What would Jackie Robinson say?


International Olympic Committee news releases are written in distinctive code. In an otherwise anodyne six-paragraph release issued a few days ago on autonomy and good governance, the IOC dropped a bombshell. For years, Iran as well as a number of Arabic countries have taken sly steps aimed at denying appropriate recognition to Israeli officials or athletes; further, athletes from these countries have mysteriously feigned ailments or been ordered not to compete with Israelis. The new IOC president, Thomas Bach, is seemingly now keen to send a strong signal that on his watch this sort of thing is not likely to be tolerated.

To be clear, the release itself hardly makes any grandiose pronouncements.

But the signal would seem strong.

An overview of the WBSC congress in Tunisia // photo courtesy WBSC

It’s spelled out in the fourth paragraph, the IOC noting that at the instruction of the president himself, a task force has begun an investigation into an “incident” that “may represent discrimination” against the Israeli baseball/softball federation at the World Baseball Softball Confederation general assembly last month in Hammamet, Tunisia, a resort about an hour south of Tunis.

This marks the first time in recent memory the IOC has pointedly taken such official note of such an “incident” involving potential “discrimination” waged against the Israelis.

The details of the “incident,” moreover, make it abundantly clear the president of the Israeli baseball federation, Peter Kurz, absolutely was singled out and made the target of discrimination.

Not only that: though he was not harmed, he was left throughout the congress feeling unsafe and vulnerable. Given that security -- as the IOC is always given to say, is paramount issue No.1 -- that can never be tenable, particularly given the lessons of the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The question now: what is to be done?

Tunisia is among those nations that have inappropriately mixed politics with sports when it comes to Israel. Last fall, for instance, Tunisia’s tennis federation ordered its top player, Malek Jaziri, ranked 169th in the world, not to play Israel’s Amir Weintraub in the quarterfinals of a lower-tier ATP event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The WBSC congress, its first after the merger of the international baseball and softball federations, took place May 10-11.

In a May 12 letter to newly elected WBSC president Riccardo Fraccari, Kurz wrote that despite the history between the two nations he had been assured he and Israel would be appropriately “recognized and honored” per usual Olympic-style protocol at the assembly. But “unfortunately, the night before the Congress, I was asked to sit without my national flag and country sign, for ‘my own well being’ and for the sake of the host country.”

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Kurz said, “I went there with assurance the Israeli flag would be shown,” adding a moment later, referring to Tunisian authorities, “They told me that for my own benefit it was probably better if I didn’t sit with the flag. I agreed, for my own safety. Afterward, when I left, I sent them,” meaning the WBSC, a “letter of protest.”

Israel was the only nation so singled out at the conference. The merged confederation represents more than 100 nations; softball alone is played in more than 140.

Bach has made autonomy and governance issues — which typically do not receive much, if any, press — one of the mainstays of his “Agenda 2020” IOC review and potential reform process, now working its way toward an all-members session in Monaco in December.

In governance, the president has sought to underscore the obvious: without consistency, everything can get very shaky, and very fast.

"The health and viability of the Olympic movement start and end with issues of ethics and governance," said Atlanta-based Terrence Burns, a noted Olympic strategist. "These principles are embedded in the Olympic charter and have guided the movement since 1896."

Bach has also, since his election as IOC president in Buenos Aires last September, sought to highlight the import of fair play and respect, both on and off the field of play.

He has cited Nelson Mandela: “Sport can change the world.”

In a late April speech at the United Nations, he reiterated the words he used in closing the Sochi Games, when he urged “the political leaders of the world to respect the Olympic message of good will, of tolerance, of excellence and of peace” and appealed to “everybody implicated in confrontation, oppression or violence: act on this Olympic message of dialogue and peace … have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue.”

If the IOC in prior years might have been perhaps more inclined to be more passive about what happened in Tunisia, it’s clear a different sort of reckoning now awaits.

Uncertain, though, is the full scope and nature.

For its part, the WBSC has also launched its own inquiry. It will “fully cooperate” with the IOC to determine “warranted sanctions” and “any other course of action,” Fraccari said in an email sent early Wednesday from Tokyo.

Tangled up in all this — albeit as a side issue, though one that has sparked some concern within the WBSC — is the federation’s positioning going forward as it seeks to get baseball and softball back onto the Olympic program, perhaps as soon as the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games.

Fraccari said, “Good governance, autonomy and upholding the Olympic values are absolutely paramount to the WBSC, and the IOC’s involvement in this highly important matter is very much valued -- and any guidance that is provided will be strictly followed.”

He also said, “I am deeply, deeply disappointed with this incident; the flag of Israel should have been proudly on display alongside the other flags.”

He  said, “On behalf of the WBSC – and in my own name – I personally apologized to President Kurz and the Israel Association of Baseball following the incident, and I have given IAB every assurance that the newly elected WBSC executive board will handle this case in a swift, just and decisive manner, so that no such occurrence -- or such a scenario – is ever repeated.”

Kurz said the apology came in a telephone call last Friday: “He said it shouldn’t have happened.”

Fraccari also said this: “This regretful, isolated incident in no way reflects what baseball and softball represent — baseball and softball have a long and proud tradition of promoting racial diversity and multiculturalism, and have helped challenge racism, stereotypes and have helped to tear down both social and gender barriers."

In that spirit, Bach has, and with ample reason, pointed to Nelson Mandela. The Olympic movement has long venerated, again with sound reason, the U.S. track star, Jesse Owens.

In this instance, perhaps the time has come to look to another American icon, the baseball player Jackie Robinson. He literally changed the face of professional sports in the United States. Throughout his life, he proved an exemplar of peaceful tolerance. Each year, on April 15, in a celebration of his life and achievements, is Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball; all the players, coaches, managers on both teams, even the umpires, wear Robinson's No. 42.

The irony of the "incident" in Tunisia is that the other candidate to have hosted the WBSC assembly was Los Angeles; of course, that's where the team that Robinson played for, the Dodgers, moved to from Brooklyn, and that's where he grew up, in nearby Pasadena, California, and went to college, at UCLA.

The federation opted to have the congress in Tunisia on the theory that staging it in Africa would be a part of promoting a growth strategy for their games; after all, in January, Uganda opened central Africa's first-ever national baseball and softball stadium.

It was left to Kurz, in his letter, to point out the obvious: "Future Congresses should not be held in countries that do not respect or recognize the rights of other countries, and you had over 145 countries to choose from."


Wrestling? How about surfing?

The agenda is patently obvious Wednesday, when the International Olympic Committee's policy-making executive board meets in St. Petersburg, Russia, to determine the next steps for the sports program at the 2020 Summer Games. Does wrestling stand a chance to get back in? Or will it be irretrievably out for at least for four years? What about baseball and softball's combined bid -- does it deserve the one spot now open for 2020? Or will the other sports, such as squash, karate or climbing, be given an opportunity to make their case?

No matter the decision, the bigger picture has already been revealed. The IOC's process for figuring out what sports should be in the Games is fundamentally flawed and needs wholesale review.

The fix the IOC is in can be crystalized by assessing the outcome of the wrestling dilemma -- a crisis of the IOC's own making.

If wrestling, which the board voted out in February, gets a chance Wednesday to come back, and then -- in September at the all-members session in Buenos Aires -- actually gets voted back on, that's testament to an an appropriately aggressive response from FILA, the international wrestling federation, and power politics from, among others, Russia, where wrestling really matters, and President Vladimir Putin.

Russia is playing host to the Sochi 2014 Winter Games in just a few months. At Putin's direction, some $51 billion has already been spent -- that we know of -- getting ready for Sochi.

Putin is due in St. Petersburg to meet Thursday with Rogge, the day after the executive board vote.

If it's ultimately wrestling again on the program, and you can for sure make that argument in good faith, here's the problematic next question: what changes will the IOC's post-London Games review toward 2020 have actually effected?

Zero. Zip. Nada.

This raises a completely different set of issues and questions. Because, one might argue, it is counter-productive indeed for the IOC to do nothing, to seem stale, when it proclaims time and again that its mission is to reach out to the young people of the world.

To be blunt: the IOC's No. 1 priority in an ever-changing world is to remain relevant. There's a reason why sports such as jeu de paume, pelota basque and croquet, once features of the Summer Games program, aren't on it any longer. The program evolves with time and circumstance.

Yes, and understandably, wrestlers want to shine at the Games. But so do shortstops on baseball teams. And girls around the world who play softball.

And, for that matter, so do surfers, skateboarders, dancers, mixed martial artists and others.

The IOC has spent more than 10 years, essentially since the Mexico City session in 2002, trying to figure what to do about the Summer Games line-up. With this result: baseball and softball out, golf and rugby sevens in.

That is not considerable progress.

It is abundantly plain that more progress on this issue is not going to, or can not, take place until after the election of the new IOC president, at the Buenos Aires session, in September.

After that, though, this issue ought to be a key priority.

Mindful that the IOC -- at least for now -- caps participation in the Summer Games at 10,500 athletes and 28 sports, and also appreciating that a logjam like this is going to take both time, some direct conversation and some out-of-the-box thinking, here is a proposal to start the dialogue.

To begin, because of the 10,500 cap, somebody's got to go.

Say good-bye to soccer (504 athletes in London), shooting (390) and equestrian (200). This assumes wrestling is gone as well (344). Now you have cleared 1438 spaces.

Soccer for sure does not need the Games. Obviously, the men's component at the Olympics is not even the beautiful game's top priority since the best players don't play.

As for shooting -- people are going to shoot guns no matter what.

And for equestrian -- horse shows will survive without the Olympics, it's always a complication getting the horses to the Games and while the proponents of equestrian sport like to talk about how it fosters an amazing connection between man and beast that anyone can enjoy, doesn't it really cost a lot of money -- an awful lot of money -- to compete at an elite level?

Another way to approach the 10,500 cap is to ask why there is a 10,500 cap. And why the Games only run for 17 days. But that's a different philosophical issue entirely.

At any rate, once you make room for new sports, here are sports to consider, sports that young people actually like and that would not only make for hot tickets live but would crank up TV ratings, too:


Is there anyone who doesn't think surfing is cool? Who in the world doesn't think Hawaiian surf god Laird Hamilton is, like, the coolest guy on Planet Earth? Wouldn't he be an invaluable asset to the movement? Dude, there is an entire culture devoted to this sport.

The head of the International Surfing Assn. recognizes that the only way surfing makes its way into the Games is not out in the ocean. It's through man-made wave-park technology.

Purists would assuredly argue that would be betraying some of surfing's soulfulness. Who, though, says the soul of surfing requires it to be a sport for only those who live by the shore? That technology would spread the sport far and wide, allowing millions -- if not billions -- more access to it.

If you think beach volleyball is now the hot ticket at the Games -- imagine the scene at Olympic surfing.

Fernando Aguerre, 55, a surfer (of course) and president of the ISA, is a visionary, not just an entrepreneur and environmental activist but someone who for years now has understood the power of the Olympic movement to effect change.

Born and raised in Argentina -- where he founded the original Argentinean Surfing Assn. despite a military dictatorship ban on the sport at the time -- he now lives near San Diego, Calif.

Reef, the sandal and sportswear maker? That was his company. This summer, the surf industry's trade group SIMA -- which is more likely to honor the likes of a competitor like Kelly Slater -- is poised to give Aguerre its top prize, the Waterman of the Year Award.

The federation, incidentally, now counts 72 member federations. It includes world championships in a variety of categories. Further, ISA has launched a number of initiatives, including scholarship programs for young surfers in countries like Peru.

Aguerre said, looking at the sports in the Games program, "I believe restrictions on participation should exist. However, I think that in the best interest of the Olympic movement, the results should be applied to all sports -- those that are in the Games and those that are not in the Games. It should be a level playing field."

He added a moment later, "It's like I say about creating a menu for a party. It doesn't matter what food you serve in your house. You look at the best food, and then you create the menu. Then people are going to be happy."


The IOC has done solid work in bringing snowboarding to the Winter Games. U.S. icon Shaun White is now a two-time Winter Games gold medalist.

White is also a skateboarding stud.

And yet he can't compete in skateboarding at the Summer Games?

This makes no sense, especially when you see skateboarders doing awesome tricks at the X Games.

The explanation is both simple and yet super-complex -- it's sports politics.

Without getting too deep, the IOC demands national federations and an international federation. And everyone understands that skateboarding could mean big money.

The snowboarding analogy: snowboarders got in through the skiing federation. Now it's all good. But at the time, in the late 1990s, it was far from easy.

The challenge for skateboarding is figuring out how to get in -- separately, or under the wing of another federation. The cycling federation, for instance, has often been mentioned. But that has never seemed like the right fit.

So, as IOC president Jacques Rogge said in a recent interview in Around the Rings, this is the impasse.

It needs to be worked out.

Again, see those skateboarders at the X Games?


When: Dec. 11, 2000.

Where: the Palace Hotel, Lausanne, Switzerland.

What: a standard and Latin DanceSport demonstration.

Who was there: then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, the entire IOC executive board, the IOC program commission and others, among them me. I walked out thinking, no way.

More than a dozen years later, and all I can say is, I was flat-out wrong, and I am here now to say it's time to admit it.

One: it's ridiculous to say the IOC doesn't allow dancing in the Games. Look at ice dancing in the Winter Olympics.

Two: they're real athletes. Ask Apolo Ohno, the eight-time U.S. short-track speed skating medalist, about how physically taxing it is to dance on "Dancing with the Stars." Or Shawn Johnson, the U.S. gymnast who won gold on the balance beam in Beijing in 2008 and who, like Ohno, is a "Stars" winner.

Three: have you seen the ratings for "Dancing with the Stars"? Or the British version, "Strictly Come Dancing," which started the entire thing? Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is not just a franchise but a worldwide phenomenon. And not just on TV. We're talking crazy on social media.

Tug of war

Is there a kid alive who has not played tug of war?

This is a sport that, with a little rock-and-roll music, some cheerleaders and a little sand, could become the next breakout hit -- again, the next beach volleyball.

What do you need to make tug of war happen? A rope. Where is there not a rope and some imagination?

A little-known fact is that tug of war was included in the Games from 1900 to 1912, and again in  1920. Time to bring it back!

As David Wallechinsky writes in his authoritative The Complete Book of the Olympics, a first-round pull resulted in one of the biggest controversies of the 1908 London Games: after the Liverpool Police pulled the U.S. team over the line in seconds, the Americans protesting that the Liverpudlians had used illegal boots spiked with steel cleats. The British maintained they were wearing standard police boots; the protest was disallowed and the Americans withdrew. After the tournament, the captain of the gold medal-winning London City Police challenged the Americans to a pull in their stockinged feet; there is no record of such a contest ever taking place, Wallechinsky writes.

Meanwhile, talk about universality. Imagine three-on-three teams from, say, American Samoa and Estonia. Why not?

Why not mixed teams? Men and women competing against each other? Maybe five-on-five?

All that would require some major rules changes, acknowledged Cathal McKeever, head of the sport's international federation, who said it is actively working to get back onto the program, perhaps by 2024.

"It's not like Michael Phelps," he said. "We don't have superstar individuals."

Not yet.

Mixed martial arts

Eight years ago, when I was still a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, I wrote a front-page story  about an up-and-coming sport, mixed martial arts, that U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Republican stalwart from Arizona, had once decried as "human cockfighting."

Since then, the UFC has gone on to become an enormous success story.

Mixed martial arts is already huge, it's still growing, young people can't get enough of it, and the time has come for the IOC to start coming to terms with it -- indeed, to get on board, because if you go to an MMA gym, the values that are preached there are thoroughly in line with the Olympic values: respect, excellence, friendship.

One of the primary ethos of an MMA fight is that it's OK to tap-out to live to fight again -- this shows respect not just for your opponent but for the sport itself.

Every excuse the IOC could come up with is just that -- an excuse.

For instance, there are those who don't like the fact that MMA is a "submission sport." But so is judo.

To be clear, this is a long-term proposition. The IOC and the international federation -- yes, there already is one, and it is not based in the United States -- would have to figure out how the basics of how to run a tournament. Could the athletes, for instance, reasonably be expected to fight three or four times over 16 days?

Here's the thing, though: where there's a will, there's a way. And when the IOC wants to get things done, it always does.

Oh, and to take this back to the beginning of this column, and wrestling, because wrestling has been around since the beginning of the modern Olympics in 1896 -- you know what was a major feature of the ancient Games, in Olympia itself? A discipline called pankration.

Today we would call that "mixed martial arts."











Rogge's final months -- and what's next

SEOUL -- Jacques Rogge has been president of the International Olympic Committee for nearly 12 years. He has held hundreds, if not thousands, of news conferences and briefings. He presided over another one Friday at a downtown hotel as the rain came down hard and cold here in Seoul, reporters and camera crews shaking off the water like poodles after a walk, and then came the usual breathless questioning from some of the local reporters met by the president's calm and measured responses, a scene from a real-life movie that has played out before many, many times.

It was odd in its way to think that this set piece will soon be coming to an end. But these are indeed the final months of Rogge's presidency; he steps down at the IOC session in Argentina in September. There the IOC will choose his successor.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge at Friday's Seoul news conference // photo courtesy Korea Herald

And while there wasn't any breaking news Friday -- there typically isn't at a standard-issue IOC press conference, only clues to what's really going on -- what was plainly and powerfully evident is that this year, 2013, holds the potential to re-shape the Olympic movement in far-reaching ways.

At issue are fundamental philosophies about where the IOC has been, is now and is going amid three decisive reckonings: what sports will be included at the Summer Games, what city will play host to the Games in 2020 and who will be the next president.

Given the way the IOC presidency works -- an eight-year term followed by another, shorter term of four more years -- the vote for Rogge's successor is essentially a once-in-a-generation event. Already in 2013, it frames the backdrop to most everything of significance happening in Olympic circles, even if subtly.

In two weeks, the IOC executive board, meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, will review the 26 sports that appeared on the London 2012 program, charged with cutting one to get to a "core" of 25.

Then -- as the year goes on, and even trying to describe the process is complicated -- it's possible the IOC will add sports. Or not.

Baseball and softball, for instance, which are trying to get back in as one entity, not two, will learn whether the basics of interpersonal dynamics ultimately will prove more potent than the merits of either sport.

Everyone knows it can sometimes be incredibly hard to admit you made a mistake, if indeed you did. Would an IOC that under Rogge's watch kicked both out be tempted now to double back and say, oh, we get it -- now we are going to let them back in?

As the February executive board meeting approaches, meanwhile, rumors have been increasingly fevered about which of the 26 sports might be the one left out.

Track and field, swimming and sailing -- Rogge competed in the Games as a sailor -- would seem to have nothing to worry about.

That said, modern pentathlon has been fighting to keep its place for years. It sparked a huge debate that consumed the IOC session in Mexico City in 2002. Now? The sport has undertaken a series of initiatives to make it easier to follow. Yet any realist can see that while the IOC is trying to reach out to a younger audience, and there are taekwondo gyms on seemingly every other block with little kids running around in their colored belts, a modern pentathlon enthusiast with a gun, a sword, a horse, a swimsuit and a pair of running shoes would be hard-pressed indeed to find a place to practice all its pieces.

Meanwhile, in September, the IOC will choose Madrid, Istanbul or Tokyo to be its 2020 Summer Games site. The process ramps up next month with visits by an evaluation commission to all three.

Which leads, in a circular way perhaps but inevitably, to the presidential campaign.

When Rogge took office, in July 2001, the IOC was still feeling its way after the Salt Lake City corruption scandal. The key element in a 50-point reform plan, passed in December 1999, bans the roughly 100 members from visiting cities bidding for the Games.

Rogge has been a vocal proponent for that rule. It seems to have prevented a recurrence of what happened in Salt Lake -- where bidders showered the members with inducements -- from happening elsewhere.

On the other hand, there's also the argument that rule fundamentally says to the members, many of whom are important personalities in their own countries: we don't trust you.

The way the process works now is that the evaluation commission undertakes four-day visits to each city and then produces a report. The full IOC meets a few months before the vote to go over the report and hear from the bid cities. Then they get together again a few months later, for the vote itself. The members vote after having the report available to read (which some don't), watching videos (maybe, if they're interesting) and taking in the presentations from the bid cities.

This for a process that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and is worth billions to the winning city and nation.

With great power comes great responsibility, goes the saying. Certainly the IOC wields enormous power. But does the bid city process -- as it is now -- assign to the members meaningful responsibility?

Thomas Bach of Germany is widely considered the leading presidential candidate. Ser Miang Ng of Singapore might well prove a strong challenger. And Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico has shown business skills to help keep the IOC strong in the global economic downturn.

The smart candidate, if he were to be moving around the world, meeting with other IOC members, listening to their observations, would surely hear some number of them say perhaps the time has come to look anew at the way things work. A lot of time has passed. No one is going back to Salt Lake City anytime soon.

Pyeongchang was selected the 2018 Winter Games host in 2011. Intriguingly, Rogge saw the place with his own eyes for the very first time this week. Simply put, there is no substitute for seeing something yourself.

Rogge said of Pyeongchang, "I had of course seen it in the bid book," adding, "When you see it in reality, you have another view. It is state of the art."

Which is what the IOC, of course, aspires to be.