Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Unlike so many other recent International Federation elections, the one which saw Morinari Watanabe re-elected as President of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) last month involved a proper contest. 

The incumbent retained his position for a further four years in defeating Azerbaijan's Farid Gayibov by 81 votes to 47. Which was far closer than the 2016 election vote, when the Japanese businessman succeeded Italy’s grand old man of the sport, Bruno Grandi, after securing 100 of the 119 available votes in his contest against Georges Guelzec, then a 69-year-old President of the European Gymnastics Federation. 

But still not that close...

Watanabe’s star has risen steadily over the last five years. He became an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member in 2018 - thus ticking one of the big boxes in terms of his manifesto promises. He has also become a member of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) Council and was added to the Tokyo 2020 Executive Board.

Additionally, he was chosen for the critical role as chair of the Boxing Task Force for Tokyo 2020 following the huge and persistent issues of poor governance and corruption laid bare within the old International Boxing Association set-up.

The role was concluded successfully - as was the Olympic boxing competition. What next, you wonder, for this model of sporting administrators? The IOC Presidency perhaps? Is he interested?

Well, insidethegames asked - and encountered a diplomatic radio silence.

That said - or rather, not said - the 62-year-old who spent seven years as general secretary of the Japan Gymnastics Association is expansive on the subject of the changes which he promised when he took up his role.

Morinari Watanabe, an increasingly influential figure in the Olympic Movement, was recently re-elected as President of the FIG ©Getty Images
Morinari Watanabe, an increasingly influential figure in the Olympic Movement, was recently re-elected as President of the FIG ©Getty Images

Two years into his Presidency, Watanabe made a big effort to create a new "community" within gymnastics by annexing a practice that some regard as sport but others regard as akin to a philosophy, namely parkour.

Parkour derives from the phrase "parcours du combattant" and has been developed from techniques imparted to military personnel in order to help them get from one point to another in difficult terrain without using equipment.

A working definition of the discipline describes "seeing one's environment in a new way and imagining the potential for navigating it by movement around, across, through, over and under its features."

The 2018 FIG Congress embraced the annexation - but the attempted takeover has been energetically resisted by the protest group set up to represent parkour's grassroots, namely Parkour Earth.

Parkour Earth's chief executive Eugene Minogue maintained that the discipline had "no connection to nor lineage from gymnastics" and noted with regret that the IOC has previously allowed older, established sports bodies to take over new events.

The traceurs, as original protagonists of parkour have become known, were and are deeply offended at Watanabe's "land grab". "We Are Not Gymnastics" has become a popular rallying slogan across social media.

So, further questions for Watanabe. Does he believe parkour - supposedly poised to join the wave of cool new Olympic events such as skateboarding and sport climbing - will eventually become an Olympic discipline? Was the IOC rejection of parkour for the Paris 2024 Games influenced by the unresolved dispute with Parkour Earth? Meanwhile what are his hopes for the first FIG World Championships in parkour which are due to be held in Hiroshima from March 25 to 27?

"I believe parkour has the potential to become a great sport," Watanabe told insidethegames. "I've already seen that possibility at the last World Cup in Sofia.

"We will probably be even more convinced with the upcoming World Championships in Hiroshima. The most important is the development of parkour. Given that potential, it doesn't matter if there is a conflict with other organisations or if parkour will be an Olympic event."

Morinari Watanabe skipped the question over whether the disputed activity of parkour might become an Olympic event in future ©Getty Images
Morinari Watanabe skipped the question over whether the disputed activity of parkour might become an Olympic event in future ©Getty Images

Thus Watanabe navigates round the Olympic issue. But if there has been resistance to this initiative, many other aspects of his original vision for change within the sport have come to pass.

Speaking to insidethegames in 2018, Watanabe said: "If we just keep following the precedent of successful experiences from the past, we will not be able to achieve success in the future. We need innovation."

Critically, in areas such as ethics, safeguarding and competition judging, that has occurred. But even for someone of Watanabe's persuasive gifts, it has not been a simple or straightforward process.

"The most difficult thing is to change the mindset of the gymnastics family," he said. "Fruits will not grow unless the soil is transformed. Gymnastics is a traditional sport. Traditional culture doesn't like change.

"However, today's society cannot survive unless it changes. Harassment is not allowed. Gender inequality is not permitted. It wasn't easy to get everyone's common understanding."

Given the emergence of horrendous tales of bullying and in some cases sexual abuse of gymnasts that have emerged within the sport in recent years - most prominently the proceedings that ended with Larry Nassar, chief physician within USA Gymnastics, being jailed for life for multiple sexual assaults on young female athletes - the issue of safeguarding is far and away the most pressing one within the sport.

Watanabe has overseen the establishment within of an independent Gymnastics Ethics Foundation.

"Protecting athletes and other participants from harassment and abuse, the independent FIG Ethics Foundation was established as the judicial organisation," Watanabe said. "At the same time, while the FIG has a role as the administrative organisation, I have been calling for a need to have an enforcement organisation within the FIG and proposed to establish the Safeguarding Working Group in addition to a safeguarding unit with one safeguarding manager we currently have within the office.

"Its main role is the education of gymnasts, coaches and officials. Education by Safeguarding Working Group and penal provisions by the Ethic Foundation - I believe we can drive our vehicle forward with these two wheels."

 Morinari Watanabe, pictured with IOC President Thomas Bach at the Tokyo 2020 gymnastics competition, has leveraged finance and influence for his sport through his standing in the sports and commercial worlds ©Getty Images
Morinari Watanabe, pictured with IOC President Thomas Bach at the Tokyo 2020 gymnastics competition, has leveraged finance and influence for his sport through his standing in the sports and commercial worlds ©Getty Images

One of the big pluses for the FIG has been the leverage Watanabe has been able to bring to bear commercially, given his established position within Japanese commerce. In his most recent manifesto Watanabe described what he had been able to bring about in this area.

"Three Japanese companies, Fujitsu, Pasona and Tokyo Inkarami have become our new sponsors. Those new sponsors and VTB brought us nearly CHF8 million (£6.5million/$8.7million/€7.7million) in total for the cycle 2017 to 2020.

"As an example, during 2017 and 2020, a large part of the sponsorships revenue, approximately CHF1.5 million (£1.2million/$1.6million/€1.4 million) in total, have been allocated to the local organising committees (LOCs) who organised World Championships of Artistic, Rhythmic Trampoline, Acrobatic and Aerobic gymnastics, and this allocation will continue in 2021.

"This fund brings higher quality and better entertainment to the Championships and was much appreciated by the LOCs. For example, our World Championships have enhanced their entertainment natures thanks to the efforts made by LOCs.

"By doing so, the product value of each discipline has been enhanced. With the increase of the broadcasting rights paid from Japanese broadcasters to FIG to $3 million (£2.2million/€2.6 million) in the last four years, the FIG revenue from the broadcasters has risen to a total of $8 million (£6million/€7million).

"Thanks to those marketing activities, we could distribute $5.5 million (£4.1million/€4.8 million) to Continental Unions as the support fund from 2017 to 2020. In this manner, increase in TV broadcasting rights and new sponsors are raising the value of gymnastics."

There is the nitty-gritty. And it is one of these Japanese sponsors, Fujitsu, which has been crucially involved in another key area in which Watanabe is guiding the sport - modernising and improving the system of judging. In his most recent manifesto Watanabe wrote on the subject under he heading "Pursuit of justice and dignity".

"For this mission, we have completed the system to cover the five apparatus of Artistic Gymnastics and it will become possible for all apparatus to have 3D system in their scorings," Watanabe promised.

FIG President Morinari Watanabe believes the 3D scoring system currently being introduced to the sport could eventually replace human judges ©Getty Images
FIG President Morinari Watanabe believes the 3D scoring system currently being introduced to the sport could eventually replace human judges ©Getty Images

"This is the system to support judges in our sport, not the system to replace our judges with. Such system development in gymnastics community alone will contribute to the sport community as a whole, because we will have no opaqueness in scoring with the system.

"Further to that, gymnasts will be able to capture their scores during their trainings. Having the scores at their trainings to be the same as the ones at their competitions will make efficient trainings possible both for gymnasts and coaches.

"By using the computer scoring system, remote competitions will also be possible across different countries and regions in the world. We are also trying to monitor Rhythmic Gymnastics. In the next cycle, we will complete the system."

In response to insidethegames questions, Watanabe featured this as one of the key areas of innovation in the sport.

"What is the most important thing in society? It is transparency and integrity. It is also the raison d'être of the sports world," he said.

"In athletics and swimming, the results are time-based. In ball games, when a team scores, you understand the outcome. Unfortunately, it is not so easy for spectators to understand the scores in gymnastics. This must be enhanced.

"To that end, the FIG is developing Fujitsu's computer scoring system. In the new cycle, we will challenge the live scoring system of rhythmic gymnastics. The innovation for FIG is introducing a live scoring system that will help the audience understand the results."

Asked if such a system could ever become the sole arbiter of performance, Watanabe responded: "At this stage, it is a judging support system. It may be a substitute for humans in the future. But that's still the future. It can also be used as a training aid. Remote competitions are also possible. The Fujitsu system has the potential to contribute significantly to gymnastics' development."

There have been other notable developments within gymnastics which Watanabe highlighted to good effect in this year’s manifesto.

"New gold medallists are emerging in different parts of the world," he wrote. "In Artistic Gymnastics, Carlos Yulo of Philippines got a gold medal in floor exercise in Stuttgart [a the 2019 World Championships]. His talent was recognized shortly after I met him nine years ago, then he started trainings in Japan.

"Ibrahim Colak brought a gold medal to Turkey of which he won in the rings in Stuttgart. Also, since two years ago, with my recommendation, Japan, China and Russia started organising joint training camps. That's why the World Championships 2019 were neck and neck competitions which is very unusual in our history. The World Championships have become more exciting. Strong Federations support developing Federations."

New nations are reaching the top of the podium in FIG events as the sport gains globally - such as Turkey, for whom Ibrahim Colak won the 2019 world title on rings ©Getty Images
New nations are reaching the top of the podium in FIG events as the sport gains globally - such as Turkey, for whom Ibrahim Colak won the 2019 world title on rings ©Getty Images

There has also been a push to raise the position of FIG in terms of the sport's world popularity.

In 2015 it stood at 24 in Global Sports rankings where the top three were, in order, football, basketball and tennis, with athletics and aquatics, the two other top-rated Olympic sports, respectively eighth and 15th.

"Our goal is to raise the FIG position in the Global Sports from the recent 24th to 10th in 2024," Watanabe added. "In this regard, the digital marketing strategy is getting more important. FIG has newly put its focus on this area for the last four years and as a result, we have already achieved successful outcome. According to #SportOnSocial, social media table 2021 published by Red Torch, has ranked FIG at 11th place. This is a massive jump from 20th place in 2020."

Talking about his "mission" as FIG President, Watanabe commented: "I will visit all member federations in four years. I will meet each NOC National Olympic Committee] President and its members in each country and region as FIG President and as an IOC member. My duty as father of Gymnastics Family is to think and work together with Gymnastics Federations to develop our sport in each federation.

"I could not visit all federations due to the pandemic, but I would like to visit and meet you all to discuss and solve issues together."

The concern for great and small - all of whom vote alike of course - was echoed in further comments: "I want to solve the problem where some federations are not able to attend the Congress because of their financial situation. I want to make the Congress more transparent and fair opportunity for all member federations. To achieve it, FIG decided to pay a flight ticket as well as a room per federation, to all member federations in good standing to participate in the Congress…

"Now the long night with COVID-19 is going to be over. FIG did not invoice federations' membership fee in 2020 so that we can survive this cold night. And FIG established the foundation which provides support to gymnastics family who are damaged by the COVID-19. CHF302,000 (£245,300/$329,000) have been distributed to 26 federations as support grants.

"We should be aware that we need to coexist with the virus, not to fight against the virus. It has been proven that doing exercise can promote generating antioxidant material to enhance our immune system. It is our mission to give humanity the power to coexist with the unknown virus by widely promoting gymnastics to the world."

News of the proposed "next cycle" for the FIG will also fall happily on the ears of the smallest nations involved.

Re-elected FIG President Morinari Watanabe envisions a
Re-elected FIG President Morinari Watanabe envisions a "Gymnastics Olympics" in which every discipline of the sport will take place during the same competition ©Getty Images

"In the next cycle", Watanabe adds in his manifesto, "we need to put our focus on the development of each Continent. To achieve it, we have made the Continental Championships the qualification for the World Championships. The situation and measures are different depending on the situation of each continent.

"In the first two years we will analyse situation of each country in each continent and this will enable us to provide more effective support to each country. In addition, we will make the strategy to support Acrobatic and Aerobic Gymnastics.

"And consequently we will aim for increasing the number of member Federations. Our target is to reach 180 member federations."

The sport is also working for the first time within the framework of sustainable development goals, and within that area a Gender Equality Commission is already supporting a significant change in figures.

Meanwhile Watanabe is dreaming big - of a "Gymnastic Olympics" - following this year’s joint staging of the Artistic and Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships in Kitakyushu in his native country.

"It's a new opportunity," Watanabe said. "I have a dream that one day like the Olympics, the World Championships of all our disciplines; artistic, rhythmic, trampoline, acrobatic, aerobic, parkour, the World Gym for Life Challenge, and if possible, TeamGym sometime in future, will be held in the same host city in the same period of time together.

"Realising 'Gymnastics Olympics' will surely raise the value of gymnastics. How much cost can we reduce by organising Artistic and Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships in the same city and period in 2021? We will analyse and calculate its positive impact…"

While Watanabe remained silent on any further ambitions within the IOC, he did reflect briefly upon his experience of organising the boxing at Tokyo 2020. Asked is he had learned anything he could take forward now that he was back on "home ground", he responded: "I have sought transparency and integrity in gymnastics. That's why the IOC has appointed me as chair of the Boxing Task Force. 

"However, after this experience with the Boxing Task Force, I realised that we can always do more to increase transparency and integrity in gymnastics. I demand a higher level of transparency and integrity because I found that there is no limit."