Nick Butler

The mixed zone outside the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session during August’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was a hostile place. Journalists were barely bothering to hide their disgust at the IOC’s attempts to pin the blame for Russian drugs problems on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) during the meeting and sports officials were trying their best to evade lingering press corps as they headed towards lunch.

In this environment, I was slightly surprised to see Francesco Ricci Bitti, the President of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), turn and make a sudden beeline for me at the centre of the melee.

“You got something wrong in your article,” he said, to the delight of many of my listening journalistic colleagues.

“You described me as [IOC President] Mr Bach’s man.

“I am not. I am Mr Ricci Bitti’s man.”

The Italian had spent the previous few weeks stoutly defending IOC policy on Russia after spending much of the previous year assisting their destruction of SportAccord President Marius Vizer. It had therefore seemed reasonable to conclude that Ricci Bitti was something approaching a “puppet” of Thomas Bach, wheeled out to make supportive statements too politically tricky for the IOC to make themselves.

This has certainly happened on occasions. But with hindsight, it was a clumsy observation given how the International Federations (IF) and IOC are, at best, uneasy bedfellows who do not always see eye to eye.

ASOIF is one of the more complicated in a sporting world of convoluted anagrams. 

Type it into a search engine and you will be confronted by realms of information about the television programme Game of Thrones and related books entitled A Song of Ice and Fire. It can best be understood as a trade union helping represent the Summer Olympic sports, both in terms of airing views and providing services.

“We have tried to change ASOIF’s role from the house of common interest to become an added value service provider to the Olympic Movement,” summarised Ricci Bitti in an interview which came about when I was invited to send him questions on any topic I wished. “This engages us in various projects, supported by the great expertise of our member IFs to improve sport and help it progress.”

Francesco Ricci Bitti, right, pictured after the ASOIF General Assembly in Aarhus alongside his executive director Andrew Ryan ©Getty Images
Francesco Ricci Bitti, right, pictured after the ASOIF General Assembly in Aarhus alongside his executive director Andrew Ryan ©Getty Images

ASOIF is now closely involved in virtually every challenge facing the Olympic Movement today.

Leading the way are discussions to award both the 2024 and 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games this year in Lima; an issue due to be rubber-stamped at an Extraordinary IOC Session starting here tomorrow.

Ricci Bitti made two principle points in relation to this. Firstly, that the city ultimately playing host in 2028 should not be entitled to demand concessions from the IOC in return for hosting the later event. This followed a suggestion from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti that they may request funding for youth sports in Southern California.

"Getting elected this year to host the 2028 Games would allow the respective city to invest an extra sum of about $50 million (£39 million/€44 million) and $100 million (£77 million/€88 million), normally spent on bidding, in the city itself,” Ricci Bitti reflected. "Therefore, I cannot see any justification for requesting extra funding. If this happens, maybe we should go back to an open bidding process for 2028 as there have already been expressions of interest.”

This response was right out of the IOC textbook. His second point, however, was less so. This concerned ensuring that IFs pay a closer role in the seven - or 11 - years of preparations for the Olympics. This is fair enough, and the IOC would probably agree, but it was accompanied by a suggestion that IFs should also have more of a say in selecting host cities.

"I firmly believe IFs deserve a major say in the awarding of the Games,” Ricci Bitti said. "A vote from the IOC membership is still relevant and provides accountability in the decision-making process. However, a reformed IOC should give more transparency and include all the relevant stakeholders whose influence must be appropriately balanced."

A comparison between the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is useful. 

The IPC membership consists of governing bodies and National Paralympic Committees, as well as Governing Board members and continental bodies. In short, the precise people involved in the implementation of the Olympic Games. The 95 voting IOC members, on the other hand, consists of the weird and the wonderful. European and Middle Eastern royalty and realms of figures from diverse professions including law, medicine, finance, dentistry.

There are 15 representatives apiece from the IFs, National Olympic Committees and athletes, but their influence is still numerically lower than members-at-large.

Prince Albert of Monaco takes his seat alongside other IOC members at the Opening Ceremony of the IOC Session in Rio de Janeiro ©Getty Images
Prince Albert of Monaco takes his seat alongside other IOC members at the Opening Ceremony of the IOC Session in Rio de Janeiro ©Getty Images

Together, the membership may have a remarkable breadth of knowledgeable across a huge variety of different areas. But how much do many of them actually know about the nitty-gritty of hosting and preparing for an Olympics? Would it not be better to include representatives from IFs who would, perhaps, be more likely to conclude that for all the political benefits of a first South American Games, Rio de Janeiro was not the most appropriate bid.

Ricci Bitti, though, is not an unswerving advocate of IFs. He admits that many may have to sacrifice spectator-numbers at Olympic venues in order to ensure cheaper venues and full stadia. He has also called IF President term limits to bring about better governance standards. Some have introduced such limitations in recent years. This includes the International Tennis Federation formerly led by Ricci Bitti as well as bodies reformed following recent scandals, like FIFA and the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Others have not. Mexico's Olegario Vazquez Raña, for instance, is now serving a ninth term and 37th year as International Shooting Sport Federation head after first assuming the position in 1980. Bach, as ever, would only imply support for term limits so keen was he to avoid causing any political problems. Ricci Bitti is not so concerned with diplomacy, and has therefore made his dissatisfaction known.

Doping reforms were another obvious area for discussion.

Ricci Bitti is a key driver behind the new Independent Testing Authority (ITA) approved by the IOC Executive Board here yesterday to gradually replace IF-led anti-doping progammes. A WADA Foundation Board member, he has also helped lead the Olympic Movement’s counter-attacks in the face of criticisms from National Anti-Doping Organisations.

“NADOs and IFs still need to improve their cooperation and work together on a complementary basis, that is to say ensuring comprehensive coverage with defined roles,” the Italian believes. “Both sides also share a need for better governance to avoid either real or perceived conflicts of interest. The IFs and major event organisers such as the IOC are addressing this through the ITA concept. Now the NADOs have to do the same with clearer separation from their funding authorities.”

Francesco Ricci Bitti, right, speaking with WADA President Sir Craig Reedie. He remains a WADA representative on the Foundation Board ©Getty Images
Francesco Ricci Bitti, right, speaking with WADA President Sir Craig Reedie. He remains a WADA representative on the Foundation Board ©Getty Images

He admits that certain elements of the ITA plan are far from certain. This includes the need to drastically restructure the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) if it is able to fulfill planned sanctioning roles for thousands of cases every year. This will need “further refinement”, Ricci Bitti admits, before claiming that 22 of the 28 full ASOIF members currently plan to use the new system.

On Russia, Ricci Bitti explains that the Summer IFs have “worked through the named athletes and proceeded where there is evidence, with the IFs as recognised eligibility authority”. He adds: “However, both WADA and McLaren acknowledge that his report was never intended to address individual cases but rather to look at the big picture in Russia. For this reason, it is more useful in providing some intelligence which we can use to target athletes in future.”

This fits with the IOC view on the McLaren Report. But, once again, it is interesting to compare with the utterances of WADA officials, who maintain that there is evidence strong enough to convict individual athletes. 

A storm is still quietly brewing here which we can expect to re-erupt later in the year.

There were some areas where Ricci Bitti was less keen to give clear answers. The 75-year-old was not drawn on the ongoing feuds between gymnastics and parkour, or with the surfing and canoeing row over the administering of stand-up paddle.

He would also not reveal which IFs were adjudged to have performed best and least well at Rio 2016. “The conclusions of the ASOIF research are valuable and underline the strength of the 28 ASOIF members and the Rio Olympic programme,” he said.  

On tennis matters, Ricci Bitti defends Maria Sharapova because she has “served her sentence” following her meldonium doping ban, and is thus free to either be granted wildcards or sacrificed in favour of “ethical considerations”. 

"Both positions deserve respect," he concluded.

He also gave “enormous credit” to the “two dominant players of my era” in Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for returning to the top of the sport. “On a technical note, their match schedules over the last year or two have been more reasonable because demanding schedules can cause burnouts,” the official added.

One other area which provoked an interesting response was on the late former International Cycling Union (UCI) and SportAccord President Hein Verbruggen after I asked if it was right that, to some, the Dutchman is best remembered as the man who failed to stand up to sport's most infamous doper, Lance Armstrong.

Francesco Ricci Bitti paid tribute to SportAccord Convention founder Hein Verbruggen ©Getty Images
Francesco Ricci Bitti paid tribute to SportAccord Convention founder Hein Verbruggen ©Getty Images

“I am very sad that, to some, Hein is remembered like this because he was a great contributor to the Olympic Movement,” Ricci Bitti replied. “Hein was a board member and indeed vice-president of ASOIF for many years. We had similar approaches from our business experience and I had the privilege to work with him on many important projects. In fact, it was largely Hein and I who developed the first real revenue distribution model for the IF shares from the Olympic Games in the early 2000s.

“Hein’s subsequent work with GAISF [Global Association of International Sports Federations] and the creation of the SportAccord Convention were ground-breaking and he pushed the IOC to revisit the Olympic revenue share agreement in the USA. Hein transformed the UCI and his successful chairing of the Beijing 2008 Co-ordination Commission opened China to the world of sport. His legacy can be seen in much of today’s Olympic sporting landscape and he will be sorely missed.”

Ricci Bitti, a former tennis player who has served on the Board of Directors at Phillips, GTE, Olivetti, Alcatel, and Telecom Italy in his business life, also acted as chairman of SportAccord Convention until stepping down in favour of Patrick Baumann last month.

He has made similarly quiet but effective contributions to the world of sport as Verbruggen. He has not always got it right, and I personally believe that ASOIF were wrong to fully support the way the IOC dealt with Russian doping last year. But he was certainly a key figure driving the rescue job that was Rio 2016. It was he, remember, who was the first to publicly criticise preparations at the 2014 SportAccord Convention in Belek. A "kick up the backside" strategy which worked, albeit apparently largely at the expense of his personal relationship with Rio 2016 chief Carlos Nuzman.

Other senior colleagues in the Olympic Movement could also learn a lot from his more open, bubbly and opinionated leadership style.

Such experience will be key as the sports world continues to wrestle with a multitude of doping, bidding and governance problems over coming weeks and months.