Patrick Burke ©ITG

There is a fair case for arguing that fate has not been kind to Leonz Eder since he became International University Sports Federation (FISU) Acting President in March 2021.

The Swiss official, a FISU Executive Committee member since 2003, stepped into the breach when elected President Oleg Matytsin stood aside for the duration of anti-doping sanctions imposed on Russia, the country of which he is also the Sports Minister.

During his tenure, Eder has overseen the award of the Summer and Winter editions of the 2025 FISU World University Games to Rhine-Ruhr and Turin, respectively. Another notable allocation of FISU's flagship event is on the horizon on Saturday (November 12), the second day of the upcoming Executive Committee meeting in Brussels. Two regional bids from North Carolina in the United States and the Chungcheong Megacity project in South Korea are set to go head-to-head for the right to stage the 2027 Summer edition of the FISU Games.

University sport is getting back on track, with FISU recently holding its University World Cup Combat Sports and 3x3 Basketball in the Turkish cities of Samsun and Istanbul. There is a little more than two months until the start of the 2023 FISU Winter Games in Lake Placid too.

Yet Eder has hardly been dealt the kindest hand. He has had to guide the global organisation through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, overcome the anguish of last year's Winter Universiade in Lucerne being cancelled at short notice, and since February has had to handle the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on FISU.

However, he is philosophical, and believes that the challenges have offered windows of opportunity to advance FISU's work.

"First of all I see problems, but mainly I see solutions, and we work on solutions and not on problems," Eder told insidethegames. "Problems exist everywhere, but it is our duty to find solutions. To be creative, to be innovative, to be ready to accept the challenges and not just stick in the past."

The Acting President has had to rely on all his experience during his time at the helm, which has now stretched to more than 18 months and is officially due to run until the expiry of Russia's anti-doping sanctions on December 17. Eder admitted that he is "grateful for this position and also somehow proud to fulfil this role at the end of my sports career", and the support of other officials has been crucial.

The Healthy Campus project is among the university sport initiatives being developed by FISU ©FISU
The Healthy Campus project is among the university sport initiatives being developed by FISU ©FISU

"I had to take this role very quickly," Eder said. "I am very familiar with the process in FISU being in the Executive quite a long time, but having worked also in different Committees - the Evaluation Committee, Media Committee, Supervision Committee.

"It is of course an advantage being located in Switzerland geographically, so I am very close to the FISU headquarters and I am very often there every month or every second month. I spend a few days in the headquarters working mainly with the secretary general [Eric Saintrond] but also with the directors, so of course it was challenging because it is almost a 100 per cent job, of course a voluntary job not a paid job, but on the other hand it was also very interesting because the university sector has shown great resilience in this time.

"The FISU staff has kept great efficiency, and our young people had no choice. They had also to show resilience at a very early age because of the pandemic, so these challenges were mainly physical and mental for the students, but for me as Acting President, I got great support from the members of the Steering Committee, of the Executive Committee and I had really the feeling, and the result of our work proves, that we are really united in the Executive Committee.

"They supported me very much, and I tried to include all of them in the decision-making as we are a very democratic Federation."

FISU joined almost every other sports organisation in having to cancel or postpone events in response to COVID-19. The fast-changing, cruel nature of the pandemic was evident in November, when the Lucerne 2021 Winter Universiade - the final edition of the multi-sport event under that name - was cancelled less than two weeks before the Opening Ceremony because of the emergency of the Omicron variant and Swiss authorities' brief imposition of quarantine requirements for visitors from certain countries.

It had already been moved from the start if the year to the end because of the health crisis.

Eder, who is also managing director of Swiss University Sports, conceded that it was a heart-breaking decision, but hopes that organisers' efforts are not all lost.

"It was really very hard to stop this some nine or 10 days prior to the Opening Ceremony," he said.

Swiss official Leonz Eder has served as FISU Acting President since March 2021 ©Leonz Eder
Swiss official Leonz Eder has served as FISU Acting President since March 2021 ©Leonz Eder

"Everything was ready, and the disappointment was very big everywhere, but at the end there is a legacy.

"We had some 53 projects running in Switzerland related to this Winter Games, for instance Learn to Curl is one project still going on, then we have a new initiative for short track, and also talent days with several cantons - we established a project for talent days to recruit young kids to learn different sports.

"Additionally what was renovated at several venues for Alpine skiing and Nordic skiing still remains, so the legacy of the Games is not lost.

"We have ongoing projects, and of course unfortunately this is not to benefit the participating countries, it's mainly for central Switzerland and for Swiss sport in general. That's why also Swiss Olympic and the Federal Institute of Sport supported these projects.

"And also we are in close contact with FISU for the Healthy Campus project, because at the moment we have only four universities in Switzerland joining this programme, and hopefully more to come.

"So not everything was lost, but nevertheless it was a big disappointment that we could not host these Games."

From a FISU perspective, Eder points to change which the pandemic helped to "speed up", including a move to a mixture of online and in-person meetings, contributing to its commitment to the United Nations (UN) Sport for Climate Action Framework and Race to Zero. It also afforded the organisation the scope to focus on its Healthy Campus project, which aims to enhance all aspects of students' well-being and has 111 universities on board.

Moreover, FISU has launched a survey for students to assess the impact of COVID-19 on their values and sporting habits, recognising the effect of the pandemic on their daily lives.

The 2021 Summer edition of the World University Games in China, a country which continues to live with some of the world's toughest COVID-19 restrictions and to which international travel remains limited, has also been pushed back firstly to 2022 and now to July 28 to August 8 2023.

Eder remains confident that the Games can take place in Chengdu next year, although conceded that there are some doubts over participants' travel to the city.

"Personally I believe that we will host these Games in Chengdu," Eder insisted.

"Of course we don't know exactly under which restrictions, I guess that we will still have a kind of bubble system for the Games, and on November 11 and 12, we have the Executive Committee meeting in Brussels, and there we will get the progress report and the proposal from the Chengdu Organising Committee.

"For me, even more important is to know how the teams get to Chengdu. At the moment it's still not very easy to fly to China to different places. Will the OC [Organising Committee] still provide charter flights from different hubs all over the world? These are questions we don't know yet, but I'm confident we will have the Games under certain restrictions, and our teams will be ready to adapt themselves to accept these restrictions."

Leonz Eder admitted that the cancellation of the Lucerne 2021 Winter Universiade was a
Leonz Eder admitted that the cancellation of the Lucerne 2021 Winter Universiade was a "big disappointment", but hopes "not everything was lost" ©Lucerne 2021

Chengdu 2023 is set to take place instead of the planned Summer Games in Yekaterinburg, postponed in April in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The international Olympic Committee (IOC) has described the war in Ukraine as providing it with an "unsolvable dilemma", and Eder shares those sentiments. FISU has provided support to Ukrainian athletes in training and competition, and followed the IOC's recommendation on the non-participation of Russia and Belarus at its events.

"We have to say our students, the competitors, they are not responsible for the war," Eder insisted.

"They are not responsible for political decisions, so we have to think if it's correct to punish everybody, not to punish the leaders but to punish the students, the competitors who are not involved in the decision-making of such a tragic war, and I insist that this is really a war.

"It's a big issue all over the world, but we have to think to keep the dialogue on both sides, on all sides, and when we think that sport should unite people, we should stick on this principle, but of course there are always victims and we cannot forget the victims in this process."

Eder believes that following the work on the Organising Committee for Yekaterinburg 2023, the Russian city is positioned to stage a future edition of the World University Games and other major sports events.

"Of course it was a very tough decision to postpone the Games," he admitted.

"We did not cancel the Games, we postponed these Games because the Organising Committee did a great job. The preparations were very well ahead, the facilities are amazing, so Yekaterinburg for sure is ready to host big Games. Our Games, other Games.

"This was a very tough decision, but it was the right one at that moment. The Executive Committee decided to postpone the Games, now we will attribute the Games for 2027 first with the two bidders Korea and the United States, and for 2029 we still have time.

"We don't have to attribute the Games until 2025, so we still have time to reconsider all the process, and I'm sure sooner or later Yekaterinburg will be a great host for any kind of sport event."

FISU has Summer and Winter editions of the World University Games scheduled for 2023 and 2025 with hosts already decided, which Eder believes gives university sport "so much to look forward to".

The global body changed its bidding process in 2016 to what it describes as a "bilateral method based on networking and research", and places emphasis on legacy, vision and sustainability. This was in response to bidding cities being rejected despite their strong efforts and the devotion of human and financial resources.

A competitive battle between North Carolina and Chungcheong Megacity for the 2027 Summer FISU World University Games is set to conclude at the Executive Committee meeting in Brussels ©Getty Images
A competitive battle between North Carolina and Chungcheong Megacity for the 2027 Summer FISU World University Games is set to conclude at the Executive Committee meeting in Brussels ©Getty Images

North Carolina and Chungcheong Megacity have both been highly praised by FISU for their bids for the 2027 Summer World University Games, and while Eder is pleased to see the "huge interest in our Games", he admits that "somehow it is a pity to have two competitors".

The strength of bid from the US lies in its existing facilities, while the South Korean proposal enjoys the financial backing of the country's Government, so Eder believes that members of the FISU Executive Committee have a difficult decision to take on which should be awarded the 2027 Games.

"Although the concept of the two cities is a bit different, both of them have really promising concepts and it will be a very difficult decision to be taken by the Executive Committee, because the Koreans have huge experience, not in that region but huge experience in hosting major sport events, including World University Games in Daegu 2003 and Gwangju 2015 and the Winter Games in Muju-Jeonju some years earlier," Eder reflected.

"The United States haven't had our Games since Buffalo 1993, but now they would like to host these Games in a very university-driven region which attracts a lot of huge companies as well. Apple, Google, all of them are in this triangle of North Carolina, and they have all the facilities ready. They have famous universities like Duke University and others, so they are ready to host the Games.

"Of course they need some sponsorship because the concept in the US is always a bit different.

"On the other hand, we have the Korean metropolitan megacity. This region will be developed whether they have the Games or not, but they have to invest a lot of money which is already secured by the central Government. They have to construct an Athletes' Village, nine or 10 completely new venues with four years only to do that, but the Koreans showed in the past the capability to do so.

"The US have everything ready, all the venues ready, they would still need some sponsorship and some money. The Koreans have not much ready related to facilities, but they have the guarantee of the central Government that all these venues could be built in due time, so these are two of the differences, but the two of them are very strong bids because we have worked very hard to develop compelling value proposition for our potential hosts.

"Korea and US discovered that the World University Games would be a great opportunity to develop university sport in their country but also to develop the region.

"The US for instance, it is interesting to know that in 2026 they host the FIFA World Cup and in 2028 the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, so in between they believe that the World University Games would perfectly fit in this schedule of sports events. It could also have some synergies in sponsorship and media attraction, so this is their concept,

"The Koreans will develop the whole region, also with Governmental institutions, with Governmental buildings, with economic development and things like that, and sport and World University Games would in their view perfectly fit in this programme to develop the region around Chungcheong and the provinces there."

Leonz Eder, left, has worked closely with secretary general and chief executive Eric Saintrond as FISU Acting President ©Leonz Eder
Leonz Eder, left, has worked closely with secretary general and chief executive Eric Saintrond as FISU Acting President ©Leonz Eder

The bidding process for the Winter edition of the FISU Games in 2027 has yet to receive the same degree of attention, but Eder is optimistic that progress can be made in that regard in the coming months.

"Not as many countries can host Winter Games as theoretically can host Summer Games. We have maybe some 50 countries really practising winter sports," Eder said.

"The process is still open as it was for the Summer. In central Switzerland, they are evaluating the possibility to bid again, but maybe for 2029 or 2031, so this idea is not lost after the cancellation of the Games. It needs a lot of consultation also with the Federal Institute of Sport, with the Parliament, with other stakeholders, so this process is still ongoing, but maybe for 2027, maybe for 2029 or maybe for 2031, this is at the moment still open.

"Other regions like Calgary, Edmonton, showed some interest. Recently there was the smartcities event [in Lausanne] and they were present there and showed some interest in our Winter Games.

"So of course time flies, and we need very soon to have a vote for 2027, but I am confident that we will find a host for the Winter Games, and if it is a region which has already hosted the Games or planned the Games it needs less time. If you have a completely new region with no experience, then of course they need more than three years, so they need to work very hard.

"I am confident under the leadership of our secretary general and CEO Eric Saintrond, we are contacting several potential hosts and I hope that within the next few months we can present a serious bid to host the Winter Games."

The leadership position at FISU remains a cloud hanging over the organisation, with Matytsin in theory set to resume his Presidential duties on December 17 when anti-doping sanctions against Russia have expired. However, the invasion of Ukraine has cast doubt over those plans originally announced in March last year. Eder said that the situation is being discussed, but it is too early to say what the next steps will be.

"We have to find out what is the best solution for FISU," the Acting President insisted.

"Yekaterinburg for sure is ready to host big Games," according to Leonz Eder ©Getty Images
"Yekaterinburg for sure is ready to host big Games," according to Leonz Eder ©Getty Images

"At the moment, of course we are discussing this question in our inner circle, but at the moment it is too early to give any direction because the world is moving very fast.

"I am ready to serve for FISU as I did in the past years, but in which function is not the most important question to me. The most important questions are our goals, our members, our athletes and how can we fulfil the duties given to us by the General Assembly, by our statutes and regulations.

"We are evaluating almost on a daily basis what will be the development in the world of sport, but not only in the world of sport, also in the world as a whole, and there I am sure we will take the appropriate decision for the future to come."

FISU is continuing to work on the implementation of its Global Strategy 2027, which began in 2017 and covers the key focus areas of sport events, culture and education through sport, legacy and sustainability, dual-career building, cooperation with international organisations, development, promoting university sport, and governance and resources.

Eder says that this provides a "clear plan", but there is scope to be "flexible to adapt if needed", with the Healthy Campus project and UN Sport for Climate Action Framework offering examples of how FISU has adjusted its work.

An "athletes-first" approach will remain central to FISU, he insists.

Having ably and astutely guided FISU through the challenges of the last 18 months in his time as Acting President, there are exciting times ahead for the organisation as it prepares for the return of the World University Games for the first time since 2019 and a busy schedule in the coming years.