PtG Comment 10.04.2014

Olympic House of Cards

The great family of sport is right now gathered in Belek, Turkey for the SportAccord Convention. Andreas Selliaas takes a look at the Olympic House of Cards.

The race for the 2022 Olympic started this week. The SportAccord International Convention in Belek, Turkey is the first opportunity for the different bid committees to meet the fresh IOC commission members and experts. The bidding process is intertwined with Olympic power politics. The designation of different IOC members into different IOC commissions signals the willingness (or unwillingness?) to reform the Olympic movement. It also gives an indication on who to rely on in the lobbying for the Olympics. Welcome to the Olympic House of Cards!

Sports clichés

At the conference, you will hear all the clichés sport has to offer, almost without objections. Most of the journalists present are old trotters and old friends of  IOC members, and many of them are specially flown in to cover this event. In Belek it will be difficult to distinguish between PR consultants and journalists and in this setting, it is easy to be blinded by your own excellence. At events like this everybody will portray themselves as part of the harmonious sports family. However, below the surface an intense power struggle is going on. A successful bid is more dependent on who you know and who you meet, rather than what you stand for.

Triangle Realpolitik

Shedding a critical light on international sports politics has never been more important. The power in sports is increasingly being centralised and talk of increased democracy, transparency and accountability is in danger of being just talk due to massive PR campaigns run by politicians with their own agenda. In Norway there has been great debate about the IOC’s willingness to reform and about the future of the Olympic movement. After the massive critique against the IOC during the Sochi Olympics, some voices in Norway have tried to balance matters by describing the IOC as a movement going in the right direction.

However, with a great potential for improvement. This is a risky exercise. It is not difficult to argue that the IOC has changed during the past 20 years. The problem is that the rest of the world has made bigger progress. Bottom line in the Olympic reform optimism is the new IOC president’s Agenda 2020 – and his apparent willingness to reform the Olympic movement. Jacques Rogge also had big plans to reform, without success. The IOC president Thomas Bach is one part of an international power triangle. The other parts of this triangle are ANOC and SportAccord. An IOC reform is dependent on the strengths of the different corners of this triangle.

The chosen ones

The choice of leaders and members in the different commissions has not been made through a democratic process. The leaders of the 30 commissions and the selected members to special missions were probably picked out and designated in meetings between the IOC President Thomas Bach, the president of SportAccord Marius Vizer and the ANOC President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah in Kuwait, the home of Al-Sabah, in the end of March. Many of the appointments are interesting, but three particular appointments are of interest for those studying Olympic reform.

Sport’s God-given right

Firstly, the appointment of Patrick Hickey as the IOC member to secure the autonomy of sport. The autonomy of sport is by many sports executives featured as sport’s God-given right. Autonomy means that sport has its own rules and governance beyond the rest of civil society. In some cases, this is a good thing. Had football matches been subject to criminal law, many footballers would have been sent to prison for violent conduct. But autonomy can also hide corruption or be a convenient excuse to separate sport and politics. In Turkey, sport's autonomy is constitutional, which has driven some politicians towards sports organisations, where they can engage in corruption with impunity. I wonder if any journalists will take this issue up for discussion in Belek? Patrick Hickey probably knows?

The autonomy of Alexander Lukashenko

I am not sure how Hickey’s approach to the work on sports autonomy will fit into the wishes of reform in Norway. In 2008, as head of the European Olympic Committee (EOC), Hickey awarded the Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko – who also heads the Olympic Committee of Belarus – an honorable distinction for his outstanding contribution to the Olympic Movement. In 2011, Hickey stated that Lukashenko does an important job for the Olympic Movement. Autonomy of sport?

Political protest

Secondly, the appointment of Mario Pescante as  the IOC's UN observer. Ahead of the Olympics in Sochi, Pescante strongly criticised the U.S. president because he chose to include gay representatives in the U.S. Sochi delegation. Further, Pescante has said that his mission is to bring in a clause in the Olympic truce that prohibits political protests during the Games. Lessons learned from the debate during the Sochi Olympics?

Putin's man

Thirdly, the appointment of Alexander Zhukov as head of the evaluation commission of the Games in 2022. Zhukov was an economist in the Soviet Ministry of Finance for many years, he has been deputy prime minister of Russia, and is currently deputy chairman of the Russian parliament. He has also headed the Russian Olympic Committee. It would be interesting to hear what Patrick Hickey thinks about the autonomy of Russian sport and how the appointments of central politicians in different countries fit into the wish for greater autonomy of sport?

Russian interests in the near abroad

Alexander Zhukov is Vladimir Putin's man in the IOC. Due to Zhukov’s political position in Russia and the conflict in Ukraine the role of Zhukov can have direct bearing on the short list of candidates for the Olympics in 2022: Two of the candidates for the Olympics in 2022 - Lviv in Ukraine and Almaty in Kazakhstan – are in Russia’s near abroad and are of direct political interest to Russia. Will Zhukov be using the conflict in Ukraine against Lviv? And will he be positive to the Almaty bid in order to create closer ties between Russia and Kazakhstan? These are not just conspiracy theories, but Olympic realpolitik.

The PR guru

And in the middle of this triangle lures PR guru Jon Tibbs (Jon Tibbs Association). He is a very influential person with a hand in the most successful bids the past decade. He has strong links with all parts of the power triangle, was central in the presidential bid of Thomas Bach and acts as an adviser to both ANOC and EOC (among other big stakeholders in international sport). Lately he has also taken on missions from countries with frayed human rights reputations and has used sport as a means to give them a glossy exterior. Newest addition is Turkmenistan. Jon Tibbs is a strong contributor when it comes to moving the Olympic powerhouse from Europe and America to Asia.

Best hand?

It is in this power triangle Oslo 2022 (and the other candidates) must break through - whether through idealistic pursuit of a healthier Olympic family or through negotiations and bargaining  not in keeping with the ideals that are often promoted in dinner speeches. To be a winner in the House of Cards you need a strong hand. Aces trump knights!


This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on 8 April 2014. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on