A week on Wednesday (April 20) will mark the one year anniversary of one of the most memorable moments of 2015 in sport politics.
When International Judo Federation and SportAccord President Marius Vizer, worn down by a gradual erosion of power in the latter role due to the intrusions of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), launched a remarkable counter-attack attempt during the body’s General Assembly in Sochi.
"I made a number of proposals in favour and for the benefit of IFs and SportAccord but we have never received a positive reaction,” Vizer said in front of the watching IOC head Thomas Bach. "Mr. President, stop blocking the SportAccord strategy in its mission to identify and organise conventions and multi-sport games.”
Sadly for Vizer, it was he who appeared to suffer an ippon as the IOC maneuvered the International Federations on side. One by one, they resigned their SportAccord membership in order to align with the IOC. Vizer, defeated, announced his resignation little more than a month later.
SportAccord has since veered from catastrophe to ignominy. At one point it appeared likely to fade out of existence altogether. A “new entity” was being planned to replace it, we were told in June, as International Ski Federation President GIan-Franco Kasper took over on an interim basis. Surely one of history’s most reluctant leaders, Kasper responded to a question then about what was happening by snapping back: “Oh, can’t you just ask me about skiing.”
In a massively reduced portfolio of responsibilities, the main aim of the revamped body was going to be organising the annual SportAccord Convention, with a merger planned between SportAccord and the Convention to make this easier. But then, battered and bruised, the beleaguered body began to fight back, led by the non-Olympic sports, who were still in need of a vehicle in which to air their grievances.
A proposal to realign the membership so that Olympic sports would have five out of seven votes despite only compiling 34 of the 88 constituent sporting federations was defeated. The hoped-for merger was also postponed until new statutes are confirmed. Given all the problems and scandals endemic in sport in recent months, there also appeared a growing feeling that an organisation like SportAccord was necessary to debate and resolve pressing issues.
Its future thus remains up in the air ahead of the SportAccord General Assembly in Lausanne next Friday (April 22) in which a new President will be elected to replace the ailing Kasper.
Our first reaction when seeing that this contest would pit Patrick Baumann, the Swiss IOC member and secretary general of the International Basketball Federation, against Russia’s World Underwater Federation President Anna Arzhanova was a licking of the lips and a preparation for a proxy version of Bach - through Baumann - versus Vizer - in Arzhanova - round two.
The establishment IOC candidate against the non-Olympic wildcard.
Of course, the reality is far more complicated and nuanced than this. No-one could realistically campaign for the Presidency without working to get the IOC on side, because, if they so wished, it appears well within the IOC’s power to finish off SportAccord once and for all. On the other hand, it would be very difficult for someone to be elected without appealing to the non-Olympic membership majority. Both the IOC and Vizer may be playing a behind the scenes role, but it does not yet seem particularly obvious or significant.
When speaking to both Arzhanova and Baumann in recent days, each was impressive when asked about their own perceived weaknesses.
"I have years of participation in SportAccord as well as my experience in FIBA,” said Baumann when asked about how he would appeal to all members. “I hope to be able to bring some of that experience to be of benefit. I come from a sport which is trying to get an event into the Olympics and I have been an event organiser with Lausanne 2020. This multi-faceted approach is important in bringing the glue back together in SportAccord.”
Arzhanova was similarly comfortable. “We must improve our relations with the IOC," she said. "All the Federations - Olympic and non-Olympic - should come together, and walk together hand in hand with the IOC. We should propose that our multi-sport Games should be involved in the new Olympic Channel.”
Differences between the two candidates appear subtle.
Both were keen to stress SportAccord's traditional role as a debating forum for like-minded federations to come together and discuss common issues. This is more how the body, then known as GAISF (General Association of International Sports Federations), was first envisaged in the 1970s when coxed by former International Rowing Federation head Thomas Keller.
Both are also keen to entice back the four Federations which are yet to return following their withdrawals last year: representing athletics, golf, rowing and shooting, the sport in which Arzhanova was formerly a member of the Russian team. Ensuring their return is a “priority” for her, while Baumann seeks to lead by example and persuade them to return by illustrating the good work SportAccord is capable of. There is a long way to go, however, with various other federations apparently reluctant to pay their subscription fees due to a lack of interest.
Arzhanova’s focus was more towards reviving the multi-sport Games stagnant since the departure of Vizer. This principally involved the World Combat Games, where Kazakhstan under its powerful new National Olympic Committee President Timur Kulibayev has emerged as a potential host in 2018.
The World Mind Games and the yet-to-be-held World Urban Games could also be resurrected, with others, a World “Extreme” or World “Water” Games, also being mooted. This would depend on interest, she said, although it is clearly a key aim as it was her first answer when asked about her “vision” for SportAccord.
Baumann was far more cautious and cited these Games, like SportAccord’s anti-doping programme, as something which could be revived, but only following a concerted expression of support.
Another difference related to the merger. Arzhanova barely mentioned the SportAccord Convention during her interview, and, while she did not rule it out in the future if demand grows, she does not currently see the need for a merger.
“At the moment, many Federations are not willing and I do not think it is a good idea," she said. "There were a lot of complaints."
Baumann, a member of the Council which came up with the initial merger plan, admits it was “not a well-executed idea”. But he believes that “keeping the organisations separate doesn’t make sense in a medium to long term frame”.
The 48-year-old is, you feel, something of a reluctant candidate. "A number of colleagues and friends in the Ifs suggested I should run for this position,” he said in a letter sent to all member Federations late last week. “As you know, I have eventually done so.” He certainly took some persuading to stand and, if successful, it is possible he may end up relinquishing his Lausanne 2020 role in order to allow enough time, although this is something he claims not to have seriously thought about so far.
There are suggestions that the SportAccord Convention, led by Italy’s Association of Summer Olympic International Federations President Francesco Ricci Bitti, is hoping to essentially assume all power after a successful merger. Kasper is certainly close to Ricci Bitti, and their respective acolytes in ASOIF, Andrew Ryan, and FIS, Sarah Lewis, have been pulling the strings in recent months. Baumann appears their preferred choice, although my instinct is, now that he has committed, he would be a capable leader who would be far more than a puppet, either for them or the IOC.
One drawback for Arzhanova, at 46 and two years Baumann’s junior, could be her nationality. When asked about Russia’s suspension from the International Association of Athletics Federations, she passionately claimed that the ban should be lifted before Rio 2016 in order to avoid persecuting clean athletes. “I believe rules are the rules, and who is guilty has to pay,” she said. “But I believe that athletes who are clean should not be banned.”
This all seems rather irrelevant so far, however, and her nationality seems relatively unimportant. She seems popular and astute and, while we viewed her as a rank outsider when first proposed, she clearly has a serious opportunity.
Time will tell how significant this election will be. Many observers and journalists, for example, are remaining apathetic and uninterested about the Presidential race.
When new staff joined insidethegames, the introductory lesson always involved a chart being drawn on a whiteboard in the office used for little else. In the middle would be the IOC. To their right would be the Association of National Olympic Committees, representing the NOCs, and to their left, SportAccord, representing the IFs.
SportAccord today is nowhere near as powerful as the other two. Whether it will one day return to those lofty heights depends in no small part to the stewardship of either Baumann or Arzhanova following their election victory next week.