Comment: May 2015

Kevin Roberts: Is it time to re-think the World Order of sports governance?

British politician Neil Kinnock once described the experience of an unexpectedly hostile BBC interview as being ‘kebabed’ – a wonderful description of feeling skewered and left helpless while being slowly grilled.

IOC (International Olympic Committee) president Thomas Bach must have felt much the same last month after marching into Marius Vizer’s ambush at the opening session of the SportAccord International Convention in Sochi. Despite the often bitter backstage politics that permeate sports like the marbling on a good steak, the general rule is you put on your best face in public, shake hands and smile sweetly for the cameras.

But Vizer, freshly elected for a second term as SportAccord president, isn’t really one for doing things by the book. Instead of the anticipated opening platitudes, he launched into an all-out attack on Bach and the IOC, slamming the German’s Agenda 2020 exercise as more or less worthless, damning the planned Olympic TV channel as a waste of money, and effectively writing-off the IOC as unfit for purpose. Tellingly, he also suggested that Bach has shown a lack of respect to the international federations that make up the SportAccord membership.

While some may consider sport a religion, the IOC is not necessarily its natural church

The immediate fall-out was the withdrawal of two Olympic federations – the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) and the ISSF (International Shooting Sport Federation) – and the drafting of a letter signed by a handful of others disassociating themselves from Vizer. A day later, ASOIF (the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations), suspended its association with SportAccord.

The interesting question is why Vizer chose to engineer the situation now, if at all. And make no mistake, this was not some off-the-cuff tantrum thrown by a stroppy teenager, but a carefully devised grenade, tossed into the middle of the world sport family and designed to create maximum damage.

When Vizer was initially elected to SportAccord presidency, it was on the back of a manifesto that included ambitious plans for a United World Championships in which international sports federations would hold their world championships at the same time across a single host country.

The idea that such a scheme would not ultimately create some degree of tension between SportAccord and the IOC wasn’t really credible at the time, but SportAccord’s members – the majority of which are not Olympic sports, though they would dearly like to be – swallowed the concept and rubbed their hands together at the prospect of the promised new revenue streams. At the time, Vizer said he already had sponsors lined up, largely drawn from the ranks of major Russian corporations.

Marius Vizer's criticism of IOC President Thomas Bach begins 13:54

In the two years since we have heard little-to-nothing about plans for the United World Championships, and there is a school of thought that the difficulties facing the Russian economy – in light of sanctions imposed by the west and lower energy prices – may have curbed the enthusiasm of some of the project’s financial backers.

But in his SportAccord Convention speech, Vizer appeared to squarely put the blame on the shoulders of the IOC for not giving the idea its wholehearted backing, thus shifting the blame and creating a smokescreen to hide the inertia. That may have played well with many of the smaller federations that saw the United World Championships as a lifeline, but inevitably alienated those that are part of the Olympic Games and who see massive value in their continuing symbiotic relationship.

The fact that Vizer chose to launch his attack in public shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. We live in an increasingly polarised world in which aggressive posturing has become the norm and angry rhetoric is seen as an easy mark of powerful leadership. So perhaps he was simply playing to the crowd.

By the time this article is published it is possible that steps will have been taken behind-the-scenes to start to mend this rift, but it is worth thinking about what its long-term impact could be.

Perhaps most importantly, the disagreement suggests the need for a clearer definition of the roles and possibly the drawing of new lines between SportAccord and the IOC. Many believe that the IOC is, essentially, just a very good event promoter and that its role as the ultimate authority and global spokesman for world sport is something that has been acquired over the years because there was nobody else to pin that particular badge onto. The point is that while some may consider sport a religion, the IOC is not necessarily its natural church.

And what about SportAccord? This is an organisation that can claim to be more representative of world sport because of the breadth of its membership, but it appears to be struggling to find its way. On a purely practical basis, that struggle is likely to continue without a closer and more positive relationship with the IOC.

It is clear that the current rift is in nobody’s long-term interests and cannot be allowed to continue, but if the consequence of Vizer’s outburst are to create a focus on roles, responsibilities and the search for ways of running sport for the benefit of all of its stakeholders – he may have done everyone a favour. 

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