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One of the core beliefs of the International Olympic Committee and almost all other international governing bodies is that sport brings people together.
When we see mega-events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup, with billions of people around the world watching the same thing at the same time, there is a connection, a shared experience.
But who is at the center of that experience?
In what will be remembered as one of the most tumultuous periods in sports history – from the close of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro to the postponement of the 2020 Games in Tokyo – the International Olympic Committee has led the charge to declare “athletes” at the core of the Olympic Movement.
Fine. But which athletes? And how are they to be served?
These questions now face the IOC and other sports governing bodies, as the goal of being “athlete-centric” is becoming less the answer and more of the question. Just take the current ruckus over “athlete-centered” issues in weightlifting, boxing and in Iran:
Almost overnight, the sport has blown up. In the aftermath of being confirmed – but still on probation – for the 2024 Paris Games after decades of excessive doping, the International Weightlifting Federation had its long-time president accused of doping mismanagement, financial irregularities and governance faults, leading to his ouster in April.
Interim President Ursula Garza Papandrea (USA) drew high marks from the IOC for her work in reforming the IWF, but during an emergency meeting of the federation’s Executive Board – to which she was not invited – “the EB decided to revoke the appointment of Ursula Papandrea as Acting Interim President.” British doctor Michael Irani, head of the IWF Medical Commission, was named Interim President on Thursday (15th).
The IOC responded with a statement that it is “very worried” about the decision to depose Garza Papandrea and is asking further questions. Phil Andrews, the British-born head of USA Weightlifting, left his appointment as Interim Deputy Director General of the IWF on Tuesday (13th) and noted on Twitter:
“We tried, we worked hard, we persuaded some of the very best in the world to help us become the World Class organization we should be.
“However, some just didn’t want that.
“The only way now is for every nation who desires Olympic participation, who desires clean sport, to fight.”
USA Weightlifting’s Board of Directors posted a statement on Monday which read in part:
“Today is a dark day for Weightlifting.
“On behalf of the 24,000 members of the USA Weightlifting federation, we strongly condemn the actions of the IWF Executive Board today in removing Ursula Garza Papandrea as interim president and removing Phil Andrews as the interim deputy director general. Furthermore, we are disgusted and outraged that a majority of the IWF Executive Board continues to block efforts to create real and substantive change in the areas of governance, anti-doping reform and Athlete representation.
“These transparently corrupt actions serve only one purpose: rewarding and empowering nations who can only win by cheating.”
The Board also sent a message to all 187 member federations in the IWF, petitioning for an immediate Congress to elect an Interim President and for the formation of a reform commission. A total of 38 signatories are required to call such a Congress.
The new head of the IWF Athletes Commission, Sarah Davies, started a petition “to help push for a vote of no confidence of the IWF Executive Board that we can present to the IOC on behalf of all athletes involved in the sport of weightlifting.” Her call also noted, critically:
“There is no athlete representation though we had been invited to the previous two meetings, we received no invitation to this meeting, called by Nicu Vlad of Romania. As athletes, we are not represented at all on the Board by a current athlete and there is constitutionally no voting right for the athletes.”
The petition was posted on Thursday (15th) and has already drawn almost 8,000 signees in less than a day.
The easy answer to all this, of course, would be for the IOC to simply suspend – or even expel – the IWF. But what then about the athletes?
Weightlifting’s footprint in Tokyo has already been reduced from 260 to 196 athletes because of the sport’s horrific doping past. It would be easiest to simply get rid of weightlifting, but what about its athletes, who have been of the Olympic program since 1920? Should the IOC help form a new federation? How can it be sure it’s not the same old people?
The weightlifting situation is hardly a new one for the IOC, as it was already dealing with the problems of AIBA, the International Boxing Federation, for years. The situation finally got so bad that the IOC suspended AIBA – and cut off all funding – in May of 2019 and appointed a task force to run qualifying events and the Olympic tournament in Tokyo.
The athlete quota for boxing has remained at 286 from Rio to Tokyo, but where there were 10 men’s divisions and three for women in 2016, there will be 8 + 5 for Tokyo.
AIBA is $16+ million in debt, has no income to speak of, and has still not selected a new President since Gafur Rakhimov (UZB) resigned in July 2019; Moroccan Mohamed Moustahsane has served as interim president while an election by videoconference is slated for December of this year. IOC chief Thomas Bach (GER) summarized the IOC Executive Board’s view thusly on 7 October:
“With regard to AIBA, we have received the report of the [IOC] monitoring group, and I can summarize the reaction of the EB in one sentence, that we are very worried about the lack of progress with regard to the governance reform of AIBA. There is talk of presidential elections, but we do not see any progress about these governance reforms which are very important.”
Again, what’s the solution? Beyond making governance changes – which AIBA has promised it will make – can AIBA ever become a going concern? It’s worth noting that since its already-scheduled World Championships in 2019, AIBA has held no tournaments of its own. No future World Championships have been scheduled.
Wouldn’t the IOC like to jettison the whole boxing mess? But what about the athletes?
Greco-Roman wrestler Navid Afkari was executed by the Iranian regime on 12 September for actions the state says he took during public protests in 2018. No one is exactly sure what took place, but Afkari is dead.
Asked about what the IOC could do, Bach noted that the organization’s mandate is “limited to sport.” But now a group of Iranian athletes called United4Navid is asking the IOC to suspend Iran from the Olympic Movement!
Sardar Pashaei, a former national team Greco-Roman wrestler and coach said on a video:
“In Iran, Kurdish, Baloutch, Arab, Sunni, Bahai and even female athletes face systematic discrimination.
“I personally witnessed Iranian authorities forcing athletes to refuse to compete with Israeli athletes… Athletes who take part in civil disobedience protests in the streets are arrested, tortured and even executed, especially the innocent young athlete, Navid Afkari.
“I ask where else in the world is a young athlete arrested, tortured and hanged?”
Iran sent 64 athletes to the Rio Games and won eight medals. Are they all to be excluded?
Also brewing now are the issues of political interference with the selection of athletes for national teams in Belarus – 124 athletes in Rio and nine medals – and possible sanctions based on letters received directly from athletes in the country.
Then there is the issue of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, specifically section 2, which prohibits protests or demonstrations at the Games. The IOC Executive Board turned the question of any changes over to its Athletes’ Commission, which is soliciting recommendations and views from athletes around the world.
Reported recommendations from athlete groups in Australia, Ireland, Germany, Canada and in the Pan American region have shown no strong interest in allowing protests on the awards podium or in the Opening or Closing Ceremonies. But what of the loud voices still to come?
Even if substantially alone, what if the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s athlete survey demands no restrictions at all? What then?
Being “athlete centric” is an easy, feel-good touchpoint for the IOC, and its transformation over the past 10 years has been astonishing to its long-time observers. But as it is well knows now, being for the athletes brings a whole new set of issues in which the choice is not between athletes wellness and athlete ignorance, but which athletes will prevail in disputes over others.
And the list is getting longer.