Calling the feds: international bodies after Rio

While major federations across the world of sport continue to find themselves embroiled in scandal, it is business as usual for the governing bodies further down the sporting ladder, where the work remains focused on increasing visibility throughout the Olympic cycle. Representatives from three summer federations reflect on the Rio Games, look forward to the 12 months ahead, and discuss their plans for further expansion.

Calling the feds: international bodies after Rio

Cast your mind back to some of the moments which have defined the past few Olympic Games. The incredible record-breaking four-gold-medal haul of US gymnast Simone Biles was possibly Rio’s biggest breakout story, followed closely by the Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Jonny, taking gold and silver in the triathlon. 

In London, while events over at the Queen Elizabeth Park took a lot of the focus, the beach volleyball arena in the centre of the city at Horse Guards Parade, hosted the final bow of iconic American duo Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, who took their third consecutive gold medal in their final match together. McKayla Maroney’s reaction to winning silver – and not the expected gold for which she had been favourite – became one of London’s most enduring images, taking on a life of its own as a widely shared meme and carrying Maroney to social media stardom.

What all these stories have in common is that they made headline-worthy stars of athletes competing in otherwise lesser-watched sports, highlighting the potential of the Olympic Games to create the narratives and tell the stories that elevate smaller disciplines to front-page status. Every four years, the world gathers round and sports like gymnastics, beach volleyball and triathlon have the chance to become national and international news again.

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Major federations have been battling seemingly endless controversies in recent times. The two biggest Olympic federations – athletics’ IAAF and swimming’s governing body, Fina – have both faced accusations of internal corruption at a governance level, while athletes from both have been embroiled in doping scandals. The International Cycling Union (UCI) is never far from the conversation when the latter issue comes up, with its sport’s biggest success story of the past decade, British Cycling, coming under intense scrutiny as this magazine was going to press. In soccer, meanwhile, many commentators have felt it has been a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ after the election to the Fifa presidency of Gianni Infantino, who appears to have simply picked up where his disgraced predecessor, Sepp Blatter, left off.

Even away from those top-level scandals, many federations at the high end are finding their necessity called into question. In sport’s big money age, have federations simply outlived their usefulness? 

Every few years the spectre of European club soccer’s big guns breaking away and forming their own competition rears its head. This is arguably just as a show of power, and yet there is a real sense that the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Manchester United, now global brands as much as soccer clubs, have outgrown the old mode of governance, and have no need for the endorsement of a Uefa or Fifa. The same tale was played out several years ago in European basketball, when several clubs formed the Euroleague, circumventing the International Basketball Federation (Fiba). The two have been at loggerheads ever since.

In sport as in every other field, we must work harder than ever before to win the trust of our future participants.

Further down the ladder, however, another narrative reveals itself. Many of those stories and images which define each Olympic cycle would not be possible without the work done by the federations for those sports who lack mainstream press attention and for whom the Olympics is occasionally seen as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for the fact that it brings the world’s eyes and a whole new demographic of potentials fans; a curse because it is often felt that it overshadows everything, becoming seen as the only time those sports are worth following. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), for its part, is well aware of this. It has become a central pillar of its agenda to transform the Games from a quadrennial – or biennial, including the Winter Olympics – jamboree into an ongoing, round-the-calendar concern. Initiatives like the Olympic Channel play into this plan, as does the IOC’s major deal with Discovery in Europe, which will see Eurosport display the Olympic rings on many of its broadcasts of those sports, helping to give a continuity and coherence to otherwise unconnected events.

With the 2017 edition of the SportAccord Convention about to get underway in Aarhus, Denmark, where federations will meet to debate the state of play across the industry, SportsPro spoke with representatives of three bodies affliated with the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) to discuss what a post-Olympics year looks like for them and how they are working to improve visibility throughout the cycle.

Federations on…

…The Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games

“The Rio Games once again showcased the beauty of gymnastics,” says Morinari Watanabe, president of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), of an Olympics which in many ways represented a major breakthrough for the sport. A record number of countries took home medals, he points out – with 18 titles being shared between 11 nations, as opposed to nine at London and six at Beijing. This, Watanabe believes, “demonstrates that gymnastics has been growing and developing steadily all over the world”.

Given the nature of the competition, with highly shareable clips and stunning physical feats, it is also unsurprising that gymnastics has proved to be a hugely popular Olympic sport with a younger, internet-savvy audience. “The Rio Games were also highly followed on the internet and via social media, far more than four years before,” says Watanabe. “This was instrumental in broadening the visibility of this sport and helped the young public that represent a large portion of our fans connect with it.”

Antonio Arimany, secretary general of the International Triathlon Union (ITU), saw triathlon’s inaugural appearance at the Paralympics as one of “several phenomenal stories to come out of Rio” for his federation.  

“From Alistair Brownlee becoming the first triathlete ever to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals, to standing on the podium with his brother again, to having first-time medals from the USA and South Africa and a very successful debut at the Paralympics, from our prospective, the Olympics and Paralympics went very well,” says Arimany. “The popularity of the sport is growing year after year and we could see that also in the increase of the Olympic audience.”

For the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), Rio was a particularly notable Games. Beach volleyball is consistently one of the most watched and talked-about disciplines at any Olympics, but to hold competition on the Copacabana Beach, where the sport is close to being a religion, marked a special occasion for the governing body. Gold for Brazil’s men’s indoor team, meanwhile, was one of the highlights of the entire fortnight.

“Volleyball players often talk about taking their game up a level,” says Fernando Lima, the FIVB’s secretary general. “That’s exactly what the FIVB did in Brazil, together with the IOC and the local organising committee. The quality of the competition was fantastic. Our sports presentation was like nothing ever before, and the result was happy players and partners, engaged spectators and double the viewer hours of London 2012.” 

Alistair Brownlee races to triathlon gold in Rio, defending the title he won in London, while his brother Jonny comes in for silver.

…The goals for 2017

“But that was last year!” Lima says. “Already, we are focusing on building on our momentum, to take our game up another level for Tokyo in four years’ time. Whether Olympic year or not, the FIVB’s goal remains the same: to make volleyball the world’s number one family sport. The way we go about that work changes, of course, from year to year but we are always working to improve the volleyball experience.

“Like our athletes again, we are focusing on the foundations: our events, our systems, our processes and following the very clear strategic plan the FIVB has in place. Technology will play a key part in this as we continue to look on how to improve the presentation of our sport.”

Arimany’s focus, and that of the ITU, is on expanding triathlon’s presence at the Olympics. “Internally, we are focused on getting mixed relay on to the programme,” he says. That is something he feels is important in the federation’s message of openness and equality, with mass participation events forming a key driver of growth for the sport. 

The FIVB is similarly disposed towards engaging people in playing, as well as watching, volleyball.

“We have so many great athletes and plenty of great events and activities going on in so many countries that making sure it captures the attention of the global audience is a key goal,” says Lima. “Especially the younger fans, where we want to make sure volleyball continues its growth as being a popular option for kids, especially with regards to keeping them active. This is a key part of the FIVB’s goal to make volleyball the world’s number one family sport.”

Such measures, of course, play into the IOC’s Agenda 2020 campaign, which Watanabe believes represents a “key difference” for sporting federations when comparing 2017 with how the FIG was working in the aftermath of the London Olympic Games in 2013. 

“The FIG respects Agenda 2020, and we’re going to launch our own challenge as per the Agenda,” he says. His focus for 2017 and beyond is to “change the culture of the gymnastics community. People have an academic image of gymnastics and I want to change this image into something more attractive for the youthful generations.”

Simone Biles was arguably the biggest breakout star of the 2016 Olympic Games.

…Building popularity away from the Olympics

One way in which Watanabe is hoping to attract a younger audience is through the introduction of parkour as a gymnastics discipline. “Gymnastics gets a lot of attention at the Olympic Games but gets only a little attention during non-Olympic years,” he admits. “We will increase the popularity by enhancing the entertainment factor of the sport, and the strategy for that is clear. If we liken the gymnastics structure to a pyramid, we must raise the top of the pyramid. That means increasing the quality of the world championships and World Cups and adding to their value. 

“On the other hand, we must broaden the pyramid’s bottom. That means increasing the number of people who are engaged in the current gymnastics disciplines, and in addition, we need to collaborate with the disciplines similar to gymnastics so that we can create synergy with each other and thus enjoy win-win situations with them.”

For both the ITU and the FIVB, new partnerships with third-party rights holders have formed a key part of the strategy for growing the audience.

In the FIVB’s case, teaming up with the Swatch Beach Volleyball Majors Series has helped to bring a completely different variety of event to its annual calendar, with Red Bull, one of the partners running the series, “bringing its full marketing, event management and media competence to the realisation of Major Series as part of the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour,” says Lima.

“We are also always looking to take volleyball to new places, to have it seen and to have it played,” he adds. “Participation opportunities are key. We already have a record 36 teams participating in the annual Men’s World League and for 2017 the Women’s World Grand Prix has increased from 28 teams to 32.

“Of course, the visibility that comes from broadcast distribution of our events is a great way to show off our sport but digital communication is also becoming increasingly important and that is one area in particular where we are working hard to improve in order to enhance the visibility and presentation of our sport and above all, increase fan engagement.”

The ITU, meanwhile, has taken a major step in engaging with the ever-growing mass participation audience by striking a deal with the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), a commercial events organiser which operates the ultra-triathlon Ironman series. 

“The goal of the partnership will be to sanction Ironman events by ITU, with an alignment of rules and anti-doping efforts, as well as to work together to develop and grow the sport in a manner that best benefits athletes,” says Arimany. “Furthermore, our own ITU World Triathlon Series, as well as World Cup events, are massively successful tools in terms of both growing popularity and developing athletes.”

…Telling stories with athletes

“I have a theory about how to develop sports,” says Watanabe on the boost given to gymnastics by breakout stories like those of Biles and Maroney. “High-quality sports events can generate star athletes and the star athletes generate fans; then the fans help attract more sponsors and generate funds. Those funds are used to operate high-quality events. Therefore, star athletes are essential to perpetuate this cycle on a larger scale.”

Arimany agrees. “Those stories are very important,” he says. “They help bring awareness to our athletes and our sport.” The finish of the men’s race at the 2016 World Triathlon Grand Final in Cozumel, when Alistair Brownlee sacrificed gold in order to help his brother Jonny cross the finish line, with the brothers ending the race with gold and silver, “was the most viewed video in the history of the BBC’s digital platforms,” adds Arimany. “We had more than six million views in 48 hours on Facebook alone. The British Prime Minister used the Brownlees as an example of how the entire country should behave. New stories are coming with the new season, such as the incredible sprint final between Andrea Hewitt and Jodie Stimpson at the first WTS event this year in Abu Dhabi.”

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh won the last of three consecutive gold medals in beach volleyball at London 2012.

…SportAccord Convention and the challenges facing federations

“The FIVB has been looking carefully at issues of governance together with the other members of ASOIF,” says Lima. “Reform of the global anti-doping systems is also something that I am sure we will also be talking about with our colleagues in Denmark. Studies have shown that millennials are the most cynical generation ever. In sport as in every other field, we must work harder than ever before to win the trust of our future participants and fans.”

That, of course, has been an issue that has blighted sport as a whole in recent years, with many observers blaming the declining audience for athletics events on fans’ loss of trust in competitors. 

“The challenges for sports community are anti-doping and compliance,” agrees Watanabe. “In addition to them, the FIG also needs to foster the culture of challenge. Gymnastics has high potential. If we have the spirit of challenge, we can resolve all issues.”

Arimany concludes that the growth of modern sport, financially and in terms of its audience, has contributed to some of the problems, with some federations neglecting their roles as governing bodies and stewards of the sports, with a lack of clarity regarding their purpose. 

“The role of the international federations within the growth of sport is the main challenge we will be facing,” he says. “International federations are the governing bodies of the sports, working to provide safe, clean and fair competitions to the athletes and the fans. We need to work on a more clear regulation for the recognition of the role of the international federations.”

This feature appears in Issue 93 of SportsPro magazine.