The midwives of the Olympics program: Sports organizations promote their own
The International Olympic Committee’s Coordination Commission has just finished examining Olympics preparations after two days of meetings with the Games’ organizing committee. It declared itself satisfied with progress so far, examined plans for the light railway system and the ring roads, says it wants the high costs cut down, and noted that only one, rather than two, baseball and softball arenas may be built, all this according to Commission Chairman Hein Verbruggen. Who? Don’t worry, Denis Oswald hasn’t been sacked. These meetings had nothing to do with Athens, but rather with Beijing; planning has already commenced in earnest for the next-but-one Summer Games, in 2008. And you thought Athens 2004 were the only Games in town. Well, they may be here, but not everywhere. Across the world, in Mexico City, other developments affecting the Olympics’ future have been under way as well, to which most in Athens have been equally oblivious (the announcement of the Games ticket prices and the apparent break in the soccer stadium controversy have drawn most local attention recently). A week ago the IOC wound up its 114th session in Mexico City, as the members agreed to further study some key issues and re-endorsed earlier decisions (like the ban on members visiting bidding cities). Within a few years, these worldwide jam sessions could produce some meaningful changes in the Olympics – after Athens, naturally. A runaway train? Perhaps the biggest ongoing project for the IOC is cost and size containment, pursued by the Olympic Games Study Commission under Dick Pound, and its parallel endeavor to limit the sports program, the subject for the Program Commission under Franco Carraro. After a century of non-stop expansion, the brakes are finally being put on the Olympics summer sports schedule. Numbers have been capped at 28 sports, 300 events and 10,500 athletes (several hundred fewer than at Sydney). Incredibly, given the massive 20th century shifts in the Olympics, the world, and everything else, this is the first time since 1936 – the year of Jesse Owens and the notorious Hitler Olympics – that the IOC has undertaken a complete review of its own sports program, which it now promises to do regularly. This is testimony to relentless growth and world popularity, but it is still tempting to ask what on earth it HAS been thinking about all this time, if not its own sports program. This is a point that links Athens with Mexico City and Beijing. Beijing’s already well-developed plans (including transport, environmental and building projects for urban renewal) amount to a reported $37 billion, a staggering sum for any single purpose and seemingly in direct defiance of the IOC’s own dictates. It promises to dwarf the Athens effort and amply justifies IOC President Jacques Rogge’s concerns that the Olympics have simply gotten too big. The Mexico City meeting could well mean that Athens and Sydney could represent the biggest-ever Olympic Games, as three sports were put on the chopping block by an August 2002 recommendation by the Program Commission: baseball, softball, and the modern pentathlon, which combines pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, horse riding, and running (and is separate from the 10-event athletics decathlon). If carried through, Athens could be the final time these events represent Olympic sports. It would even be oddly fitting in the case of the pentathlon, which was one of the ancient Games’s centerpieces; it would have its swan song in its country of ancient origin. The website of «l’Union internationale de Pentathlon Moderne» (which lists «His Majesty King Constantine» as the sport’s patron) touts it as «the true Olympic sport» and one that «determines the most complete athlete,» while citing Baron de Coubertin, who created the modern version for the 1912 Stockholm Games, and even quoting Aristotle in its own spirited defense – there’s nothing like modesty in the sporting world – against the IOC’s charge that it is just too unwieldy, expensive and unpopular to keep it on the Olympics ticket any longer. The pentathlon is, in fact, a genuine touchstone for what the Games are really all about: a measure of all-round athleticism, as de Coubertin wanted, or to cater to mass appeal. Should it stay or should it go? It’ll be an interesting test. Acronym city The dozens of international sports federations (ISFs), which govern, develop and promote their sports, have a key role to play in the Olympics. They, or at least the 28 that represent Summer Olympic sports, are an integral part of a broader process that also links National Olympic Committees (NOCs), which organize national Olympic teams (e.g. the Greek Olympic Committee headed by Lambis Nikolaou, which is totally separate from the Athens 2004 organizers), and the IOC. But unlike the NOCs and the IOC, federations serve their own sports’ interests and have often clashed with the Olympics bureaucracy. They have their own circuits as well as Olympic competitions. For some, notably soccer and cycling (which have the quadrennial World Cup and the annual Tour de France as marquee events), the Olympics are not even the pinnacle. But for many others, the Olympics remain their effective world championships and the sole televised showcase for their sport’s skills and allure. Since 1967, there is a general association of ISFs, created to defend against heavy-handed treatment from the IOC; and since 1983 they have been brought under an Olympics umbrella organization, the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), presided over by none other than Denis Oswald, who, in the rest of his time, oversees the Athens 2004 Games from Lausanne. There’s also a Winter Games equivalent. Two recent examples in Athens demonstrate the importance (and the power) of the federations in the Olympics context. At the press conference ending the sailing test event last August, three people sat on the podium: Athens 2004 President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, Marton Simitsek from the organizers, and the president of the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), Paul Henderson, a jovial but exacting Briton; neither Oswald nor Rogge were present (although the IOC president himself sailed in three consecutive Olympic Games from 1968-1976). And at a more recent press conference (ending the IOC’s November inspection visit to Athens) where Mr Oswald was being grilled about the continuing uncertainty about the venue for the soccer final, he basically said that FIFA, the international football federation, would make the decision, not the IOC. This sounded like little more than passing the buck (or euro), and perhaps it was, but it also demonstrated that even fundamental Games-related decisions – and where to hold the men’s soccer final, a keynote event in the world’s most popular sport, held on the penultimate day of the Games, certainly fits there – are not necessarily for the IOC to make at all. Athletics federations of various types pre-date even the modern Olympics revival, although as global associations they have developed intermittently since, with a remarkable number headquartered in Monte Carlo. Like much in the world of international organizations and diplomacy, French and English appellations compete for supremacy. The oldest include the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, created in 1912; FIFA (in seeming Franglais, «Federation Internationale de Football Association»), dating from 1904; and from 1908 FINA, officially known as «la Federation Internationale de la Natation,» which is not a misspelling of «nation» but French for aquatics (water sports), including swimming and diving. Others are much more recent, like the International Triathlon Union, only created in 1989, which saw its sport get its first Olympic medals at Sydney in 2000. They proselytize unabashedly for their sports; the volleyball federation even claims to be a factor in helping «to rebuild shattered East Timor.» If you believe strongly enough that sport can promote peace, then perhaps it really can. Adding in a time of cuts Another concern, which these days is more like a mountain to climb, relates to sports federations’ hopes of getting onto the Olympics program. Golf, which flickered briefly in the Games’ spotlight a century ago before taking on its own momentum outside the Olympics, is proposed for 2008 or 2012, along with something called rugby sevens. Adding a new sport has its own problems, given the requirement that the world’s best athletes must be available for the Olympics in order for it to be eligible as a sport. Negotiations between international sports and Olympics officials are bound to be tense in a climate of impending limitations, and the cases of baseball and softball have aroused the ire of the sports’ promoters, respectively headed by Aldo Notari and Don Porter. This is understandable; the promise of an Olympics competition is a huge draw for those who play and organize the games, and there is something slightly humiliating about potentially being cut out of the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza after being hailed for years as great additions to the Olympics. No wonder the IOC has put off any final decisions until 2005. At any rate, none of this changes the Athens Olympics schedule, and there’s no danger that you could buy one of those nice, cheap tickets to an event only to have the event canceled. In that aspect at least, we can reliably count on the Athens organizers to deliver as promised.