The start of an Olympic cold war?


SOCHI, Russia — There is a familiar saying in Olympic circles about SportAccord. It goes like this: SportAccord is the umbrella organization for the international sports federations. Now the key question: is it raining?

The query took on immediate and profound urgency Monday after Marius Vizer, the SportAccord president, launched a public attack on the International Olympic Committee the likes of which has not been seen within the so-called “Olympic family” in recent memory.

SportAccord president Marius Vizer at the lectern // photo courtesy SportAccord

With IOC president Thomas Bach listening, Vizer said the “IOC system is expired, outdated, wrong, unfair and not at all transparent,” adding, “The Olympic Games belong to all of us and we need real reforms.”

Bach thereafter took to the lectern and delivered a wry smile that thanked Vizer for his “friendly” welcome. Referring to the 40-point reform plan dubbed Agenda 2020 that the full IOC membership passed last December in Monaco — after an extensive review that from around the world drew thousands of comments and suggestions — Bach said, “Nobody who wanted to listen, nobody who wanted to hear, nobody who wanted to understand, nobody who wanted to have some sort of goodwill … could miss the decisions we were taking.”

This was all Monday morning. In the afternoon session, Lamine Diack, the president of the influential international track and field federation, announced that the IAAF was withdrawing from SportAccord, absolutely a “protest” against Vizer’s position, IAAF spokesman Nick Davies confirmed afterward. The international shooting federation, another Olympic entity, quickly followed suit.

By mid-afternoon, those two were among 16 international sports federations that had signed a letter expressing “disagreement” with Vizer’s remarks and expressing “strong support” for Bach and for Agenda 2020. Some or all of the others, it was said, needed board review to contemplate further action.

The letter that circulated Thursday among sport federations after Vizer's remarks

Vizer, who was re-elected here Monday to a full four-year term atop SportAccord, said at a news conference, “Everybody is free to withdraw, to do whatever they want. There are two ways in sport — to follow the fairness, the transparency, the unity, the criteria and the principles. Or to choose another home.”

Back in the former USSR, was Monday the start of a cold war in Olympic sport?

Did it herald a split between the federations — those within the Olympic program and those on the outside?

Was it the beginning of the end for SportAccord? Or a distinct new beginning for the organization, which has branded itself as “the world sport & business summit 2015,” with perhaps the only leader in world sport who would dare to speak truth to the ultimate Olympic power?

Who else but Vizer, after all, would say this, as he did:

“In over 100 countries of the world, sport is in misery. Athletes are lacking the necessary basic elements — food, medication, equipment, preparation facilities and possibility to participate to competitions. One of the great questions of sport today is how much should we continue to invest in buildings and infrastructure and how much in people?!

“Furthermore: why invest hundreds of millions of dollars in opening and closing ceremonies, while millions of athletes live in hunger and they don’t stand a chance in sport due to the lack of proper conditions? If indeed the ‘IOC distributes 3.25 million dollars a day, every day of the year, for the development of sport worldwide,’ why do millions of athletes suffer and cannot enjoy or reach performances in sport?

“Together, SportAccord and [the] IOC must find a solution to compensate national federations and athletes [for] their events. Today, the money invested in sport never reaches the athletes and their families. Sport Accord and the international federations are already providing prize money to their athletes in competition, in an effort to compensate for this.”

Vizer, who is also president of the judo federation and who has throughout his career maintained — for anyone who truly would listen — an athlete-first priority, also said that Agenda 2020 “hardly brings any real benefit to sport, to [the international federations] or athletes.”

And he asserted that the key piece of Agenda 2020, the launch of an Olympic television channel, was approved without so much as a business plan.

“Any business project in the world needs a business plan, investors, professional partners, break-even points, strategy, consultation with stakeholders — international federations and to generate a benefit for all stakeholders,” adding, “Only after the decision appears that a plan is in process.”

In the protocol-heavy, diplomacy-filled, nuanced world of the Olympic movement, was such straight talk appropriate? Welcome? Or tantamount to sacrilege?

Immediately after Vizer and Bach made their remarks, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad Al-Sabah — the hugely influential head of the 205-member Assn. of National Olympic Committees — joined Bach in the hallway outside the ballroom to extend support. So did other leading Olympic figures.

IOC president Thomas Bach and ANOC president Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah moments after leaving the SportAccord meeting

The sheikh and ANOC would later issue a statement in which the organization sought to “stress its full commitment to Olympic Agenda 2020 and its implementation,” adding, “Under Under President Bach’s leadership we look forward to moving towards a more united and brighter future.”

Was the issue Monday not just what Vizer said but that he had not fully consulted his constituents before he spoke? Had he briefed them? Did they have ample warning what was coming?

One insider, asking not to be identified, said, “The headline is: this is the beginning of the end,” meaning for Vizer.

Another: “In a family, if you have a conflict, you don’t go out and express it in front of everybody.”

A third: “it’s a humiliation for the IOC president. He,” meaning Vizer, “certainly went too far. If you have a different opinion, find a private occasion to discuss it. Now we have to wait and see the consequences.”

These sorts of remarks raise perhaps the ultimate question. If you challenge the IOC president, who in the Olympic sphere is likely to win that fight?

Which brings up another question: is the Romanian-born Marius Vizer — and if you know his life story, how he escaped Communism — afraid of any challenge?

Vizer, in an interview, said of his his remarks, “I work for the sport voluntarily, free of charge, all my life, and somebody who is paid, working in the sport and for the sport, [has] to reply to me, no?”

The IOC recently announced that Bach will receive an annual 225,000 euro ($242,000) annual “indemnity policy” covering reimbursements.

“And,” Vizer said, “to reality, to my proposals and my questions.”

These include various multi-sport proposals such as beach, mind, combat and other games. A world championships that would include all 90-plus federations — a plank on which Vizer ran for SportAccord president two years ago — is one of those ideas that now, many agree, perhaps seems better suited to theory than the real world.

“Mr. President,” Vizer said, “please stop blocking the SportAccord strategy in its mission to identify and organize conventions and multi-sport games.”

It has been an IOC tradition in recent years to hold its executive board meetings in the spring at SportAccord. Not this year — the IOC saying it was a way to save money. Bach showed up in Sochi. But it was abundantly clear that the absence of the executive board was a play aimed at minimizing the import of the event, and by implication Vizer.

For that matter, in the appropriate years, SportAccord has also served as a site for IOC bid city presentations. This is a bid year, for the 2022 Winter Games. But, again, there are no bid-city presentations here. Same deal — no bid-city presentations mean, in theory, a lesser event.

For his part, Bach said from the lectern, the TV channel is “open to everybody,” a “worldwide presence” designed to grow sport and “promote the values we all share.”

The IOC has, he said, distributed more than $400 million over four years to “the national level,” emphasizing, “There in the end they and their athletes, they are benefitting.”

He also said, “We should always consider that sport at the end is about results. It’s in the sport competition but it’s also in the work we are doing.

“This is not about plans and projects. It’s about results and actions. When taking these actions, we have to be efficient. We have to avoid that we are working in a parallel way. If somebody starts something, we also start something in this respect. In this way we are wasting time, we are wasting human resources, we are losing efficiency and, in the end, and this is worst of all, we are losing credibility.

“What we all need for sport, if we want to promote our values, if we want to be a respected part of society, if we want to grow our sport, if we want to attract young people … if we want to do all this, if we want then to achieve our mission of organizing sport and at the same time put sport into the service of society, then what we need altogether is credibility. This credibility we can only achieve if we have unity in our diversity.”

He said, “I invite you to bring your diversity to the table … but then bring unity in our concerted effort,” adding to applause, “Thank you very much.”

There was one last little twist on the entire day’s events.

At the end of his news conference, Vizer had this to offer, unprompted: “Be happy.”