Virtual-O – orienteering’s best chance for the Olympics

In this modest proposal I would like to lay out the key arguments for promoting the virtual format as the headline competitive format for orienteering as an Olympic sport. Thanks to the effort of Peter Furucz, the founder and developer of Virtual-O, now the IOF leadership can promote a truly marketable product for inclusion in the Olympic Games in Paris 2024.

Virtual O - map

Virtual O control

Youth appeal, a key factor for Olympic inclusion, is undeniably much stronger for a computer game than for outdoor activities these days. No wonder that the organisers of the Paris 2024 are open to the introduction of esports in the program.

Virtual orienteering solves the main concern of IOF’s leadership that the current version of orienteering is still difficult to televise and too complex to understand by  outsiders not involved in the sport. Virtual-O fully fits the strategic direction of the IOF. In essence, it is the synthesis of the declared strategic directions. It is absolutely global, visible, attractive, simple, environmentally friendly, and easy to understand for everybody. It is perfectly positioned for the Olympics.

Some may argue that this move may require some additional compromises over and above the compromises that were needed to change orienteering championships from 90 minute struggles in some of the world’s most complex remote forests to a 15 minute run on asphalt in touristy cities on C courses.

We must  have all the confidence that the uncompromising drive of the IOF leadership towards the Olympics will ensure that all the required compromises are met to make orienteering an absolutely positively definitely truly virtual sport.

This confidence is also based on the fact that this proposal is fully in line with IOF’s core strategy to meet orienteering’s potential audience in the cities, instead of trying to lure people into the forest. Bringing orienteering out of the forest to city parks was the first step. But that has been proven still not attractive enough for the masses of  TV audiences.

To make orienteering attractive to a larger audience, especially TV audience, the IOF has to take orienteering where the people are.

Since most of the TV viewers are on the couch in the living room, orienteering must be brought to the couch!

Yes,  there will be resistance in the forest. The supporters of the Ancien Régime will cry foul. They will try to cling to the obsolete view that orienteering at its best is one of the physically most demanding sports on earth.

We should not worry about them. The IOF leadership has a proven track record to ignore requests of groups of athletes regardless the number of world championship titles they may possess. Money talks. The siren call of the millions of dollars promised by Olympic participation talks louder than athletes. We can be confident that the IOF leadership will do their best to make orienteering virtual, if that what is needed to attract more money.

In addition, going virtual will solve many of the current problems of orienteering from long start lists, through following, till environmental impact.

What’s not to love about it?

You may read more about Virtual O on its website, on its facebook page, and even in an interview with Peter on the IOF website.

You may read more detailed arguments for this proposal below.


Paris 2024 is open to esports

Paris 2024 organisers are actively looking for ways to include esports in the Olympic program. Tony Estanguet, President of the Paris Organising Committee said that introducing esports would help to make the Olympics more relevant to the younger generations: “The youth, yes they are interested in esport and this kind of thing. Let’s look at it. Let’s meet them. Let’s try if we can find some bridges.”

Probably the biggest obstacle for esports is that the International e-Sports Federation is not (yet) recognised by the International Olympic Committee. That shall give the IOF, a recognised federation by the IOC since 1977, a headstart to promote Virtual-O as an esport to the Paris organisers.

Virtual-O is real orienteering

First we have to clarify to naysayers that Virtual-O is real orienteering. There is nothing in the rules of foot orienteering that requires physical activity:

“Orienteering is a sport in which the competitors navigate independently through the terrain. Competitors must visit a number of control points marked on the ground in the shortest possible time aided only by map and compass. The course, defined by the location of the controls, is not revealed to competitors until they start.”

This fits beautifully the possibility to promote Virtual-O as Orienteering for the Olympics. All what is needed to open the doors, or rather gates, to realizing the Olympic ambition is a declaration by the Council that the terms “terrain” and “ground” include also virtual representations. From then on, virtual visits to controls on virtual terrain will satisfy the rules. Sadly, this would not be possible with MTBO and SkiO where rules require that “mountain biking (or skiing) and navigational skills shall be tested”.

It is true that The fundamental values of orienteering state that “Orienteering is mentally and physically challenging”. But this should not serve as a counter argument. Anybody who tried hours of egaming or any other mental sport like chess, knows that it can get physically challenging.

After all, if Urban WOC fits fine with the fundamental value saying “Orienteering is at one with nature”, then there should be sufficient flexibility around the interpretation of the values of orienteering to ensure that Virtual-O fits in too.

A synthesis of the IOF strategy

Virtual-O provides the best platform to deliver on the Strategic Directions of the IOF. It is amazing how many challenges of this strategy get simplified and readily delivered by going virtual.

  • A truly global sport
    • easy to promote to new countries and new territories from the deserts of Arabia to the rainforests of Polynesia,
    • new multisport game opportunities, like the Asian Games, second largest to Olympics, that has already made esports a medal even from 2022,
    • major IOF events regularly outside Europe become easy to organise.
  • Visible and attractive
    • attractive to external partners, with easier TV delivery,
    • attraction to young people around the world increases greatly,
    • environmentally friendly with no physical impact on nature.
  • Positioned for the Olympics
    • fits with the interests of Paris 2024,
    • unquestionably more appealing to youth and TV audience,
    • much better positioned than in the real world.

Virtual-O also delivers even on one of the pet projects of the President of the IOF as explained after his election: how to make our sport less complicated, how to present our events in an understandable way for people who have no idea about our sport.

Virtual-O makes it possible to run orienteering events in areas familiar to most TV audiences around the world. As an example, here is a new map of a less complex terrain, that may make it as a possible Olympic venue (see also picture below).

Familiar. Understandable. World class!

Virtual O - olympic


Simplification, dear to the heart of the President, could also be pushed to the next level. Here is a recent development (see also picture below). There is still some complexity left, but I am confident that with devoted work over the coming years it can be simplified even further.

Virtual-O allows elevating simplification to a new level that shall make orienteering more understandable and attractive to the masses, and position it well as a visible and attractive, truly global sport, just as set forth in the strategy of the IOF.

Virtual O future


Virtual-O solves many enduring issues

It should be also mentioned that Virtual-O competitions would solve many of the long standing issues of orienteering competitions. Here are few examples.

Long start lists of major events will be forgotten. Mass start will be the norm. Every athlete gets their map switched on at the same time. No more issues around changing weather conditions over time, qualification races, or strict limits on national participation. Server power will be the only limit, but that should allow for much larger participation compared to today’s.

Following is eliminated by default. No more butterflies, no more phi loops that may confuse the audience. Competitors will not be able to see others on their screen, if the given format calls for individual competition. Yet, the audience will be able to enjoy virtual head to head battle in real time. The problem that caused so much debate from the beginning of orienteering competitions is solved by a flick of a switch.

Environmental impact gets virtually eradicated.  Tramping damage and disturbance of wildlife becomes a thing of the past. Concerns around erosion will be forgotten. No more issues around getting permits to special terrains in a new virtual world. Bliss!

Even the IOF’s most recent concern around sustainability can be easily solved. In the Consultation paper on IOF Sustainability Policy, it is stated that “All IOF work and all IOF events shall be completely carbon neutral by using a fee-based carbon crediting system”. It is even proposed, that a registration and upfront payment through system like Eventor “makes it possible to adopt an environment fee on each participants, and in theory the fee can be dependent on where the participant travel from.” 

Virtual-O comes to the rescue. For a little bit of extra electricity (renewable, of course) all major events could be conducted with participants staying at home on their couch. No extra carbon load on the environment. In addition, lower physical intensity of participants shall greatly reduce also the methane load on the environment, that is a 30 times more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This aspect was sadly overlooked by the Environment Commission in the consultation paper, but Virtual-O solves it by default.

Virtual-O = Sustainable Orienteering

Too early, too radical?

Of course, this is not an argument that could possibly stop progress, especially when it comes to Olympic participation. One may remember that some traditionalists with little understanding for progress in orienteering, including Simone Niggli, Daniel Hubman, Per Forsberg and Radek Novotny tried to use the “too early, too radical” argument in an open letter against splitting WOC into a forest and urban one in 2015. Of course, this could not make the Council hesitate about pushing through the changes, despite having rather vague ideas on how these split events would look like. In 2017 the IOF Council is still trying to figure out what would be the 3rd format for the urban WOC.

The “too early, too radical” argument should not derail the IOF Council’s effort for the Olympics with Virtual-O. There are more than 6 years left till Paris 2024. There is still time to figure out how to change reality into a virtual one liked by the IOF Council. The effort for Olympic inclusion must not falter on details!

* * *

Just to be on the safe side, to avoid possible misunderstandings, I have to close this modest proposal declaring no interest in Virtual-O using a time tested disclaimer.

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the general good of orienteering, by advancing our sport, providing for athletes, relieving the weaker, and giving some pleasure to the stronger. I have no business interest, by which I can propose to get a single penny; I made no investment in Virtual-O, and I passed the age when I was able to write code.

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