course to gift the International Fencing Federation (FIE) an eye-opening CHF80 million (£65.5 million/$89 million/€73 million) or so over about three Olympic cycles. 

One of the very first things Vladimir Lisin pledged after his election as President of the International Shooting Sport Federation in 2018 was to use $10 million (£7.3 million/€8.1 million) of his own money to establish a potentially game-changing development fund for the sport.

With AIBA, a particularly problem-plagued IF, newly-published financial statements suggest that Russian money is coming in via event fees.

In the year to end-June 2020, the biggest source of revenue - at CHF5.5 million (£4.6 million/$6.1 million/€5 million) - was "sport events".

The events in question are not stipulated, but the 2019 men's and women's World Championships must be the prime suspects and both were held in Russia, in Yekaterinburg and Ulan-Ude respectively.

An event fee, totalling CHF5 million (£4.15 million/$5.55 million/€4.55 million), for the Global Boxing Cup is also referenced.

According to Kremlev's election manifesto, this Cup is also set to take place in Russia in 2021.

"This is a new format of boxing competitions that will be held throughout a rather extended period (about two months) in 15 Russian cities," he wrote.

"The novelty of this event, firstly, lies in the fact that it will be based on a play-off competition system with direct knockouts. 

"Secondly and most importantly, there will be up to 48 teams from all the continents."

Russia hosted two boxing World Championships last year ©Getty Images
Russia hosted two boxing World Championships last year ©Getty Images

Event fees seem to have become an increasingly important source of revenue for a number of IFs in recent years.

I can certainly see the appeal of getting substantial, often upfront, payments, but I must admit the general phenomenon - and I am not singling out AIBA here - makes me uneasy.

Much better, in my opinion, to have low fees, plenty of bidders (hopefully), maximising the prospect of outstanding venues - and skin in the game, in the form of a revenue-share with the organising city/country.

If you attempt to extract elevated hosting fees, my hunch is you may end up with fewer bidders and, often, hosts with ulterior motives.

In this and many other respects, sport needs leaders prepared to take the long view.