SportAccord 2015

Travelling back through the night from Sochi, having attended SportAccord 2015 as a Speaker, I had a chance to reflect on an eye-opening few days. For those readers unaware of SportAccord and where it sits in the Olympic organogram, it is essentially the umbrella organisation for more than 100 (Olympic and non-Olympic) international sports federations, ranging from FIA, FIFA, UCI, to the international federations for bridge, canoeing, softball, floorball, judo, lifesaving, netball, Muay Thai, orienteering, and sport medicine, but to name a few. Since its origin in 1921, it has co-existed and engaged in dialogue with the Olympic authorities, namely the International Olympic Committee (the IOC); which ultimately distributes 90% of its revenue to the international federations.

SportAccord was not a new phenomenon to me, because when I was Secretariat of the Sports Rights Owners Coalition, I often coordinated our quarterly meetings to coincide, given the amount of international federations who could additionally attend SROC.

The politics of SportAccord were a complete surprise however, and you can allude to a variety of reasons as to its affinity with Russia and why it took place in Sochi this year, is going back next year, and the fact they just opened a Moscow office. What I can say, if there is an award for effort and transport organisation, that definitely goes to the Russians, and is a good enough reason!

I thought I experienced some turbulence upon landing in Sochi in the early hours of Tuesday morning, but that was nothing compared to the earthquake that ensued. I was reading on SportAccord’s daily bulletin that the opening ceremony was almost as explosive as the SportAccord President’s welcome speech.  Marius Vizer took the opportunity in front of a watching IOC President, Thomas Bach, to blast the IOC and Bach. It marked an unprecedented public rebuke within the Olympic movement and exposed a bitter power struggle at the highest levels of sport. Vizer essentially accused the IOC of lacking transparency, ignoring the federations, blocking his plans for new multi-sport competitions and wasting money on an Olympic TV channel and opening and closing ceremonies. He described the IOC system as “expired, outdated, wrong, unfair and not at all transparent.” I highly recommend reading the speech, because a lot of what he said might make sense, but there is a way to deliver the message! Politics and sport often go in tandem, and the debate, tremors and aftershock ensued. Was this political suicide? How would the IOC react?

The debate is still out on question one, with some observers saying it was calculated and intentional, and has shown the IOC the status quo can’t continue. The IOC President responded with some nostalgia about returning to Sochi, and tried to tackle some of the issues raised by Vizer, who merely retorted, “If you want to be respected you have to be fairer”. I think it is safe to assume that the honeymoon period for Bach is well and truly over. They are like children in the school yard. Vizer was clearly irked that the IOC decided not to hold an executive board meeting during the SportAccord convention in Sochi, given that the board has met during all the previous annual conferences, since 2003. The IOC also prohibited the two bid cities for the 2022 Winter Games — Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan — from making presentations in Sochi.

Following the welcome speeches, the earthquake registered higher on the richter scale. Firstly the IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation) withdrew from SportAccord with its President citing Vizer as a “chief or dictator…telling major sports federations what to do”. The International Shooting Federation also followed this route. World Archery and the International Canoe Federation, suspended their involvement with SportAccord, but did not withdraw completely. The International Paralympic Committee withdrew its associate membership, and a letter of protest at Vizer’s comments was signed by 14 federation presidents (including FIFA), and the IAAF. Vizer blamed Bach for pressuring the international federations. They know who butters their bread; see end of first paragraph!

On Tuesday, Vizer was vehemently defending his position and showed no backing down and conceding any playground space to Bach stating, “I expressed the reality of sport. The question is to clean up the system and to make it fair for the benefit of sport. Not a system that defends itself and a specific group or leaders or cardinals of sport because we don’t need that and sport doesn’t need that. I don’t care if some people are afraid to say that but I say that. We don’t need cardinals of sport. We don’t need popes. We need fair leaders who are examples for sports through their attitude, behaviour, measures, actions, initiatives, strategies and vision.”

The debate ensued, with all the member bodies that have acronyms to their name – ASOIF, ARISF, AIOWF, AIM – meeting, discussing their response, and issuing statements. As you can imagine, there is only going to be one winner in the short term, and that is the IOC in my opinion, because of the revenue distribution, upon which the smaller federations are particularly reliant. However the hope has to be that constructive dialogue ensues, and the IOC counters some of the issues raised by Vizer, as that will be to the benefit of the entire sports movement. The “off the record” discussions in the bar was that Bach now has to take Vizer seriously, and the turbulence that Vizer is experiencing, will be worth it in the long term, as the IOC now needs to react positively. Astute politics?

Aside from that, there were some interesting panel sessions, and I featured on a Motorsport Panel entitled “What it takes for motorsport to thrive in a fast changing landscape”, alongside most notably the Sochi Autodrom Promoter, Marit Strømøy (female “Formula One World Powerboat Racer”, and the President of ARISF (Association of IOC Recognised International Sports Federations) who is also President of the UIM – International Powerboating Federation. We had a lively discussion on the importance of showcasing new technology in motorsport, whether noise is a real issue, and should be sacrificed for the environmental responsibilities stakeholders feel compelled to react to, and how to engage the fan, and the current challenges.

I highlighted the fact that over 6 races Formula E has reached a cumulative TV audience of over 100 million, and the positivity around showcasing technology, attracting OEMs, and engaging fans via social media. I also made a point that motorsport personalities should all be superstars, and engage in social media etc. Marit made a similar point, and then I checked, and she currently has 400 followers, so she was obviously talking from experience. She might consider following in the tweets of some footballers, who now post in multiple languages to engage with their fanbase.

All in all, it was an eventful few days in Sochi, and it will be interesting to see how the political landscape materialises over the next few months, or whether any earthquake warnings need to be sent out.

23rd April 2015