David Owen

The reprised fight between Boris van der Vorst and Umar Kremlev for the Presidency of the International Boxing Association (IBA) could and arguably should be the most overtly political - with a capital 'P' - sports election in years, possibly decades.

In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the appalling suffering inflicted on civilians, any decision by IBA voters next month in Istanbul to stick with the incumbent Kremlev, a Russian, would, you might think, bring the most stinging criticism raining down on their heads and further tarnish the organisation’s not exactly stellar international image, particularly in the West.

All the more so as the main funding source to which Kremlev has turned in his efforts so far successfully to dig the IBA out of the financial hole in which it found itself is…Gazprom, a gas behemoth in which the Kremlin holds a 38 per cent stake.

You could argue, indeed, that it is we European gas consumers who have done most indirectly to bail the IBA out through our skyrocketing energy bills.

All of this should provide Kremlev's opponent with a feast of red meat on which to gorge in his campaign. 

But will it?

I am not so sure. 


Because, on the one hand, I am not convinced that Gazprom will be a massive vote-winner for Van der Vorst if he decides to make an issue of it; and on the other, if he does not make an issue of it, how does he differentiate himself sufficiently from an incumbent who, on the whole has kept his promises and gone about his functions with some intelligence and much energy?

Umar Kremlev will be up against Boris van der Vorst for the Presidency of International Boxing Association ©Twitter/boksfederasyonu
Umar Kremlev will be up against Boris van der Vorst for the Presidency of International Boxing Association ©Twitter/boksfederasyonu

We don’t know how much money Gazprom has pumped into the IBA, it won’t say.

When I asked, I was told: "Please be aware that IBA cannot reveal the details of IBA's General Partnership agreement with the media, since these are commercially confidential."

However, having studied the statutory accounts for 2020-21 and other documents, I can reveal - or at least, I strongly suspect - that it is a lot; a lot from the IBA’s perspective, you understand, not Gazprom's, for whom it is the proverbial chicken-feed.

The IBA’s balance-sheet as at June 30 2021 shows that the organisation benefited during the year from an injection of well over CHF30 million (£24.5 million/$31 million/€29 million) of cash and CHF5 million (£4.1 million/$5.2 million/€4.9 million) of what are described as "shares", with said shares said to be in a "low risk fund".

We know that CHF5 million of event fees relating to the Global Boxing Cup were received in the latter part of 2020; but it is hard to imagine where much of the rest of that cash would have come from if not from Gazprom.

Moreover, with Russia’s hosting of that cup now cancelled, one imagines that the IBA may at some point have to pay that CHF5 million back.

I am told that alternative hosts are being "actively sought".

Another thing we know from the accounts is that sponsorship and TV rights revenue amounted to CHF7.73 million (£6.3 million/$8 million/€7.5 million) in 2020-21, up from less than CHF1 million (£820,000/$1.04 million/€975,000) a year earlier.

Moreover, according to a budgeted income statement for 2021-22 approved by the board of directors last November, this sponsorship and TV rights revenue figure was expected to surge to CHF27.1 million (£22.2 million/$28.3 million/€26.5 million) in the current financial year.

Once again, I would think that actual 2021-22 income may come in below budget if the Global Boxing Cup cannot now be held in a new country in June 2022, i.e. during the current financial year; but that may, of course, make the Gazprom money, along with income from both men's and women's World Championships, even more important.

So I think we can be fairly clear that Gazprom has piped in the bulk of the money that Kremlev has had to work with.

Gazprom remains a partner of IBA, despite Russia's invasion of Ukraine ©Getty Images
Gazprom remains a partner of IBA, despite Russia's invasion of Ukraine ©Getty Images

Having said that, the 39-year-old President - obviously aware that he would face another election less than 18 months after the first, when he polled 86 votes in the decisive round against 45 for Van der Vorst, his nearest challenger - seems to have used the cash smartly.

He has expunged one of the long financial shadows hanging over the body: a €6.7 million (£5.6 million/$7.2 million) debt owed to a company called Benkons.

A note to the IBA accounts states that this debt was "fully settled" via payments made in April and May 2021.

Another shadow, in the shape of a claim of some CHF23.4 million (£19.2 million/$24.4 million/€22.8 million) against IBA from an entity called First Commitment International Trade (FCIT) has not gone away, though it is rejected by IBA, which thinks it does not owe FCIT anything.

The report of IBA’s independent auditor, Moore Stephens Refidar, states that "currently it is not possible to predict whether, and if so, to what extent, [IBA] will have to pay for any damages, consequently, a material uncertainty exists in relation to this contingency".

Besides settling up with Benkons, the Gazprom money has enabled the IBA to "effectively support National Federations, competitions and athletes", as a recent letter to National Federations from IBA secretary general István Kovács put it.

Kovács also argued that it was not "currently possible to completely cancel the Gazprom contract".

The response I got from IBA stated, along similar lines, that the body was "proud for having settled its debts, for having supported National Federations and boxers to an unprecedented extent, for having maintained a comprehensive anti-doping programme, and for having invested heavily in reform".

If Van der Vorst tries to argue that the sponsorship deal that has enabled all this to happen should be ripped up on moral grounds, I am not sure he will get very far (whether he should get very far or not is a different argument) - unless he has a credible, zero-risk alternative to fill the gap immediately.

In effect, the Gazprom money has replaced the cash that the IBA would ordinarily have received for boxing’s contribution to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

As the body told me: "Gazprom remains IBA’s predominant sponsor, and the organisation has been entirely dependent on commercial revenue since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended its funding in 2017".

But I am not sure the Dutchman should anticipate too much help from this direction either.

Boxing produces medallists from a particularly wide range of countries and makes good television.

If it can truly iron out its persistent problems and is prepared to pledge unwavering obeisance to the ringmasters of Lausanne, then I would think IOC President Thomas Bach and his minions might deign to welcome the sport back.

But if the IOC were to retain the slightest scintilla of doubt regarding the irreversibility of boxing’s reform, well, there are any number of "yoof" sports just itching to take its place.

The IOC is spoilt for choice on this score: everybody knows the Summer Games are too big, yet historically it has proved next to impossible to downsize.

Lausanne needs victims to jettison if it is substantially to refresh the Summer sports programme with the aim of perking up its media numbers.

If boxing is not prepared to bend the knee unquestioningly, it may find itself among the jetsam.

Irrespective of who wins, and of whether this key Gazprom deal survives to its full two-year term, heading off Olympic ejection will be the number one issue in the victor’s in-tray.