The Long Read: why the IOC’s showmen are sport’s finest freestylers

This week, SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long questions the logic behind the IOC's decision to add new sports to the Olympic programme on a non-binding basis.

The Long Read: why the IOC’s showmen are sport’s finest freestylers

This week, SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long questions the logic behind the IOC's decision to add new sports to the Olympic programme on a non-binding basis.

Thomas Bach’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) presidency has come to be defined by the sweeping proposals laid out in Olympic Agenda 2020, his impressively titled 'strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement'. Bundled somewhere within that wide-ranging set of 40 recommendations is his legacy, and a reformist vision for what the Olympic Games will look like for generations to come. Agenda 2020 is, by definition, a long-term plan, one that will chart the imminent course of the Olympic milieu and inform every decision the IOC makes from here on in.

It would appear, however, that the committee’s decision-makers are not expert strategists, but masters of spontaneity who specialise in making things up as they go along. Take last week’s IOC session, for example. Anyone who sat in on proceedings on Wednesday - the day when five sports were added to the Tokyo 2020 Games in what the IOC hailed as ‘the most comprehensive evolution of the Olympic programme in modern history’ - might have expected a scripted performance. The IOC does, after all, have history when it comes to sapping the life from an historic occasion, and the decision to introduce the new sports had been seen as a formality. What was delivered instead, though, was yet another demonstration of the committee's ability to freestyle when it needs to.

The session was marked by the familiar buzzwords. ’Youth engagement’ and ‘innovation’, chimed those who took the mic, united in their collective conviction that both are integral to the future of the Olympic Movement. With each speech came the usual mix of self-congratulation and braggadocio. Backslapping punctuated nods of approval among the executive board as Franco Carraro, the Italian chair of the IOC's programme commission, waxed lyrical about the committee’s fresh new vision for the Olympic Games. It was quite the show.

Shortly before the all-important show of hands, however, the crowd of assembled committee members appeared unimpressed by what they'd heard. Questions from the floor demanded a more detailed explanation of what was meant by ’innovation’ but when no member of the executive board could provide anything more than a vague, bumbling definition, confusion ensued. The addition of the new sports would ensure Tokyo 2020 would be the most innovative Games ever staged, was the best any of them could offer. That was that.

But it was difficult not to be dissatisfied with this interpretation of innovation. Far from what many might have expected, this was no revolutionary breakthrough or game-changing, tear-up-the-script idea. This was far less exciting than that. Innovation, at least as the IOC would have it, merely pertained to anything the Olympic movement has not tried before (not counting baseball and softball, of course).

Never mind that other organisations - the Red Bulls and ESPNs of this world - have been innovating for years. Never mind that ‘emerging’, ‘youthful’ and, sickliest of all, ‘urban’ sports like skateboarding and surfing have been around for decades. Never mind tired old squash. This was official: the IOC, Sport’s Great Overseers, had enlisted exploratory commissions to conduct lengthy evaluation reports. Executives had got paid to tell other executives information they could have found in seconds on the internet and their conclusion was definitive: innovation would be coming to sport in 2020. You heard it here first.

Except this conclusion was still, somehow, unsatisfactory. Even as it was being unanimously ratified by the same IOC members who had questioned it, the decision to add five - or, more accurately, six, to give softball the credit it deserves - new sports to the Tokyo programme felt like a half-baked idea that could hardly be called innovative.

On the face of it, did it not merely amount to a formalisation of the demonstration sports schemes of years past? Amid all the hyperbole, was last week’s dazzling display of improv not merely a forced attempt by an inherently conservative organisation to curry favour among left-leaning millennials? The lingering question, though, is whether any of it has been properly thought out.

To start with, the IOC’s insistence upon restricting the athlete quota at the Games meant the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) woke up the morning after its post-decision party with a sizeable headache. As it stands, just six national teams in each of baseball and softball, both binned after Beijing 2008, will be allowed to compete, meaning many of the top-ranked nations, particularly those from the Americas, are set to miss out. The WBSC, which had wanted each of its sports to have eight representatives, is now preparing to engage the IOC’s sports department in yet more negotiations, on top of the difficult player participation battle that will be needed with Major League Baseball (MLB) to ensure Tokyo’s baseball competition avoids going the way of Rio’s golf.

Speaking to SportsPro last week, WBSC president Riccardo Fraccari insisted that he was “confident” the stars of MLB, whose commissioner Rob Manfred has said the timing of Tokyo 2020 was “not ideal” for the league, would compete at the Games in four years’ time. But the real uncertainty surrounds what happens after Tokyo. Asked when he might begin the lengthy pitch to the four bid cities for the 2024 Games, Fraccari insisted his focus would first be on ensuring baseball and softball have “the best Games possible” in 2020 before beginning any formal discussions with the candidates. That way, he said, it would be “easier to go with something in hand and say, ‘listen, we have this, in terms of attendance, in terms of TV, and this is our credentials’.”

The problem with that, of course, is the 2024 host city will be decided by the IOC in September 2017, almost three years before the Tokyo Games are due to take place.

Plans for surfing, meanwhile, are equally questionable. Tokyo 2020’s surfing events will be staged on natural waves, with the IOC’s programme commission having selected Chiba, a well-known surf spot 45 minutes by train from Tokyo, to host the contests. This decision has been welcomed by the president of the International Surfing Association (ISA), Fernando Aguerre, yet there are no guarantees mother nature will play ball. The IOC, in its cringeworthy determination to be down with the kids, appears to have set aside its long-standing concerns over the problems that creates for scheduling, regardless of the fact that elite events organised by the World Surf League (WSL) are run over periods of around 11 days to allow for unpredictable ocean conditions.

And what of all this talk of innovation? The addition of surfing - and, for that matter, skateboarding and sport climbing - is certainly a break from the Olympic tradition, but if the IOC truly wanted to be innovative, staging the Tokyo 2020 surfing events on artificial waves might have been a more exciting, more progressive way of going about it.

The ISA has been at pains to point out that wave pool technology has advanced leaps and bounds in recent times and will continue to do so in the coming years, pioneered by real-life scientists and engineers at companies that deal exclusively in innovating. New facilities are being built in inland locales around the world, creating recreational hubs and spectacular arena-like lagoons in which to showcase elite surfing up close to crowds who might otherwise be uninitiated or unable to get to the ocean. You never know, presenting Olympic surfing in this novel setting might have inspired landlocked governments in, say, Africa or Asia to invest a few million dollars in building a facility. Imagine the legacy.

As for skateboarding, its inclusion has been overshadowed by continuing confusion surrounding who governs the sport. The International Roller Sports Federation (FIRS), which led the pitch to Tokyo 2020, is recognised by the IOC as the organising body for Olympic skateboarding. It will handle matters such as anti-doping and anti-corruption but it is the president of the International Skateboarding Federation (ISF), Gary Ream, who will chair the Tokyo 2020 Skateboarding Commission.

As SportsPro editor Eoin Connolly noted after last week’s decision, the situation is further compounded by an extraordinary lawsuit filed against Ream and the ISF by World Skateboarding Federation (WSF) president Tim McFerran, who has been left out of further discussions on the Tokyo event but claims to represent the “truly global skateboarding-only federation”. Among other things, the ISF is accused of manipulating doping protocols to avoid test failures, while it is also claimed that Ream himself has no experience of running skateboarding events and has got a little too chummy with IOC executives. 

For its part, the IOC has refused to weigh into the pending suit and the committee’s sports director, Kit McConnell, declined to discuss the issue in Rio last week. Declaring himself “very happy” with the set-up in place for skateboarding, McConnell insisted in an interview with SportsPro that “no exceptions” had been made to shoehorn the sport and its coveted audience into the Olympic family.

How significant is the impact of Olympic inclusion for a sport when it could be in for one edition and out the next?

“We have a recognised federation, FIRS, that we have the relationship with, but then, not unlike a number of sports, they’ve also engaged external expertise to help them plan and deliver the competition, the engagement and all of those areas around the Games,” he said.

“So yes, the skateboarding commission that will operate under FIRS and with Tokyo 2020 integrates others outside the international federation that’s recognised by us, but we’re very comfortable with that: it just means that they’re bringing in expertise, it means they’re bringing in connection with the top athletes, it means they’re engaging with the wider skateboarding community and doing that for the benefit not only of the Olympic competition but also the wider development of the sport.”

Individual cases aside, there are broader questions surrounding the logic of adding new sports to the Olympic programme on a non-binding, one-off basis. For all the exposure and prestige that comes with being part of the Games, how significant is the impact of Olympic inclusion for a sport when it could be in for one edition and out the next? At what point do the Olympics, so often held up as sport’s apex event, become the pinnacle of an athlete’s career? And how can youngsters possibly begin to get inspired - to dream of one day competing on the greatest stage of all - when there are no guarantees their chosen sport will feature in any future editions?

There is no denying that the Olympic Movement is in a necessary state of flux as the IOC strains to modernise and stay relevant in the 21st Century. Admittedly, opening up the Games programme, as outlined in Bach’s hurried-through Agenda 2020 proposals, grants flexibility and more power to the local organisers whilst helping to build interest among new audiences. But the never-ending uncertainty and dialogue, not to mention all the presentations, it creates will surely only dilute, detract from and, eventually, devalue the Olympic brand.

Then there is the contentious issue of revenue distribution. The IOC reiterated on Wednesday that none of the sports added to the programme will receive a cut of Games income. Not a single dime, despite the fact baseball and softball will likely generate considerable ticket revenue for Tokyo 2020 given their popularity in Japan, and despite the fact increased funding is so often espoused as a major benefit of Olympic inclusion. A cynical mind might say this policy is shamefully immoral if not blatantly exploitative, a way for the committee to generate more money for itself off the back of those sports that need it most.

Each of the disciplines permitted into Tokyo 2020 has already had to jump through a lengthy - and no doubt costly - succession of Olympic-sized hoops to get there. Baseball and softball’s federations were forced by the IOC into an unprecedented merger, of course, and who could forget how, in 2013, all six sports were made to sweat before being unceremoniously cast aside as the committee farcically expelled and then readmitted wrestling. That all six have now, just three years later, been accepted with open arms is a puzzling turnaround, to say the least.

As each sport willingly pursues a permanent place in the Games, expect the goalposts to be shifted once again. So long as the IOC continues to tinker with its rules, it will be difficult not to feel like they're just making things up as they go along.

Michael Long (@_MichaelLong) is SportsPro's Americas editor.