David Owen

History, so they say, is written by the victors.

The Olympic Games has emerged as one of the big winners of sport’s commercial age, so it is less than surprising that much latter-day analysis of international sport seems to be viewed through the prism of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

I was glad to be able to redress the balance to a modest extent with my 2018 book on Thomas Keller, long-time President and leading light of the General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF).

Now another prominent international sports body, World Athletics, has been subjected to some much-needed scrutiny by Jörg Krieger, a Denmark-based academic.

The resultant book - Power and Politics in World Athletics – a Critical History - is a fascinating, diligently-researched account of the powerful and secretive organisation identified for most of its history by the acronym, IAAF.

Since its foundation not long before the First World War, the governing body of the ancient sport of athletics has had only six Presidents, of whom the latest is of course Sebastian Coe, the British former middle-distance runner.

Each of the six was - or is - in his own way a formidable figure, but I was pleased to see that Krieger gives full justice to the brief and frequently-overlooked reign of Adriaan Paulen, a Dutchman who, in 1928, pulled off the noteworthy double of not only sitting on the Olympic Games Organising Committee but also competing in them, in the men’s 800 metres.

Adriaan Paulen spent five years at the helm of the International Association of Athletics Federations ©Getty Images
Adriaan Paulen spent five years at the helm of the International Association of Athletics Federations ©Getty Images

It was during Paulen’s 1976-1981 Presidency that the foundations were laid for the inaugural World Championships, held in Helsinki in 1983 - an event which, more than anything, precipitated the sport’s burgeoning prosperity under the showman who ousted Paulen, Primo Nebiolo.

What I had not realised was that the lack of a World Championship meeting until this point stemmed from an undertaking given decades earlier to the IOC’s founding father, Pierre de Coubertin, by his IAAF counterpart, Sigfrid Edström of Sweden.

As Krieger writes: "In his correspondence with Coubertin, Edström regularly highlighted that the IAAF… would 'acknowledge the Olympic winners as champions of the world and that no other championship-meetings may be held anywhere else.'"

Krieger continues: "The Swede tied the IAAF to the success and the ideologies of the Olympic Games."

Indeed, since Paulen is the only one of the six IAAF/World Athletics Presidents to date not to have served as an IOC member, it seems to me that the rapid progress on several fronts made under his leadership feeds most interestingly into the current debate over supposed conflicts of interest and sports bosses who simultaneously wear many hats.

Would the sport of athletics and its practitioners have been better off if its leaders had consistently kept at arm’s length from the IOC instead of joining the club?

It is the sort of question that eludes definitive answer, but would make a worthwhile thesis.

Another theme illuminated by the new book which I found fascinating is the shifting attitude of successive, all-powerful IAAF leaders to vote-weighting, a common method used by those in the driving-seat to mitigate democracy.

In 1937, with membership expanding, the IAAF Congress accepted, albeit marginally, to hand the richest, most established national athletics bodies three times the voting power of relative newcomers.

Thirteen years later, the imbalance between the most- and least-favoured federations was increased further to seven-to-one.

The IAAF’s second President, Lord Burghley - whom I was astonished to learn had once been accused of being a communist – subsequently wrote in the following terms to Avery Brundage, his IOC counterpart: "Twice we have increased the voting power of the larger and the more responsible nations, and I think we are as a result fairly safe".

World Athletics Championships are now a staple of the international calendar, but the inaugural event only occurred in 1983 ©Getty Images
World Athletics Championships are now a staple of the international calendar, but the inaugural event only occurred in 1983 ©Getty Images

Interestingly, as Krieger explains it, it was the rapid commercialisation of the sport that paved the way for "one-member-one-vote" to be adopted in 1987 under Nebiolo, a past master of the apparently selfless gesture.

The incoming broadcasting and sponsorship monies enabled development programmes to be set up, as in other newly rich sports; these could become highly political.

As Krieger recounts, Nebiolo had appointed himself head of the IAAF’s Development Commission in 1984.

While some Council members complained that the IAAF President "lacked the necessary expertise and time to oversee the development activities", their critique "just deflected off Nebiolo".

Leading the Development Commission allowed the Italian, in Krieger’s words, to "increase the budget for aid activities significantly and target those member federations who had promised him their support in presidential elections".

Nebiolo died in office in 1999, having transformed the IAAF into a substantial business.

But, says Krieger, "it was not in Nebiolo’s interest to adjust governance practices that reflected such changes in the organisation’s structure".

As recently as 2015, I was being told by the IAAF’s communications department, in response to a request to view the latest financial report, that the body "since its move from London in 1984 is established under the laws of Monaco - see Article 1 of our constitution - and is not obliged and has never publically [sic] published its audited accounts beyond its national members".

Transparency is finally making headway: the body now known as World Athletics published its 2019 accounts last September.

Krieger’s book provides an excellent and wide-ranging analysis of how we reached this point.

Power and Politics in World Athletics – A Critical History by Jörg Krieger is published by Routledge.