Nick Butler

A name change is largely a symbolic gesture but can be an important way to create the perception of change. Think Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, Old Labour to New Labour, International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles to United World Wrestling…

But the switch from SportAccord to the Global Association of International Sport Federations (GAISF) is unusual for two reasons. Firstly, the new name is much more of a mouthful and less obviously marketable than the old one. Secondly, it ushers in a return to the past and to the same acronym - if not the identical wording - which was used when the organisation was founded in 1967. It stayed as the General Assembly or Association of International Sports Federations until its rebranding under Hein Verbruggen in 2009.

This raises the question of whether GAISF has begun a new age, an old age, a new old age or nothing of the sort. GAISF at one stage in the late 1960s and 1970s under Thomas Keller was a combative body, seeking independent power and worrying the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 

Having been pushed back into line, the organisation was largely silent over the next few decades, obediently conforming with the whims of its sporting masters under first Un Yong Kim and then Verbruggen. It was only when Marius Vizer took over in 2013 that he channelled the spirit of Keller and started a series of reforms which did not just stir the pot, but exploded it beyond boiling point.

The resulting "Battle of Sochi" at the 2015 SportAccord Convention marked the first challenge to the IOC Presidential tenure of another Thomas, former German Olympic fencing champion Bach. Vizer was rapidly removed from the picture and a year of instability ensured. Meetings over the next few months were dominated by infighting between large and small Federations. Nobody quite knew the point of the organisation and, at one stage, it seemed likely it might disappear altogether.

Cue the arrival of Patrick Baumann, the affable-seeming IOC member and secretary general of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). He liked to present himself as a reluctant candidate and, after overcoming the challenge of World Underwater Federation President Anna Arzhanova, the first 10 months of his Presidency were conducted mostly in silence. SportAccord played virtually no role in responding to the various crises which affected the sports world in 2016.

Patrick Baumann has gradually made his influence felt since assuming the SportAccord Presidency in April 2016 ©Getty Images
Patrick Baumann has gradually made his influence felt since assuming the SportAccord Presidency in April 2016 ©Getty Images

There have since been tentative signs of recovery. As well as the name change, Baumann ushered in a switch to a two-year rotating Presidency alternating between Summer, Winter, IOC-recognised and fully non-Olympic sports.

"It will cut out the politics and should allow us to focus on providing services to members," said the Swiss. Indeed, it should rule out any chance of an overly-ambitious President building up a power base.

The SportAccord Doping Free Sport Unit appears the most obvious service and should prove especially beneficial to the smaller Federations. It is one small but important cog in the complex machine of drugs testing reforms currently being drawn-up.

There appears less of a genuine desire to organise multi-sport competitions than under Vizer. With Baumann at the helm, GAISF will organise events only if they are genuinely wanted. So, the World Mind Games and, possibly, the World Combat Games could return. The World Urban Games and, for the time being, the World Beach Games, seem less likely, however.

Vizer envisaged these events as a way to generate revenue for SportAccord and, therefore, generate independent publicity and power. Baumann seems to see them more as a service to his members and is showing no appetite for chasing the financial income that is essential for a more powerful body.

The best analogy I have heard so far was uttered by a colleague, who said that GAISF's true role is as a trade union to campaign and represent its constituent sports.

A key original role when GAISF was first conceived in 1967 was indeed to act as a "debating chamber" to consider the major issues of the day. For one brief moment during the General Assembly last Friday (April 7), this did happen. Concerns over proposed anti-doping reforms were raised first by the International Korfball Federation, then by the International Tennis Federation and then by the International Dragon Boat Federation.

Where else would the three sports of korfball, tennis and dragon boat racing come together in this way?

Delegates raise their cards to vote during the SportAccord General Assembly ©Getty Images
Delegates raise their cards to vote during the SportAccord General Assembly ©Getty Images

Unlike in 2015 and 2016, the disagreement was over the details rather than the fundamentals. The refusal to allow any one of five Olympic sport applicants to muscle in and become members of the International World Games Federation showed lingering tension, although on a far smaller scale.

It seemed significant also that it was Baumann who stood up during the General Assembly and admonished National Anti-Doping Organisations for "rocking the boat" and insulting the sports world.

It is often the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) and its President Francesco Ricci Bitti who leads the charge when sport has a grievance to air. But, while the Italian did briefly touch upon this topic, it was Baumann who seemed determined to ram home the point.  

Baumann is also clearly playing a key role in the 2024 (and 2028?) Olympic race as the chair of the IOC Evaluation Commission. He also met with the Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov, so is involved in those discussions as well. He is clearly highly capable and is also a safe pair of hands, a quality that the Olympic Movement is not exactly blessed with these days.

It is easy to forget that the Swiss has not always been on the same side as Bach. In the 2013 IOC Presidential race, he was considered close to Puerto Rico's Richard Carrion, a member of the FIBA Central Board and Bach's closest rival. But like another Carrion-backer in current IOC vice-president Juan-Antonio Samaranch, he has since become a close and trusted ally. His ultimate ambition in the sports world remains unclear but, for the time being, he appears content to stay resolutely "in the club".

The key question here therefore concerns whether SportAccord/GAISF under Baumann is gaining real influence or if it is just becoming a more active puppet of the IOC?

This has always been an issue ever since 1967. By controlling the Olympic Games, and all the exposure and revenue which comes with it, the IOC are always going to be more powerful than other sporting bodies. To do as Vizer did, and to strive towards becoming something resembling an equal rival, is therefore always likely to fail.

Former SportAccord President Marius Vizer, left, prepares for a Olympic medal ceremony at Rio 2016 alongside IOC President Thomas Bach, the man he had criticised so severely the previous year ©Getty Images
Former SportAccord President Marius Vizer, left, prepares for a Olympic medal ceremony at Rio 2016 alongside IOC President Thomas Bach, the man he had criticised so severely the previous year ©Getty Images

And yet, as we have pointed out before, there was some sense in the words if not the methodology of Vizer's approach. Since 2015, the IOC have been dealing with a series of doping and corruption scandals, not to mention a trouble-strewn build-up and aftermath to last year's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. 

Would it not be better to have individuals and organisation's "inside the club" which play at least a constructively critical role? Otherwise we have an IOC President surrounded by yes-men who then act shocked when faced with press and public criticism.

Take the consultations with the National Hockey League (NHL). The IOC, after Bach assumed power, made the decision to stop paying transportation and insurance costs for NHL players to participate at Pyeongchang 2018. This decision made sense, to some extent, due to the dangers of those in other sports demanding similar concessions, including Major League Baseball when they consider appearing on the Tokyo 2020 programme. 

But they opted not to announce these ideas publicly and their tactic thus came across as secretive and confusing. This allowed the NHL and International Ice Hockey Federation to get their respective messages out in public first and to therefore set the agenda.

Our impression last week was that the IOC are still in denial that the NHL will follow through with their threat not to play at next year's Winter Olympics. They still seemed to think that the NHL Players' Association would somehow force through a deal and we got no indication that they were prepared to accept any wider concession to force the league's commissioner Gary Bettman to the bargaining table. If this does not happen, I feel that the Olympics will lose out on more than the NHL.

Russian doping is just one of many other topics where the IOC's approach has been strongly questioned. Even if, as many do not, we accept they got their fundamental ruling to allow Russian participation at Rio 2016 right, then there are still many other details of their response which are highly questionable.

The men's ice hockey tournament at Pyeongchang 2018 could be very different if NHL players do not participate ©Getty Images
The men's ice hockey tournament at Pyeongchang 2018 could be very different if NHL players do not participate ©Getty Images

The appointment of American Rebecca Lowell Edwards as IOC strategic communications director may make a difference on presentation, but having more active voices of moderation in the sports world would help.

GAISF appears as good a voice as any to perform this role.

However, as I write this, I was reminded of Baumann interjecting during the ASOIF General Assembly last week and criticising Athletes' Commissions for being too independent and not following "due process". I am not sure exactly what he meant here, but it came across as if he was lambasting these bodies for having the temerity to deviate from the path laid out for them by their sporting overlords.

It therefore seems unlikely that GAISF will do anything similar.

This would be a pity. It is good to see SportAccord/GAISF back functioning again with a sense of unity and purpose. But, in these continually treacherous times for world sport, it would be more beneficial if, when required, they exercised a constructively critical voice rather than becoming another unswerving puppet.