David Owen

Financial crunches such as the one caused by coronavirus create opportunities for those willing and able to provide the commodity that is in short supply: funding.

In the commercial sports sector right now, this means private equity.

In the international sports movement, which for the most part cannot offer the sort of return on capital demanded by private equity, it appears to mean Russia and China.

I have written before about how the supply of funding, whether from direct personal donations or event fees, has helped Russia to maintain, or even extend, its influence in the international sports movement, in spite of the long-running Russian doping scandal.

With the election last month of Umar Kremlev as President of the International Boxing Association (AIBA), Russians are at the head of three of the 28 Summer Olympic International Federations (IFs) - more than any other country.

Now China, the nation scheduled to stage the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in just over a year’s time, appears to be upping its game.

In November, Quanhai Li, director-general of the Chinese National Olympic Sports Centre, was elected President of World Sailing, defeating the incumbent, Kim Andersen of Denmark, by 68 votes to 60 in a run-off.

Then last Monday, my insidethegames colleague Brian Oliver revealed that the world’s most populous nation will have a candidate in the race for the Presidency of the troubled International Weightlifting Federation (IWF). Namely, Zhou Jinqiang, President of the Chinese Weightlifting Association.

This election is scheduled for March.

Quanhai Li was elected World Sailing President last year ©World Sailing
Quanhai Li was elected World Sailing President last year ©World Sailing

As part of Li’s electoral platform, he asserted that through his "substantial business contacts around the world", he was "very confident to be in a position to bring valuable sponsorships and support to World Sailing".

It was a multi-faceted election with four contenders, and it would be wide of the mark to suggest that this statement was the decisive factor in Li’s victory, or anything like it.

But my impression after covering the race quite extensively is that the thought that his election could conceivably open the door to a wodge of Chinese corporate cash distinctly helped.

Bear in mind that World Sailing is financially-stretched, having reported a deficit for 2019 of just over £2.5 million ($3.4 million/€2.8 million), and with an expensive lease on its London offices which it is extremely keen to negotiate its way out of.

As I discovered last year, the IWF was at one point budgeting to spend a staggering 93 per cent of projected 2019 revenue on anti-doping.

So it was little surprise to read that Zhou, rather like the victorious Li, had highlighted his commercial successes and pledged to bring in new income streams from sponsorships, advertising and licensing.

It is worth pointing out that, while China has enjoyed some success at Olympic sailing, it is utterly dominant at weightlifting, having, as Oliver reported, won five gold medals at every Olympic Games this century.

The country could therefore be said to have a vested interest in doing everything it can to ensure that weightlifting retains its place in the Games.

If Zhou wins the late-March election, though it is far too early to assess his chances of pulling this off at present, that would take the number of Summer Olympic IFs with Russian or Chinese Presidents to five out of 28 - not far off 20 per cent.

Meng Suping was one of five five Chinese Olympic weightlifting champions at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Meng Suping was one of five five Chinese Olympic weightlifting champions at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

These five would be fencing, shooting, sailing, boxing and weightlifting.

What is more, this number would have risen from just two in the space of well under six months.

Since the start of 2020, moreover, the vice-president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has also been Chinese - Yang Yang, a double Olympic champion speed skater.

While others have cavilled at dues they are asked to pay to help keep the anti-doping show on the road, China is among a small number of Governments which chipped in additional contributions.

WADA’s 2019 annual report indicates that the Government of China provided grants of just under $1 million (£730,000/€820,000) in both 2018 and 2019.

Russia and China are among the most active and important of all sports nations; as such, it is perfectly right and proper that they should have a sprinkling of top administrative roles. 

But this recent run of success, especially in this past COVID-stressed year, is becoming really quite striking.

The Chinese Government provided the World Anti-Doping Agency with grants just shy of $1 million in 2018 and 2019 ©Getty Images
The Chinese Government provided the World Anti-Doping Agency with grants just shy of $1 million in 2018 and 2019 ©Getty Images

The question I think some countries, particularly in the liberal-leaning West which has traditionally supplied far more than its fair share of sports leaders, might ask themselves is this: if push comes to shove, can any individual from countries with Governments as authoritarian as Russia and China truly be expected to act independently?

If their answer is "No" or "That would be a big ask", then are they comfortable with so many prominent and prestigious sports postings falling into the hands of Chinese and Russian candidates?

If the answer to that is "No", then now might be a good time, with just about every international sports body suffering a COVID-related revenue hit, to try and persuade institutions in relatively wealthy liberal democracies to chip in the sort of disparate financial contributions or pledges that might reduce the need for, or appeal of, Chinese and Russian funding offers.

We are not talking about footballesque sums here; most Olympic IFs are relatively small organisations, in spite of their global role.

And, to be clear, I am only talking in this piece about legitimate contributions such as sponsorship deals, broadcasting contracts or help with development or governance costs, not brown-envelope back-handers.

Again: financial crunches create opportunities for those who take the trouble to think ahead and play their cards intelligently.