By Severing Ties, Bach Kills SportAccord; IOC Carries Full Weight of Sport’s Future & Reform

Chelsea LittleJune 8, 2015
International Olympic Commitee President Thomas Bach. (Photo: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil via Flickr Creative Commons)
International Olympic Commitee President Thomas Bach. (Photo: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil via Flickr Creative Commons)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland—The International Olympic Committee (IOC) yesterday severed ties with SportAccord, an organization made up of international federations of Olympic and non-Olympic sports. Although the IOC was not a member of SportAccord, it was a partner – and IOC President Thomas Bach showed his ruthlessness in the past few months in completely dismantling it, first, it is assumed, behind the scenes, and now in the open.

Bach has a sweeping vision for the IOC, and has set about implementing it. Far more dynamic and visionary than his predecessor, Jacques Rogge, Bach mounted a strong, positive, and forward-looking campaign for the presidency back in 2013. Now that he has the title, he appears to have was no time for criticism or antagonism from likes of former SportAccord President Marius Vizer, the head of the International Judo Federation.

As for SportAccord itself, the embattled organization will have to reinvent itself, and Bach offered his assistance should the individual federations which make up SportAccord request it.

“We are just having it off of our hands,” he said of SportAccord in an evening press conference today. “If it’s needed in this respect, we are ready to give advice or assistance if it’s in any way requested. But we are not ready to give lessons. We give advice when solicited but not when unsolicited.”

SportAccord, which provided assistance, resources, and advice to federations, as well as organizing some championship events, hosting a trade conference, and other tasks, has been in the spotlight since Vizer went on the offensive against Bach and the IOC in April.

After years of working together with the IOC, Vizer was frustrated at what he called the IOC’s lack of transparency and concern for federations and athletes. The IOC did not ask the federations about their needs enough, Vizer alleged, and made decisions unilaterally as well as keeping profits to themselves – even though federations run global sports all year, while the IOC only runs sports during Olympic Games.

Vizer had a number of specific complaints as well, detailed in his remarkable speech. But he was also undeniably brazen and overconfident. For instance, one of his proposals was to host a joint World Championships between all sports, even non-Olympic ones, every four years. Such an idea was unlikely to ever get off the ground, for myriad reasons. Dreams like this, as well as the exaggeration of some of his points, could make it hard to take Vizer seriously even if other criticisms carried weight.

Bach hit back in his own speech, and international federations were soon running from SportAccord, deciding that if they had to choose one or the other international body, the IOC was the stronger one.

After losing the affiliations of all of the high-profile sports, Vizer himself resigned. But even then, the dismantling of SportAccord was not complete. Besides the IOC severing ties, Russia rescinded its tradition of hosting the SportAccord convention every year. President Vladimir Putin had been a friend of Vizer’s; on this issue he is now neither a public friend to the man, nor the organization he used to head.

The decision to sever ties with SportAccord was framed by Bach as a leader simply listening to his constituents.

“We were just following more or less what the majority of the members of SportAccord were doing, suspending their membership or their relations,” he said. “This in our terms is a recognition and support. This can be lifted at any time when we have heard the proposals from the international federations, and when we have hopefully agreed on this new structure. This must not take years. We have been informed that such consultations are going, and will continue to take place, here in Lausanne.”

The demise of SportAccord has perhaps greater implications for non-Olympic sports. While Bach promised that the IOC would support federations while they decided how to reconfigure SportAccord, it’s very unclear how much support non-Olympic sports will receive. After all, the federations that Bach says he has been talking with in Lausanne are, by their nature, Olympic sports.

“We also made it clear that we are inviting the stakeholders for a discussion and a dialogue where the question of the structure of the international federations can be addressed, but also in the future who is giving this kind of assistance to the international federations,” Bach said of those discussions.

The offer of support and advice comes after declining to work with SportAccord earlier. After Vizer’s inflammatory speech, the SportAccord leader reached out to Bach and the IOC to discuss proposed changes going forward. Vizer listed 20 agenda items which he believed were in the best interest of athletes and federations, for instance implementing prize money at the Olympics for the first time, something some athletes have requested.

Bach let the meeting request hang in the air, effectively ending Vizer’s career with SportAccord.

And while offering that he is just a metaphorical phone call away, Bach also insisted that the IOC will not be meddling in the federations’ affairs. But it’s clear that he doesn’t see SportAccord continuing in its current configuration – something that nobody else has actually said. With Vizer, who had seemed to be the main problem, stepping down, it’s not obvious why simply electing another president couldn’t solve SportAccord’s problems. But Bach spoke repeatedly of a new structure for the group.

“This is up to the international federations,” he said. “They are discussing among themselves the structure of SportAccord. Therefore there is not much to discuss from the IOC side. We have taken note of the internal problems of Sport Accord, and we appreciate that the international federations now have consultations underway to address these internal problems, to restructure their representation, and how they want to be represented, but which entity and by which structure.”

Rather than take, or respond to, criticism from outside, Bach prefers to reform from within. He was elected on a platform he called “Olympic Agenda 2020”, a 40-point proposal to move the IOC forward (20 + 20 = 40, get it?). The agenda was unanimously accepted by IOC members soon after.

Some of the agenda items have undoubtedly made a big difference already. For instance, Bach urges organizing committees to make smaller budgets, and use existing infrastructure and venues wherever possible. After the $51 billion debacle of the 2014 Sochi Games, and the mass exodus of cities from the 2022 bidding process soon after, this is a very necessary step.

In the press conference, Bach touted the success of this initiative, comparing the original Tokyo 2020 budget to the budget as it now stands. $1.7 billion has been shaved off since the bid was accepted; most of the savings came out of the construction budget.

“By approving these changes and having a more intelligent way of using facilities following Olympic Agenda 2020, that means by making more use of existing facilities, allocating sports into joint venues whenever possible, we achieved further savings in the OCOG’s budget of USD 700 million,” Bach explained in the press conference.

“W are confident that there is even room for more,” he continued. “We are still working on this. This shows how Tokyo is embracing Olympic Agenda 2020 and shows immediate results. I’d like to remind you that the adoption of Olympic Agenda 2020 is just six months old. Already now we have this great result of 1.7 billion.”

But other aspects of the Olympic Agenda 2020 can at times seem gimmicky. Bach championed how the inclusion of four new disciplines for the 2018 PyeongChang games will increase women’s participation, but in fact all of the added competitions are either for both men and women separately, or a mixed event.

The additions do not change the fact that there are more men’s than women’s events, since there is no women’s four-person bobsled, no women’s nordic combined, and only one women’s ski jumping gold medal to three for men. So while the added sports will, in fact, lead to record numbers of women participating, they will also lead to record numbers of men.

Likewise, the institution of a venue for mourning in the Olympic Village and a “moment of remembrance” at the Closing Ceremonies are certainly welcome, but perhaps pale in comparison to some more substantial reforms that have been suggested, like the bidding process and others that would entice cities to host the Games once again.

Bach has a way of saying with sincerity statements that seem unbelievable. For instance, he tried to explain that ending the IOC’s partnership with SportAccord was also a decision that had a financial basis. The IOC had been paying for programs like anti-doping, in partnership with the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“For us it was logic to do this now ourselves, because we have all the resources. What we did in the past was that we were paying SportAccord about $300,000 and another $160,000 in order to provide these services. So anyway I think it’s much more logical to do this directly.”

Just minutes earlier, Bach had discussed how the IOC distributes 90% of its revenues to sports worldwide, equivalent to $1.6 billion per year or $3.25 million per day, “for the development of sports worldwide, for the success of the Olympic Games, and our development programs.”

The idea that for the IOC, the less than $500,000 they were paying to SportAccord necessitated a financial decision strains credulity.

After all, as president of the IOC, arguably the most important sports organization in the world, Bach doesn’t have to do many things he doesn’t want to when it comes to politics. If he believed that it was in the best interest of sport to work with and support SportAccord, he could, even if the federations disagreed.

Instead, it might be the opposite.

Bach and the IOC have almost certainly used their influence behind the scenes in the SportAccord tiff. The result is that even after Vizer’s resignation, the organization is apparently so toxic that almost nobody in the sports world is willing to step up to lead it.

Gian Franco Kasper, the head of the International Ski Federation and also the Association of International Olympic Winter Federations, was the First Vice President of SportAccord. He was in the best position to step in and take the reins, even if only on an interim basis until an election was held. But he told Inside The Games that he has no interest in doing even that. Neither does Nenad Lalovic, the president of United World Wrestling.

The severing of the IOC’s ties with SportAccord, and its offer to provide anti-doping, governance, and anti-corruption services to federations, might just be the death blow to SportAccord.

The IOC’s only competition in the world of global sports – which, despite being competition, also provided valuable services to non-Olympic disciplines – might no longer have so much purpose if the IOC provides the services that SportAccord itself did before.

And who would want to lead a group like that?

Now that the IOC is the only game in town, it’s even more important that the best parts of the Olympic Agenda 2020 succeed.

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Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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