David Owen

The wave of nationalistic populism that is sweeping the globe has put sports leaders' calls for autonomy firmly on the back foot, in common with other manifestations of multilateralism.

This is a great pity because it risks doing grave and irreparable damage to all our ways of life.

In the narrow case of sport, however, the setback is partly of its own making: the case for autonomy can only be made convincingly if standards of governance are good.

In sport, all too often, this has not been the case.

I recently argued that, with COVID-19 wreaking havoc with business plans, the time might have come for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to start more actively using the muscle that its TV-generated wealth affords it to leverage better practice in the bodies that depend on it.

This would not work in every situation: FIFA is merely the most obvious example of an institution that is wealthy enough in its own right to be able to pick and choose the advice it acts on.

But in year one of coronavirus, the list of International Federations (IFs) which could afford to ignore the IOC is rather short.

No fewer than 15 of the 28 Summer Olympic IFs, after all, have accepted IOC loans designed to tide them over in the light of the one-year postponement of Tokyo 2020.

One of the 15 is World Sailing, which is borrowing $3.1 million (£2.4 million/€2.7 million) from the IOC, a sum equivalent to around 65 per cent of 2019 operating income.

FIFA would be able to pick and choose the advice it acts on ©Getty Images
FIFA would be able to pick and choose the advice it acts on ©Getty Images

This, to my mind, makes the recent disclosure by my insidethegames colleague Liam Morgan that concerns have been raised within the IOC regarding two of the four candidates in this month's World Sailing Presidential election all the more interesting. 

I have mixed feelings about the intervention, which the IOC has since been at pains to point out was "not the statement of an official position".

On the one hand, the concern regarding full transparency seems justifiable if the goal is for World Sailing to elect the most effective possible President for the next four years.

On the other, the surreptitious nature of the initiative, which might well have remained undisclosed in public had an email not been seen by a fellow journalist, and its informality seem far from desirable.

It boils down to this: if interventions of this nature are to be accepted as the new norm (to coin a phrase), the outcome that flows from them needs to be demonstrably for the good of sport, and not just for the good of the IOC.

(Believe it or not, the two are not always indistinguishable.) 

In other words, what is called for is a formalised system.

There is a well-known aphorism in management: "Never waste a good crisis."

I would say that the financial crisis in sport triggered by the pandemic is more than serious enough to justify a step-change in the battle for better governance.

As a first step, the IOC should make a clear statement that it is to make more systematic use of the levers at its disposal to incentivise improvements.

A – small – Better Governance Committee should then be established to draw up parameters in areas such as financial and electoral practice which IFs would be expected to remain within.

This body should also define circumstances in which separate one-off interventions would be considered.

To limit the IOC's influence on decision-making, the committee should be formally established not by the IOC itself, but the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) and its winter sports counterpart.

ASOIF can already claim much credit for improvements in some areas of governance that have slowly taken root over recent years, so this might be seen as a natural expansion of a task it is already engaged on. 

The IOC has intervened in sailing's Presidential election ©Getty Images
The IOC has intervened in sailing's Presidential election ©Getty Images

IF leaders and suitably-qualified IOC members should sit on the new committee, but neither should be in the majority.

An independent chair who is a household name among business-page readers – ideally someone of the stature of a Warren Buffett or a Gordon Brown, say – should preside.

I doubt any such initiative would evoke enthusiasm among IF leaders, who would have understandable, if sometimes self-serving, concerns about their bodies' independence.

While I think the current crisis demands that something along these lines be tried, I can appreciate that there are risks and that it might not have the effect intended.

There might, therefore, be an argument for introducing it on a trial basis.

If after four or five years, it can be seen that standards of governance in international sport remain just as patchy while yet more power has been concentrated in the IOC Presidential office occupied currently by Thomas Bach, then that would be reason for the experiment to be abandoned.

But sport needs to pull up its governance socks as a matter of urgency if it is to stand its ground successfully against the nationalistic impulse that is threatening to turn back time.

The pandemic provides justification for turning up the heat.

That saying again, "Never waste a good crisis".