This has been a peculiar SportAccord Convention so far. An event stripped of its usual International Olympic Committee (IOC) executive board meeting, and the perennial presence of potential Olympic host cities presenting their cases, was sparked into life on Monday by SportAccord president Marius Vizer.
The IOC’s decision to remove the EB meeting and the host cities from the week-long convention’s line-up had widely been perceived as a two-fingered salute to Vizer, who has grand ambitions for both the convention, which is beginning a two-year residency in Sochi this year, and the SportAccord organisation – which is effectively an association of international sports federations, both Olympic and non-Olympic.
Since Vizer returned that salute in kind, launching his astonishing personal attack on IOC president Thomas Bach in his opening address on Monday – the full transcript is available here – the talk here in the cavernous Sochi ExpoCenter has been of little else.
For the exhibitors that swirl around the building, already disgruntled by the EB pull-out and the likely effect on delegate numbers that that had, the Vizer broadside was another irritation. Too much politics, not enough circulating, many of them said.
"Vizer vs Bach has transformed what threatened the most humdrum SportAccord in years into an event that could have momentous repercussions for the sports industry as we know it"
But for the journalists and Olympic politicos that did make the journey to Sochi, Vizer vs Bach has transformed what threatened to be the most humdrum SportAccord in years into an event that could have momentous repercussions for the sports industry as we know it.
Vizer’s speech – in which he essentially accused Thomas Bach of bringing about ineffective solutions in his Agenda 2020 reforms, presiding over an organisation in the IOC that is not fit to run sport in the process – continues to provoke reaction above and beyond Bach’s stout defence and witty counter-attack that came in its immediate aftermath.
As I write, the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) are meeting for their general assembly in the ExpoCenter’s main auditorium. The organisation, which represents the most powerful bloc of federations in the SportAccord set-up, has already suspended its association with SportAccord pending several fundamental clarifications on the purpose and direction of SportAccord. A strong response to Vizer’s words from ASOIF president Francesco Ricci Bitti is widely expected.
Talking to people around the venue, however, it is clear that there is just as much support for Vizer amongst the non-Olympic sport federations as there is against him from the Olympic sports. Although the overriding impression is that he may have miscalculated, not expecting the ASOIF sports to come out so strongly against him.
Certainly he has been cutting an increasingly harried figure, as he moves hither and thither around the convention, his entourage seeming to increase in size and number as one or another organisation comes out publicly against him.
Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association, an organisation with serious Olympic ambitions, believes that somewhere along the line there has been a split between the politics and ideologies of Vizer and the Olympic movement’s top powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad Al-Sabah of Kuwait. The Sheikh is a kingmaker within the IOC, and it was his support that is widely acknowledged to have brought Vizer, Bach and Tokyo 2020 to their respective election successes in 2013.
There won’t be too many inside the Olympic movement who would recommend kicking back against the Sheikh as a recipe for career advancement.
“The Olympics, the revenue, the ratings, all that was doing great,” Aguerre told me on Tuesday. “But for the people inside there were obviously many roadblocks not allowing the movement to evolve. The new sport in 2013 was the sport they just kicked out [wrestling]. That means that the process is there but the results are not being produced. It’s status quo. But I was surprised by the way it was presented yesterday. I wouldn’t be so reckless as to believe I understand why. I don’t really understand why. I don’t know that. I believe that sport brings people together. My hope is that whatever difficulties occurred yesterday between people they get through this difficult moment and they remember that we’re here for the athletes and for sport.”
Brian Cookson, president of the International Cycling Union (UCI), has more cause than most to swerve his federation’s allegiances firmly behind Bach. At last year’s SportAccord, Vizer, who is also the president of the International Judo Federation (IJF) was not shy in taking Cookson down a peg or two. Then, the recently-elected Briton had suggested that some summer sports, such as judo, might be shifted to the winter Olympics in order to balance out the Games. He was shot down as naïve.
"I think to spring that level of surprise on so many people was a strange thing to do"
Speaking to me yesterday, Cookson is clearly no longer naïve enough to let any schadenfreude register. “I don’t want to get into a spat with Mr Vizer,” Cookson said. “I think to spring that level of surprise on so many people – his own management committee apparently didn’t know – was a strange thing to do. He must have had his reasons for doing it. To have an all-out war between SportAccord and the Olympic movement is not a good move in my view. Our support and our association is strongest with the Olympic movement of course. That’s where our loyalties lie primarily.
“We haven’t resigned from SportAccord yet, but I don’t rule that out for the future,” Cookson added. “We’ll assess the situation. I don’t think these kind of disputes do anybody any good. The Olympic movement has gone through a process for Agenda 2020. The federations were involved. Some people might not like some of the outcomes from it but I think to force that kind of confrontation is not the best way forward. Within the Olympic movement there are problems of capacity, numbers and costs. Those can’t be resolved by dispute; they have to be addressed by discussion, debate and consensus building. Sometimes we have to give a little to gain a little.”
For Patrick Nally, the sports industry veteran prowling the halls in Sochi, the scenario has echoes of a bygone era.
“In some ways this is a repeat of history,” he explained. “When GAISF [General Association of International Sports Federations – the predecessor of SportAccord] was set up as a permanent centre in 76, Tommy Keller was the president. The feeling was there needed to be a counter balance between the federations and the IOC, so the Olympic and non-Olympic federations had this union where they could look after the best interests of sport, and in some ways protect themselves against over zealous event organisers such as the Olympics.
“As GAISF became more influential, and more of a threat to the IOC, certainly by the time Samaranch arrived, the IOC needed to minimise the conflict and take control. Setting up the summer Olympic sports group was part and parcel of that. Divide and conquer. Then they had the benefit of when Tommy Keller passed away then Un Yong Kim took over the presidency, and it was always understood that he was looking after the IOC’s interests. He had his own ambitions to be president of the IOC so everything GAISF did was in the framework of the IOC. Then Hein Vergruggen took over, another good Olympic man.
“But Vizer gets elected in St Petersberg [at SportAccord 2013] against Bernard Lapasset which is a bit of a surprise to everybody because who is Vizer? Lapasset was being supported by Verbruggen and it was a bit of a shock because Vizer was talking about a major multi-sports event supported by Russia. I could sense at that point that the alarm bells started ringing again within the IOC.
“We’ve now had two years of Vizer and there is no question that at everything he was trying to do, he was undercut,” Nally added. “The announcement of the Olympic channel was also a big old slap in the face because here’s US$450 million being spent on a TV channel when poor old SportAccord are trying to develop their own television structures for all federations. The political maneuverings around the mega events SportAccord is trying to set up, it’s very clear they’ve been kept in their box.
“So what does Vizer do? He either just keeps the status quo and stays in his box, or he comes out fighting. He was probably anticipating that someone was going to run against him in which case the IOC could portray him as having done nothing. Well he has done nothing because he hasn’t been allowed to do anything. Knock him down a bit then stick in an Olympic-friendly president. But then nobody ran against him, which I think was a misjudgement from Bach and the IOC because they obviously think he’s going to be quiet and behave himself.
"All this has come about because there's so much money in the Olympics so everyone takes the Olympics as the ultimate god of sport"
“I was taken aback because it was Tommy Keller reincarnated. Some of what he says was very practical and pragmatic and if all the federations actually read what he said, he’s saying this is about sport. This money that gets disbursed by non-sporting people, these decisions that get made by non-sporting people, that’s not right.
“The call yesterday was to come to the table and work more cooperatively. But who’s table is it? Is it the federations’ or the Olympics’? All of this has come about because there’s so much money in the Olympics so everybody takes the Olympics as the ultimate god of sport. Vizer wants to position the federations and sport as the ultimate god of sport. But the Olympics has the power and has had for some time.”
Vizer has attempted to shift the balance of power away from the IOC – the mega event organiser to rule them all – and towards SportAccord – the organisation he wants to position as the core stakeholder of sport, the combined representatives of athletes and practitioners of all sports around the world.
His full-blooded approach and personal attack on the IOC president have let Thomas Bach position himself, easily, as the victim, and it is the judo man who looks set to be outmaneuvered by the fencer.
Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, it’s clear the dust will not settle on this for some time.