David Owen ©ITG

You might easily have missed it, but 2017 will bring the 50th anniversary of the birth of SportAccord - or the Global Association of International Sports Federations, as we may soon have to get used to calling it.

On April 21, 1967 - a Friday - delegates from more than 20 International Sport Federations gathered in the Continental Hotel, opposite Lausanne railway station, and began a three-day meeting. 

On April 22, they settled on the title, General Assembly of International Sports Federations, by a majority vote. GAIF, not GAISF, was the designated acronym, with the latter rejected because ISF was the standard abbreviation for the International Ski Federation.

On April 23, William Berge Phillips, Australian President of the International Swimming Federation (FINA), was elected GAIF's first President with a one-year term. 

He defeated two other nominees in the vote - R.William Jones, long-serving secretary general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation and Thomi Keller, the forceful young President of the International Rowing Federation (FISA). Keller was to take over the Presidency in 1969 and led the body for the next 17 years.

Some context would probably be helpful. By 1967, Olympic IFs had been having to try and deal with Avery Brundage, the largely Chicago-based International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, for 15 years. This must have been a bit like living with an older relative who loves you sincerely, but is prone to fits of temper and whose views seem increasingly outdated, yet who always thinks they know best what is good for you.

According to historian David Miller, writing in his magisterial Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC, Brundage was "the best and occasionally the worst friend that the Olympic Movement could have, for his obsessive commitment to the past, to traditional sporting ideals of the nineteenth century and what he perceived as de Coubertin’s philosophy, blinded him to the changes of an evolving society".

Another Olympic specialist and author, Allen Guttmann, who wrote an Olympic biography of Brundage, The Games Must Go On, published in 1984, cites a comment made by the long-time United States IOC member Doug Roby in an interview in 1981. "We'd have meetings with the National Olympic Committees or the IFs," Roby is quoted as saying, "And [Brundage] would say, 'we’ll take it under advisement'. It was a brush-off…He just wouldn’t listen…Let them talk, and then forget it."

Former IOC President Avery Brundage opposed the organisation  ©Getty Images
Former IOC President Avery Brundage opposed the organisation ©Getty Images

Not surprisingly, by the mid-1960s, there was mounting frustration among both IFs and NOCs at what they perceived as the IOC's condescending attitude and failure to take many of their concerns seriously.

This coincided with the first flowerings of the television rights bonanza that was to transform and enrich some sports over coming decades. This glimpse of a substantial new revenue source helped to persuade leaders in both sets of institutions, the NOCs and the IFs, that the time had come to translate frustration into action.

It was the NOCs, influenced in addition by the increasingly flagrant encroachment of politics - especially Cold War and, subsequently, racial politics over South Africa - into sport, who moved first.

In October 1963, led by Giulio Onesti, the ambitious, energetic head of the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI), which had negotiated breakthrough television deals for the 1960 Rome Olympics, the NOCs made the seemingly modest request for an annual meeting with the IOC's ruling Executive Board.

Onesti's election to the IOC the following year failed to take the wind out of the NOCs' sails, as Brundage may have hoped that it would. In 1965 a first general assembly of NOCs was staged over three days in Rome. Three years later, a permanent general assembly of NOCs was created.

The last push encouraging IFs to set off down a similar route by establishing a new body more effectively to pursue their common interests appears to have come at the IOC Session in Rome in April 1966.

This was the meeting where agreement was reached on the distribution around the various constituent parts of the Movement of the sums arising from sale of broadcasting rights to the 1972 Summer and Winter Olympics. The agreed formula put Olympic IFs on course to securing a much bigger slice of revenues than they had got up until that point. However, it still left them well short of the one-third share they had been asking for since 1963. (The NOCs succeeded in negotiating an identical share of the spoils, after a process that had started with appointment of an IOC committee chaired by Onesti).

While IFs approved the Rome formula by what minutes of the meeting describe as "a large majority", albeit after a "long discussion", the arrangement left some far from thrilled. This was hardly surprising. Announcement 10 days before the Session of a $4.5 million (£3.5 billion/€4.2 million) deal for US rights to the 1968 Summer Games made it patently clear how fast broadcasting rights values were escalating. 

Yet, under the new formula, federations stood to get only one-ninth of income generated by the 1972 Summer Games beyond the first $2 million (£1.6 million/€1.8 million), of which they stood to receive $555,555 (£443,000/€521,000). 

In the event, broadcasting revenue from Munich 1972 totalled a whopping $17.8 million (£14 million/€17 million) - more than 10 times the amount generated by Tokyo 1964, the last Summer Games before this Rome meeting. Perhaps understandably given the pace at which their pot of gold was expanding, it seemed that Olympic leaders were simply not taking account of how quickly the commercial realities were changing.

By September 1966, Keller was telling rowing colleagues that in their collaboration with the IOC, the IFs had a "dominant position from which, up until now, they have only profited to a very modest degree". By January 1967, plans were being laid for the April meeting at which GAIF would be created.

SportAccord now plays a key role in the Olympic Movement  ©Getty Images
SportAccord now plays a key role in the Olympic Movement ©Getty Images

Not all IFs were in favour of the growing militancy being exhibited by some IF leaders. In particular, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, whose President, the Marquess of Exeter, was also a senior IOC member, remained broadly comfortable with the status quo. Accordingly, when IF representatives gathered in the Olympic capital on April 21, neither the IAAF, nor FIFA, the football governing body, nor AIBA, the international amateur boxing association, were among them.

Even among those present at the meeting, there was some disagreement as to whether creation of a body like GAIF was necessary. When International Judo Federation President Charles Palmer proposed formation of a Secretariat of IFs "in order to promote and maintain their authority and autonomy and stand for [their] objects and aims", the motion was very strongly opposed by ice hockey's Bunny Ahearne. There was no shortage of seconders, however and, on the second day, the title General Assembly of International Sports Federations was accepted.

An interested observer on this second morning was Onesti, who was welcomed by Roger Coulon, President of the International Amateur Wrestling Federation and convenor of the meeting. Coulon commented that the Italian was "fighting a battle similar to ours, exposing himself to reproval by the IOC who did not concur with this policy".

One further curiosity from the gathering was an interjection by a Mr Goode, who submitted a report on motor sport and proposed the inclusion of motorcycling in future Olympic Games.

There was also an appearance by a man from Omega, the Swiss timing specialists who had laid on a cocktail reception for delegates at the Lausanne meeting. He invited IFs which had not yet done so to contact the company "in order to solve all problems" regarding timing of events at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. 

In this way, the company was already using the gathering as a sort of one-stop shop for IF liaison. As the business of sport gathered momentum, and the range of potential IF partners and interlocutors particularly in the private sector expanded accordingly, this was to become one of the new body's most useful and important functions, never more so than after its move to Monaco in 1978.

An extensive six-page letter to Brundage was drafted informing him of GAIF's formation and enclosing a copy of its constitution. Addressed to the Hotel Hilton in Tehran, where the 65th IOC Session was soon to get under way, this letter provides a comprehensive but succinct summary of the federations' aims and demands.

Of its many "requests", the most eye-catching are arguably a) a reiteration of the call for one-third of the TV money raised by the Games; b) a proposal for an Olympic Congress - an event, last held in 1930, bringing together the constituent parts of the Movement - every four years starting in 1970; and c) a call for the Federations, under the guise of GAIF, to play a much more prominent part in the selection of Olympic Games host-cities. (Concerns were running high at this point over the state of preparedness of Mexico City for the 1968 Games that were less than 18 months away).

There is also a call for the IOC to "reconsider" its rules on amateurism, a particular bugbear of the time, not least for the IOC President who took an especially hard-line stance on the issue.

The letter ends with expression of GAIF's wish to "further the friendly atmosphere of co-operation between the members of the IOC and the IFs". But, underlining how one of the triggers for GAIF's creation was a perception that IFs were often ignored, it also requests that all decisions taken at its meetings be "thoroughly and carefully considered" and that if and when the IOC chose not to adopt a GAIF proposal, that it be given "an explanation and the reasons for the rejection".

Brundage, predictably, was less than impressed. Welcoming IOC delegates to the Session in the Shah's capital on May 6, he told them that "several" international sports federations had recently formed "a kind of association". 

They had sent a letter dealing with matters that were "not of their competence and only the concern of the IOC". Back in Lausanne on May 22, he wrote a short reply to Phillips that, while somewhat more measured, underlined this same concern over jurisdiction. "We were astonished," he noted, "to see among the subjects suggested for discussion, several which are the exclusive concern of the IOC". The letter also informs the GAIF President that the IOC is suggesting a meeting between IFs and the IOC Executive Board - but not until January 1968, just before the Grenoble Winter Olympics.

The sale of broadcasting rights for Olympic Games such as Munich 1972 was a key issue  ©Getty Images
The sale of broadcasting rights for Olympic Games such as Munich 1972 was a key issue ©Getty Images

While a meeting between Brundage on one side and Coulon and Palmer on the other did take place in July during the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, the months after GAIF's formation turned into a rather sterile stand-off, with the new body urging an official response to its letter before committing to the pre-Grenoble meeting. Exeter, meanwhile, wrote to Brundage underlining, inter alia, that GAIF did not include Olympic IFs "who are together responsible for some 60 per cent of the public support of the Games".

For a time, it looked like the new body was more likely to split the IFs than unite them. Indeed, Brundage's successor, Lord Killanin, later suggested that, were it not for TV money, the whole Movement might have fractured. In his 1983 autobiography, My Olympic Years, Killanin wrote: "I was never in any doubt that television, and the funds it brought in from the Games TV contract, was a compelling part of [the IFs'] need to stay within the Movement. 

"In this way TV has played an extraordinary part in binding the Olympic family together. If there had not been this magnetism, then I think that the frustrations some of them suffered in the 1960s might well have brought about a splintering of the Movement."

Helped by this TV miracle-glue, the under-strain Olympic edifice did indeed manage to hold together, and GAIF succeeded in achieving many of its key early demands. While Brundage had tended to dismiss suggestions of a Congress as a waste of money, the first such gathering for 43 years finally took place in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Varna in 1973, a year after the American's replacement as IOC President by the more conciliatory Killanin.

The IOC's new Dublin-based leader also allowed a so-called Tripartite Commission, composed of IOC, NOC and IF representatives, which had been set up in 1970 to prepare the Congress, to continue in existence as a permanent body for the remainder of his Presidency, which lasted until 1980. While this did not confer executive power over IOC decision-making, it gave IF and NOC top brass direct and regular access to the IOC President's ear.

Killanin was undoubtedly right to assert in My Olympic Years that "the relationships with the IFs are now much better than they were when I first became a member" and to observe that "Brundage treated them like his children".

By the time Killanin wrote this, however, some, including his successor Juan Antonio Samaranch, had concluded that the power pendulum had swung too far in the IFs', and specifically GAIF's, favour. Armed with the knowledge that, then as in the late-1960s and 1970s, few IFs could afford to countenance life without their share of the Movement's still fast-growing broadcasting rights revenues, the wily Spaniard took steps successfully to redress the balance.

But while the relationship with the IOC has had its ups and downs, this umbrella body of IFs has done plenty - from devising new events to disseminating expertise and best practice - to promote and protect the interests of its members over a fast-moving half century.

From Phillips to Patrick Baumann, Lausanne to Aarhus, it has been an eventful, sometimes turbulent ride. Nevertheless, for as long as IFs, however disparate, share certain common goals and obligations, there seems every chance that this now 50-year-old entity will continue to find a role - whatever it decides to call itself.