Game of Thrones in the world of sports politics

Marius Vizer addresses SportAccord delegates in Sochi, Russia. Photo: SportAccord
Marius Vizer addresses SportAccord delegates in Sochi, Russia. Photo: SportAccord

It’s a pretty safe bet that Marius Vizer won’t be winning any awards for sporting diplomacy in the near future.

The SportAccord president launched a fierce and wide-ranging attack on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) a month ago. The resulting fallout has added a spicy Game of Thrones dimension to the generally mundane world of sports politics.

Vizer used his opening address at SportAccord’s annual convention in Sochi, Russia, to lay out his grievances, describing the IOC system as expired, outdated, wrong, unfair and not at all transparent.

The fallout is still being felt throughout the corridors of the world’s sports federations.

At last count, the international sporting federations that represent equestrian, basketball, athletics, shooting, archery, canoeing, boxing, hockey, taekwondo, wrestling, bobsleigh, triathlon, weightlifting, rowing, modern pentathlon, volleyball, curling, table tennis, rugby, cycling and fencing had either withdrawn or suspended their SportAccord ties.

The 28-member Association of Summer Olympic International Federations is pretty incensed, too. Its members, with the exception of judo, of which Vizer is the president, voted to suspend relations with SportAccord pending a review.

SportAccord is a global sporting union formed in 1967. Before the current suspensions and withdrawals, it had 92 full members and 17 associate members. A majority represent non-Olympic disciplines.

The fallout from Vizer’s address has dominated news coverage, but the question has to be asked: Is there any truth to what he said?

Vizer said in his speech that, as SportAccord president, he had always tried to develop a constructive collaboration with the IOC and with its president, Thomas Bach.

“It never became reality,” he said. “I made a number of proposals in favor and for the benefit of international federations and SportAccord, but we have never received a positive reaction.”

He directly asked Bach to “stop blocking the SportAccord strategy in its mission to identify and organize conventions and multi-sport games”.

Vizer laid out his grievances around the selection of Olympic host cities.

He asserted that the Olympic’s major reform programme, Agenda 2020, did not properly address the interests of international federations, and failed to deliver clearer criteria, rules and principles.

He described the Olympics as a brand produced by the international federations, successfully packaged and commercialized by the IOC. “On the other hand, the IOC system is expired, outdated, wrong, unfair and not at all transparent,” he said, in his most stinging criticism.

“The Olympic Games belong to all of us and we need real reforms.”

Sport, he said, was in misery in more than 100 countries around the globe.

Vizer certainly pulled no punches.

However, the bluntness of his message should not distract us from examining its essence. He condemns a lack of transparency – and this is certainly true to some extent.

We need look back only a few weeks, when delegates to the FEI Sports Forum were looking at a number of changes to the Olympic disciplines of Jumping, Eventing and Dressage in a bid to ensure the wide appeal of the sports, and deliver a sporting contest that can be presented in media-friendly packages.

This is all about cementing the place of equestrian sport at the Olympics.

However, in reality, there is no clear performance benchmark that equestrian sport – or indeed any other lower tier Olympic sport – can look to as a yardstick that will guarantee their Olympic spot long-term.

In fact, no sport is entirely sure just how far they have to go to ensure their Olympic future.

The same can be said of the handful of sports that feel they are knocking on the door of Olympic inclusion. None of them knows exactly what they must do to make that critical jump to Olympic status.

The problem with Vizer’s remarks is that they were simply too polarising. The firebrand nature of his speech was a full-on assault on the IOC.

All of a sudden, the IOC and SportAccord didn’t look so complementary after all. Some international federations were asking the question: Just where is SportAccord taking its members?

Crucially, for sporting federations already within the Olympic fold, the fierce nature of Vizer’s speech effectively left them having to take sides. The safe and sensible option was to side with the IOC.

It is no surprise that the majority of federations to sever or suspend their ties with SportAccord are already Olympic sports. I dare say others will follow, including, perhaps, some that feel they are knocking on the door of Olympic inclusion.

I suspect there will be some sympathy and support for Vizer’s position among federations with little chance of getting into the Olympics any time soon. He was, after all, re-elected unopposed for another four-year term as president.

Vizer, in the weeks following his address, has insisted he has no personal agenda. He says he is seeking a meeting with Bach to clear the air.

I think it’s safe to assume he’s not backing down. He insists his speech was intended to be constructive.

It seems likely that a good many international federations would welcome constructive talks in this area, but with considerably more diplomacy than Vizer was able to muster in his address.

Bach appears to have dismissed any prospect of the IOC and SportAccord working together on a new model for the Olympics. Was Vizer’s speech ever likely to get any other kind of reaction?

Vizer clearly has ambitious and expansionist plans for SportAccord. He has been a vocal proponent of a multisport World Games, which he argues would not be in competition with the Olympic Games. Olympic officials are not convinced on that point..

For now, Vizer is busy trying to quell the fires of discontent within his own organisation. As for constructive dialogue, it seems he has made that job a whole lot tougher.

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