By David Owen

SportAccord_logoI first encountered Hein Verbruggen in 2001 in the foyer of a top Moscow hotel.

It was at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session that brought down the curtain on Juan Antonio Samaranch's landmark Presidency and Verbruggen was talking to Britain's Princess Anne. Both occasion and interlocutor testify to the 69-year old Dutchman's standing as one of the more prominent international sports administrators of the past couple of decades.

At that time Verbruggen was President of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), world cycling's governing body, as well as an IOC member.

That was also the Session at which Beijing was selected - controversially in some eyes - to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Verbruggen would go on to play the key role of chairman of the IOC's Co-ordination Commission for those Games.

Today, he is heading up the rapid expansion currently being undertaken by SportAccord, an organisation now based in the archetypal Olympic city of Lausanne and best known for its annual sports convention. This year's event takes place in London from April 3-8.

Even in mid-growth spurt, SportAccord is no giant, boasting turnover, as Verbruggen tells me, of around SFr2 million and soon to have 16 or 17 staff. But its influence in many areas of international sport belies its size.

First and foremost is the convention, first held in Madrid in 2003, which has quickly established itself as a key event in the international calendar for sports decision-makers both inside and outside the Olympic Movement.


According to Verbruggen (pictured), who was a council member of the old General Association of International Sports Federations, now rebranded as SportAccord, while he was UCI President, the convention grew out of the notion that it would make sense to coordinate meetings of individual sports federations so that they took place in the same city at the same time: "Then we only had to travel once".

"I saw the potential," he adds, by which he means the new-style convention's propensity to act as a magnet, attracting not just administrators, but sports businesses, marketers, broadcasters, journalists and so on.

Today, SportAccord retains ownership of 50 per cent of the convention, with the other half split between the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) and the Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations (AIOWF).

While the convention remains almost certainly the best-known string in SportAccord's bow, it is diversifying into a range of other events and services.

Just as in the corporate sector, some companies thrive by offering services that multinational corporations need, but which have nothing to do with their core business, SportAccord appears to be identifying services that its 104 members - 89 of which are International Sports Federations - may require from time to time, but where it makes little sense for them to incur the trouble and expense of retaining their own dedicated, in-house specialists.

Says Verbruggen: "We will never interfere with the international federations that are our members. They rule and organise their sports. That is their business not ours. But we offer them help in certain areas where it is better to work together."

Lobbying is one example of the type of support services SportAccord has started to offer. It aims to keep members informed of sports-related developments at bodies such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the European Union. "Members benefit from SportAccord's position as an umbrella organisation within the international community to voice their concerns, defend and promote their interests and to facilitate partnerships," it argues.

As Verbruggen sees it, the 89 member sports federations could in theory have 89 people performing lobbying services for them in Brussels, "but it might be better to do it via us".

It has a sports integrity unit that helps spread best practice from those members which have experience of the scourge of illegal betting to those which don't.

It also has a social responsibility department to help spread best practice on matters such as disability sport and gender equality.

In another imaginative venture, it has done a deal with YouTube to set up a sports hub federations can use to distribute content related to their particular sport to an international and sports-minded audience.

"The internet offers fantastic possibilities for our smaller members," Verbruggen says. "Federations via the internet have the possibility to reach out to fans all over the world."

He acknowledges that big sports, such as football, whose media rights are extremely valuable commodities, are unlikely to avail themselves of such a service, but gives the example of a notional Argentinian who uses it to watch, say, Thai boxing - a sport that would probably never be screened by Argentine TV. "We have a wide variety [of sports] you don't see enough on TV," he says.

For many, the most interesting diversification of all will be SportAccord's move into anti-doping services.

This is aimed at helping to ensure that the anti-doping programmes set up by sporting federations are fully compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code. The unit, which is financed partly by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the IOC, employs three experts whose services are available to members when they need them.

Services currently offered include making pools of experts available for disciplinary panels and therapeutic use exemption committees, and assisting in the establishment of members' out-of-competition testing programmes, including whereabouts management.

"Being WADA code-compliant is not that easy," Verbruggen observes, adding that it requires federations to invest in legal expertise - and that mistakes can be expensive.

He also discloses that SportAccord is considering taking its involvement in sport's battle against doping to the next stage.

"There are federations who want us to go beyond an advisory role," he reveals.

"There are federations who want us to run their [Anti-Doping Administration & Management] ADAMS system. We are discussing that."


SportAccord has also moved into the Games-organising sector, starting with the World Combat Games, which attracted more than 1,000 athletes to Beijing in 2010.

This looks set to be followed by the World Mind Games - chess, bridge, Go, draughts - also in Beijing, in 2011 and the World Beach Games, possibly in South America, in 2012.

Under the business model SportAccord is using, Verbruggen says it charges hosts an award fee that includes all marketing and TV rights for the event.

The host then pays organisational costs, as well as the travel/accommodation costs of competing athletes.

The SportAccord president dismisses any suggestion that he is going into competition with other Games organisers, some of whom are actually associate members of SportAccord.

"No. I wouldn't even begin to compare with the Olympic Games," he says. "It is an extremely positive development that federations are starting to own certain events themselves. They own their own world championships, but now they are co-owners of multi-sports events.

"It is very interesting for a city or region to become, for example, the Mind Games centre of the world for a certain period."

This year's SportAccord Convention will be held at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel, London, from April 3-8. For more details click here.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed at