Nick Butler

Chelyabinsk, the latest stop on the Olympic Movement's recent Russian tour, is a city in the Southern Urals most interesting for two rather unusual historical happenings. The first, over half a century ago in 1957, was a nuclear spillage at nearby Ozyorsk rated as history’s worst until Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. This was followed in February 2013 by the falling of a meteor close to the city, the light of which was reportedly brighter than the sun.

In recent years sport, and specifically martial arts, have formed a third headline factor, with last August's World Judo Championships followed by a global taekwondo extravaganza officially beginning in the city tomorrow.

Last year’s event was showcased by the International Judo Federation (IJF) President Marius Vizer, also head of SportAccord and considered one of most powerful figures in sport. His esteem was seemingly illustrated by the attendance (in hardly the easiest place to get to) of luminaries including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Change in the subsequent nine months has been neither nuclear nor meteoric, but, following Vizer’s remarkable outburst offending most of the sporting world at last month’s SportAccord Convention in Sochi, it hasn’t been too far off.

The World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) today became the sixth International Federation to suspend its membership of the so called “umbrella” organisation, while they also followed the International Boxing Association in withdrawing from the World Combat Games, one of the flagship events of both Vizer and SportAccord.

"Taekwondo is a philosophy based on self-discipline, integrity and respect,” declared the body’s President Chungwon Choue, a guest of Vizer's at last year's World Judo Championships, when announcing the withdrawal. “At the WTF we believe we have an obligation to stay true to these values.”

Today's WTF General Assembly, which began with a moment of silence for the Nepalese Earthquake victims, saw taekwondo tie is colours firmly to the IOC mast ©WTF

While the taekwondo community was still on, well, around the fifth course of a rather magnificent banquet meal this evening, news spread that six had become seven and United World Wrestling had made a similar move, forcing one journalist to jump out of his seat and begin a frantic hunt for WiFi in order to update his story.

Slightly less blunt than Choue, UWW President Nenad Lalovic vowed not to “participate in the activities and games organised by SportAccord, until the relations with the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) has improved to the latter’s satisfaction”.

Both gestures were further indications of a trend clear almost immediately after Vizer’s initial words.

Federations, particularly Summer Olympic ones, are overwhelmingly keen to side with the IOC and are almost battling among themselves to be the Federation best showing its unwavering loyalty. The only exception to this, for obvious reasons, is the IJF, and it is possible to imagine some figures within that body may even be secretly yearning to stand alongside the other 27.

A fortnight ago, we discussed who were the winners and losers of the "Battle of Sochi", and concluded that the IOC fitted into neither category. They appeared to have the upper hand but possible repercussions were far from only positive, with more attention on the Agenda 2020 reforms and with the loyal Federations having greatly enhanced their bargaining power for future negotiations.

It remains too early to truly assess too much of this, but the IOC currently remains fully on top. Rather than being rattled or disrupted by the criticism, officials have appeared more bemused and perplexed, questioning why Vizer should abandon any courtesy or political nous in such a spectacular and, most likely, backfiring manner.

In many ways, the last two weeks have offered a return to what the Olympic Movement does best, namely public platitudes and quiet plotting behind closed doors rather than open conflict.

“Collaboration is essential,” said an absent Bach in a pre-recorded video message to open today’s General Assembly. “Today the Olympic Movement is more vibrant than ever. Our task is to keep it there. We can best do this by standing together and united so all stakeholders can make the most out of it.”

Bach himself has been off on a whistlestop tour of Oceania, participating in a rugby sevens lineout in Fiji and a traditional powhiri welcome ceremony in New Zealand. As the German said himself in Sochi, it has been “business as usual”.

IOC President Thomas Bach has been otherwise occupied on a tour of Australia, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Zealand over the last two weeks ©IOC

The rest of us have been similarly sidetracked with such mundane events as FIFA Executive Committee nominations and Indian sporting incompetence, not to mention UK General Elections and the business end of domestic European football seasons.

But, as AIBA’s move last week and the WTF and UWW messages today show, the Federations have been stirred, and it was the sheer suddenness and abruptness of Vizer’s words - his lack of those supposed taekwondo values of “self-discipline, integrity and respect” - that have provoked the greatest opposition.

While Olympic and pro-Olympic figures have been keen to condemn Vizer's words, the man himself has been conspicuous by his absence.

The only signal has been a rather cryptic Twitter message posted late last week, which has so far received a woefully inadequate one retweet and one favourite. ”When one speaks the truth,” Vizer wrote, the “modality, time and place are not important anymore!”

Unfortunately, I’m not too sure how many others agree with this message.

Marius Vizer's wonderfully cryptic Twitter message has been virtually his only public glimpse since departing Sochi ©Twitter
Marius Vizer's wonderfully cryptic Twitter message has been virtually his only public glimpse since departing Sochi ©Twitter

Time will tell if his support improves, and if anyone else is brave enough to launch similar criticism.

Fencing and possibly weightlifting could be the next to withdraw from the World Combat Games, an event which has been somewhat unfairly caught in the crossfire of all this unrest. Then the IOC Executive Board and Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) Executive Council meetings early next month are likely to be the next major decision points.

The latter meeting will shine more light on one of the most interesting, and least talked about, aspects of the whole drama: namely the future of the World Beach Games. Awarded by Vizer to Sochi seemingly behind ANOC’s back last month, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko last week declared the Games as Russia’s greatest multi-sporting focus in the absence of an Olympic bid for the foreseeable future.

ANOC have promised “exciting announcements” during the meeting, so it will be fascinating to see if this involves some sort of rival event, or the consolidation of an inaugural Games in the Russian coastal resort, which has plenty of major event experience but appears distinctly lacking in beaches and sand.

All of this will come apparent as the saga unfolds.

But as the taekwondo community composes itself for a focus tomorrow on sport rather than politics, they hope, it is clear Vizer’s words and the manner of them have been neither forgotten nor forgiven.