LANE ONE: Coronavirus, Beijing, Larry Nassar, weightlifting, doping: is the apocalypse right around the corner?

Our Highlights of last weekend’s noteworthy competitions around the world is here.

In December, 1776, American political activist Thomas Paine began his first American Crisis pamphlet with the words, “These are the times that try men’s souls.

Those words apply now – to men and women – just as they have for many periods since the Revolutionary War. For those in the world of international sport, the last month seems like the planet is spinning off of its axis:

Tokyo 2020’s Mori implodes, but the coronavirus still looms

The Tokyo 2020 organizers already had their hands full when committee chief, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, complained on 3 February about women talking too much during Board meetings. It took only about 10 days for him to resign, with federal Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto taking his place.

Many more women will be added to the Tokyo 2020 Board in what may be (or may not be) a catalytic moment for women in Japanese society. But none of this changes the coronavirus situation, the question of whether fans – foreign or domestic – will be able to attend the Games this summer, the difficulty in holding qualifying events, and the low public enthusiasm for the Games in Japan itself.

Hashimoto said last week that the spectator question should be clearer by the time the Olympic Torch Relay begins on 25 March; IOC chief Thomas Bach thought the decision will be needed by the end of April or beginning of May. But how many people will care?

Beijing 2022 boycott talk continues, ominously

The consensus in the sports world is that athlete boycotts do not create the kind of change required to make them worthwhile. After all, the Nazi-organized Games of 1936 gave us Jesse Owens, while the U.S.-led boycott of 1980 hardly impacted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But that does not mean that politicians aren’t enamored of the idea to prick Chinese pride by having their country’s athletes skip the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. The continuing brutality of the Chinese regime in Hong Kong, against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, the threats against Taiwan and more has energized elected officials in Australia, Canada, Great Britain and elsewhere. Those governments are the primary funders of their National Olympic Committees.

Even in the U.S., last Thursday’s comment by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki showed the question of what to do about the Beijing Winter Games was on the radar. Asked whether U.S. President Joe Biden would “participate” in the Games, Psaki replied, “There hasn’t been a final decision made on that. And, of course, we would look for guidance from the U.S. Olympic Committee.”

The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee is not in favor of a boycott, of course. But it will be fascinating to see if the USOPC and its Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice and Athletes’ Advisory Council will take a stand on the issue, or take a pass.

Interestingly, the new Chair of the Athletes’ Advisory Council is former Bobsled and Skeleton racer Bree Schaaf, whose LinkedIn profile lists her as a Program Manager for the athlete’s rights start-up Global Athlete. Concerning Beijing 2022, that organization tweeted on 27 February:

“Thousands of athletes are caught in the middle. For most, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for fame and a medal. But they’re on their own. Those who speak out may be banned by @Olympics bodies, dropped by sponsors, and threatened by the Chinese state.”

The USOPC is hardly an individual athlete; the U.S. will have one of the largest teams in Beijing. And it could undertake – and lead other nations in – a silent protest that would speak volumes; one suggestion on how to do so is here. It will be fascinating to see what the USOPC and Schaaf do, or don’t do.

Geddert suicide only complicates the endless Nassar scandal

The story of the Larry Nassar abuse scandal took a deadly turn last week when former U.S. Olympic gymnastics coach John Geddert, the long-time owner of the Twistars USA Gymnastics club in Michigan, was charged with 24 felony counts by state prosecutors last Thursday (25th) and then shot himself later that day.

Geddert had been charged with 20 counts of human trafficking, two counts of criminal sexual conduct, criminal racketeering and lying to police. He killed himself in his car while at a rest stop off I-96 in Grand Ledge, Michigan. According to clickondetroit.com, “Nassar worked for Geddert as a team physician and Twistars’ medical expert for about 20 years.”

In the meantime, there is no end in sight to the ongoing USA Gymnastics bankruptcy case at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Southern District of Indiana. A court-mandated settlement conference that was ordered last September, mediated by Judge James Carr, has produced no results to date, after a proposed $217.1 million settlement offered in February 2020 for the abuse survivors was rejected.

International Weightlifting Federation in chaos after IOC letter reiterates complaints

After stating for months its displeasure with the activities of the International Weightlifting Federation, the International Olympic Committee sent a letter to the IWF President and General Secretary listing its issues, and copying it to all IWF national federations and the 206 National Olympic Committees last Wednesday (24th).

After doing very little for a long time, the IWF Executive Board held an emergency meeting on Saturday (27th) and immediately reversed course in a number of areas. Postpone its electoral and Constitutional Congresses scheduled for March and April, so that a Constitution can be adopted before elections? Done. Allow the Chair and Vice Chair of the Athletes Commission to vote at Executive Board meetings? Done. Tell us what else to do? Sure, absolutely.

The future of weightlifting on the Olympic program, and perhaps as an international sport of any significance, depends on its reforms along the lines that the IOC is demanding. But very few people give up power willingly and the IOC is essentially telling the IWF that anyone who has been part of the governing effort while potentially criminal activities have been taking place in IWF finances, doping cover-ups, bribery and more, must go. The elections, to be held sometime this spring, will likely determine the IWF fate for Paris 2024 and beyond.

The same goes for AIBA and boxing, which the IOC has already said is so far behind the curve in its reform efforts that its review committee will not even meet with them.

Court of Arbitration for Sport lets Iran off the hook, for now

The celebrated case of judoka Saeid Mollaei, a former World Champion, who was forced to lose matches at the 2019 Worlds in order not to face, and not to have to stand on the podium with, Israeli star Sagi Muki (the eventual winner), resulted in the Iranian Judo Federation to be suspended indefinitely by the International Judo Federation.

Mollaei fled the World Championships in Japan for Germany and was eventually welcomed to Mongolia, for which he now competes. The Iranian Judo Federation appealed its indefinite sanction to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

On Monday, the arbitration panel decision “annulled” the sanction, stating:

“The CAS Panel determined that the I.R.I. JF committed severe violations of the IJF rules and that sanctions compliant with the IJF regulations should be imposed on it. However, the CAS Panel concluded that the kind of sanction (unlimited suspension) imposed in the challenged decision of 22 October 2019 had no legal basis in the IJF regulations. Accordingly, the Panel partially upheld the appeal and annulled the decision taken by the IJF Disciplinary Commission on 22 October 2019. The matter has been referred back to the IJF Disciplinary Commission for its eventual further decisions.”

So while the Iranians are not off the hook, they get to complain about how unfairly they have been treated. What was the reinstatement criteria required? According to the Court, “Iran Judo Federation [must give] strong guarantees and proves that they will respect the IJF Statutes and accept that their athletes fight against Israeli athletes.”

Perhaps we will see shirts with “Israeli judokas matter” in Iran? Not likely, at least any time soon.

All of this makes one wonder if international sport is headed off of a cliff, even after the pandemic is tamed thanks to widening use of vaccines.

The answer will come this summer, and in February of 2022 when the Olympic Winter Games take place. If people around the world – and especially in the United States and Europe – watch the Games in droves, all will be well.

The reality is that most – but not all – of the sports that make up the Games program are dependent on the IOC’s distribution of its enormous television revenue. If the Games viewing audience shrinks, the IOC’s ability to support these sports, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and the World Anti-Doping Agency and so on, will be compromised.

You see, it really isn’t all about the athletes. Television viewership of this summer’s Games and the 2022 Winter Games will be the ultimate arbiter of the future of the Olympic Movement, and will either reinvigorate Pierre de Coubertin’s project, or begin the slow path to its last judgement.

Rich Perelman
Editor

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