Greece plunges into the Olympic year by hosting the bureaucracy of world sport

Last weekend helped get Athens’s Olympic year off with a splash as world-class divers came to compete, and perform, at the 14th FINA World Cup. This was the latest in a long series of pre-Olympics events which continue in even higher gear next month, with no less than 10 sports on tap. The flag-waving among the enthusiastic crowds at the Olympic indoor pool – a venue that is renovated but not new, and already has a roof – provided a keen sense that the Olympics are truly on the way. So did the aesthetics of top-level competition in a sublime sport that pits competitors against not only rivals but the loneliness of the cold board, as they pirouette in midair and then disappear underwater after a scintillating second or two. Preparing on paper, too This week the Olympic world made a plunge of a different sort, this time into the business and governance of international sport, providing another, less active and more bureaucratic indication of Athens as the Olympic capital for a year. Around 500 representatives from the (now) 201 officially recognized national Olympic committees were in town for the 14th General Assembly of ANOC, the Association of National Olympic Committees. And with the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board due to meet through the weekend, Athens is this week playing host to two-thirds of the Olympic triad; the federations that govern the 28 Summer Olympic sports are the third link. Between the speeches, presentations, mutual back scratching, occasional sharp words, and informal activity that goes with the territory, it all offered a good look at the working gears of the Olympic machinery. And in contrast to the Coordination Commission’s visits, the vast assembly hall, grandly decked with flags of every conceivable color and insignia, was open to anybody with an accreditation tag dangling from his neck. Proceedings of large organizations have their dull moments (sometimes days), with large panels of speakers carrying forth from a remarkably long dais and with sometimes exaggerated formality. Yet the pace was hardly leisurely, with some 23 topics tackled over the three days, covering everything from reports on future Olympic Games to concerns over anti-doping efforts, legal issues, support for sports development via «Olympic Solidarity,» accreditation and ticketing for the 2004 Games, and the future size and cost of future Games. Gloves off At last evening’s press conference, its president, Mario Vazquez Rana, livened up his droll style just a bit in criticizing WADA, the anti-doping agency, for taking on too many expenses without enough start-up revenues, and especially for its threat to bar athletes from the victory podium if their national committees don’t divvy up their dues in the anti-drugs effort. And he praised the Athens organizers for their «extremely comprehensive» presentation, then proceeded to blast them for «unfulfilled commitments,» specifically their decision to cover part of (70 percent), rather than the full, air fares for the thousands of national committee delegates coming to Athens in August. Availability of tickets and official cars and sticky matters of accreditation were also, apparently, problems for the NOCs. The future of the world may not hinge on such issues, but Athens’s decision could still cost as much as $10 million. Gunilla Lindberg, secretary-general of ANOC from Sweden, also criticized the lateness of the decision, crimping budgets prepared years before. Other business Anita DeFrantz of the IOC made some pointed comments earlier in the week about the need to incorporate more women into the Olympics bureaucracy. Though 44 percent of athletes in Athens will be female, the prevailing sight in the groaning hall was still one of middle-aged men. Other developments this week included an allowance for Iraqi athletes to compete in Athens this summer, and a Truce-inspired agreement by the two Koreas to appear under a single flag (and competing as a single team by 2008). Wednesday even brought street protests against the Games, in downtown Athens – far from the plush surroundings of the Inter-Continental Hotel. The head of the US Olympic Committee also confirmed that the long-fearful American team will still stay at the Olympic Village. Venue readiness in Athens, of course, is a continuing concern. Three big issues are currently worrisome: one old (the main stadium roof, a headache for the IOC for two years now), one new (the sudden possibility that the main, outdoor pool may not have a needed roof), and one in between (the marathon road course, where work was interrupted after the contractor, European Technical, ran into liquidity problems). Nonetheless, IOC President Jacques Rogge was sounding an upbeat note, less in an effort to circle the wagons than to bring the horses together in this immensely challenging Olympic year. Unified diversity ANOC, the unwieldy centerpiece of the week’s activity, was formed 25 years ago in Puerto Rico, so this 14th General Assembly also represents an anniversary celebration. It may not amount, as Rana wrote in the accompanying text, to a «transcendental date,» but it nonetheless marks something of a milestone for an organization that was conceived in bureaucratic strife after decades of heavy-handed treatment from the IOC, which had long left national Olympic committees on the periphery. Such exclusion had flown in the face of 1960s-era liberalization and the rapid, post-colonial expansion of countries and, therefore, of national athletic teams; the number of delegations has practically doubled in that quarter-century. Yet, through all that, the organization is still under Rana, its first president, with the Mexican enjoying a de Coubertin-like length of tenure and who, basking in the glow of praise, seems headed for yet another term. ANOC is situated in Paris, as opposed to the IOC’s base in Lausanne. One of its main foci is the Olympic Solidarity program, which distributes TV income (the Games’ biggest source of revenue) to help poorer countries develop sport and send athletes to the Games. This well-meaning program can sometimes come into conflict with notions of the Games as an athletic meritocracy. Just on Wednesday it was decided that up to 20 Iraqi athletes would compete even if they don’t qualify. It was a nice political gesture but one which will make for some very uneven results in August. Generally, national and international organizations now share the same problems and eat from the same bucket, so naturally, and with effort, there has been a convergence of viewpoints over time. And the very thought that ANOC, a veritable United Nations of sport, could ever adopt a battery of common positions, even vague ones, on major issues is noteworthy in itself. Yet questions of its identity remain, summed up in a big question by a delegate from a small island nation: «What, exactly, is our brand?»