Look for tumultuous year on and off the field of play in 2020, with the Tokyo Games coming, but a lot of drama before then. We looked at the bottom half of our projected top-10 stories of 2020 last week, so here are our top five:
● 5. The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and the U.S. Congress ●
In November, the Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill entitled “Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019” developed after a series of hearings in a sub-committee that examined the U.S. Olympic Movement in detail.
The proponents are Kansas Senator Jerry Moran and Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, and their bill proposes a series of measures designed to protect U.S. Olympic-sport athletes, including a required $20 million in annual funding by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee for the U.S. Center for Safe Sport, expanding the USOPC Office of the Ombudsman to assist and advise athletes on any kind of abuse, holding U.S. National Governing Bodies much more responsible for athlete training and support programs they administer and holding the USOPC much more responsible for the NGBs.
The legislation also proposes increasing the level of athlete representation on the USOPC Board of Directors to 33% from 25% and creates a procedure by which the Congress “can dissolve the Board of the U.S. Olympic Committee and decertify National Governing Bodies.”
Even these measures are not enough for some activists, but the possibility of these reforms have galvanized the USOPC into action. It pushed through a series of reforms late in the year which adopted some of the items included in the Moran-Blumenthal bill, which has now been passed to the full Senate for action.
There are many issues with the bill, however. At the top of the list is the ability for the Congress to require a new USOPC Board, which the International Olympic Committee will see as governmental interference with the operation of international sport in the U.S. That could lead to at least the threat of a suspension of the USOPC, something most observers would consider almost unimaginable.
The U.S. House of Representatives is well behind at this point and it is not clear how it will move forward. Moreover, with the Congress completely tied up with the Presidential impeachment process and with 2020 an election year and an Olympic year, it is not at all clear that this issue will fall by the wayside and have to be re-started in 2021.
At the same time, the USOPC will be doing everything it can to avoid having this bill become law. And it is possible that – given everything else going on – that it may be successful.
● 4. Athletes are taking a stand, but with what success? ●
The “athlete’s voice” was a big issue in 2019, but 2020 will test how far this movement can go.
On the docket for May is a trial in the class-action suit for discrimination in pay and playing conditions by 28 members of the U.S. Women’s National Team, against the U.S. Soccer Federation. It’s not at all clear that the women will prevail and the suit also comes just a couple of months prior to the start of the Olympic Football Tournament in Tokyo in late July.
The smart money says this suit will be settled prior to trial, but as the women’s suit has been buoyed by favorable media coverage as well as its victory in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, it’s not at all clear that can happen.
Less confrontational, but still high-profile is the new group headed by triple jump Olympic and World Champion Christian Taylor of the U.S. In response to the revamping of the IAAF Diamond League program – now the Wanda Diamond League – that eliminated the 200 m, steeple, triple jump and discus from the 2020 program, Taylor has been organizing “The Athletics Association” to be an independent representative of track & field athletes.
Taylor has noted that World Athletics has an Athlete’s Commission, but emphasizes the importance of having a fully independent group to work with World Athletics to make the worldwide competition program better for everyone. He has not specified a platform other than to obtain “a seat a the table” to discuss major changes that impact professional athletes, but that could change as we go through the year.
As the Olympic Games draw near, expect to hear a lot more about athlete advertising and the loosening of restrictions around Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter. This section restricts the ability of athletes to promote themselves through commercial relationships which are separate and apart from the IOC, the Games organizers or their own National Olympic Committee.
German athletes won a national judgement on the issue that could be adopted across Europe, allowing more flexibility in such sponsor promotion of athletes, but still without any use of the Olympic Rings or other IOC intellectual property. The USOPC also relaxed its rules, but the British Olympic Association remained fairly tight in its restrictions and is in the process of being sued.
The suits are local, as the IOC has stated the rules are now essentially up to each National Olympic Committee and no blanket prohibition is now in place.
However, the IOC has come out strongly against athlete protests during the Olympic Games, as was seen at the Pan American Games by U.S. fencer Race Imboden (kneeling during a victory ceremony) and American hammer thrower Gwen Berry (raised right fist during her awards ceremony) and at the FINA World Championships in protests against China’s Yang Sun.
In his end-of-year message, IOC chief Thomas Bach (GER) pointedly wrote:
“Athletes have an essential role to play in respecting this political neutrality on the field of play. It is important to note in this regard that there is broad support and understanding among a great majority of athletes that the field of play and ceremonies should not become an arena for political statements or any kind of protests. Respecting one’s fellow athletes also means respecting their unique Olympic moment and not distracting from it with one’s own political views.”
It’s worth noting that the Tokyo Games will be held between the U.S. national political conventions: after the Democratic Party confab and before the Republicans.
● 3. After five years, former IAAF chief and IOC member Lamine Diack will go on trial ●
World Athletics is the new name for what was known as the IAAF from 1912 until last December, but a former head of that federation will be on trial in France for corruption, beginning on 13 January.
Former IAAF President Lamine Diack of Senegal will be among six defendants charged with taking bribes, extortion and money laundering for activities including buying votes of IOC members in Olympic Host City elections, covering up doping violations by Russian athletes and corruption within the IAAF.
Diack, 86, was the elected head of the IAAF from 1999-2015, when the scandal broke and has been under house arrest in France since 2015. Also to be tried are his son, Papa Massata Diack, former IAAF Treasurer and Russian Athletics Federation head Valentin Balakhnichev, Russian coach Alexei Melnikov, Diack aide Habib Cisse and the former IAAF anti-doping manager Gabriel Dolle.
Papa Massata Diack has remained in Senegal and has refused to talk with the French authorities. Balakhnichev and Melnikov have remained in Russia and are similarly beyond the current reach of the prosecutors. They are expected to be tried in absentia.
The trial promises to be bad news for the IOC, for World Athletics and for international sport in general, with millions of dollars having changed hands for dubious purposes. With an investigation that has spanned more than four years, though, the pressure will very much be on the French prosecutors to make a strong case that justifies the lengthy development period.
● 2. The Russian doping drama drones on, but is there hope for the future? ●
The seemingly endless saga of Russia and doping continues in 2020, with sanctions on the line that could keep a Russian team out of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The World Anti-Doping Agency formally declared the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) as non-compliant in December, endorsing internal recommendations of a four-year suspension. No Russian team would be allowed to compete at the Tokyo Games in 2020 or the Bejing Winter Games in 2022, but Russian athletes who can “prove” that they are clean could compete as neutrals.
Naturally, the Russians have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, with lawyers now appointed not just for RUSADA, but also for the Russian Olympic Committee and the Russian Paralympic Committee. The tactics are fairly clear, with the Russians planning to slow down the process sufficiently so that a Russian team can compete in Tokyo (but then the sanctions would cover Paris 2024). Whether this actually is allowed is yet to be seen.
At the same time, World Athletics has suspended its reinstatement process for the Russian Athletics Federation altogether, thanks to a new interference with a possible doping positive for a “whereabouts” failure of high jumper Danil Lysenko, the 2018 World Indoor Champion. This could result in no Russian track & field athletes competing in Tokyo, regardless of what happens with the WADA sanctions.
At the same time, the science of anti-doping is being moved forward by some promising new technologies. Testing via samples of a dried blood spot would make the collection process much easier, faster and less expensive. Significant advances in tracking doping efforts through analysis of gene sequencing – especially for blood doping – is another highly promising possibility. IOC chief Bach has urged WADA to adopt these processes for Tokyo, and the IOC has also provided $5 million for the storage of pre-Olympic, out-of-competition doping samples for 10 years so that they can be re-tested as more advanced analysis procedures are available.
There is reason to think the anti-doping movement could be significantly advanced in 2020 if the promising new technologies come online soon enough. But it will be the Russian case that will dominate the headlines right through the spring.
● 1. The Games of the XXXII Olympiad finally come to Tokyo ●
At the end of another tumultuous organizing period, seven years of preparation will finally end on 24 July as the 2020 Olympic Games open in Tokyo, Japan.
The New National Stadium, built at a cost of $1.4 billion, will be the site for the Opening Ceremony for a Games which has been continuously buffeted by controversy since Tokyo was selected in 2013:
● The total cost of the Games was originally pegged at $7.3 billion (U.S.), zoomed to as much as $25 billion by some estimates, but has settled at $12.6 billion (+72.6%) over the past year or so. Worries over spending are continuing, but the savings effort has been real: the original stadium plan was to cost upwards of $2.3 billion, but a new plan was developed with the final cost almost 45% less.
● The enduring concern about the Tokyo Games has become the summer heat. Some of the pre-Olympic test events in the summer were held in hot conditions and some athletes were affected.
After the IOC watched 20 of the 68 competitors in the 2019 IAAF World Championships women’s marathon fail to finish because of the hot conditions in Doha, Qatar – with many more suffering through the race – it switched the marathons and race walks to the northern city of Sapporo. The start time for the cross-country equestrian event was moved to 7:30 a.m. from 8:30 and the individual triathlons will start at 6:30 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m. The open-water swimming events will start at 7:00 a.m., but could be moved earlier.
(In case you were wondering, sunrise in Tokyo in late July will be about 4:45 a.m.)
● There are lingering questions about whether the Tokyo bid committee’s payments for “consulting” made close to the IOC’s vote in 2013 might have been used for bribes of African IOC members. This topic is expected to be touched on during the Diack trial later this month.
On the other hand, the Tokyo organizers are moving along towards a successful staging of the Games. IOC President Bach said in his New Year’s Message that “I have never seen an Olympic host as prepared as Tokyo at this stage before the Games.”
What is true is that the interest in the Games in Japan is remarkable. About 7.8 million tickets for the Games are available, but the organizers have reported combined requests in the three rounds of distributions of more than 60 million! This is good news for the Paralympics, which will undoubtedly sell out thanks to the unrequited demand for Olympic seats.
Applications for volunteer positions at the Games were similarly overwhelming at 204,680 from a short campaign that closed in January of 2019. So the public support for the Games is at perhaps unprecedented levels.
It’s going to be quite a show in Tokyo (and Sapporo) and it’s going to be quite a year.