Ethics of the IOF

Ethics is a fascinating question, especially in amateur sport federations based on volunteer work, where the common values and beliefs are the most important glue holding together the organisation.

The newly formed Ethics Commission is working on the review of the IOF internal documents and on possible amendments from the point of view of ethical and other principles contained in the IOF Code of Ethics. They asked in a Request for Consultation all member federations and other stakeholders to submit thoughts, modification proposals or any other ideas concerning various IOF documents.

Yet, when it come to ethics, practice is what really matters. And practice can be very different from written rules. The very nature of ethics is that it is primarily driven by unwritten ethical standards and not by written rules. Some well known ethical standards that often override written rules include the ethics of old boys network (I scratch your back, you scratch mine), and the ethics of omerta (silence and non interference when somebody from the group steps over the line).

One problem is that it is difficult to describe unethical behaviour in a formal way. It is just like porn: it is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.

The other problem is whether there is an enforcing mechanism, and leadership may not decide to look away for less than respectable reasons, like convenience or old friendship.

Let me share some of the stories from the past couple of years of the IOF that might raise questions around ethical approaches. As a former chairman of a discipline commission I was involved directly in a relatively limited set of IOF questions, but being around in the organisation I could observe many more.

I selected stories from the period of different Presidents to avoid the implication that these questions linked to certain leadership. The point is not to reopen these cases, but to illustrate real life situations that may occur within an amateur sports federation, situations some may raise ethical questions. Readers may decide whether they “see it or not”.

  • The career of the secretary
  • A three quarters majority applause
  • Cui bono?
  • Respect of the rules
  • A dream budget
  • An open and honest discussion

For readability and to ensure focus on the core question these stories were somewhat condensed, but ample background information is available to expand them.

This is a longer than usual post. It may be too dense to read it through in one go. But I think that keeping these stories in one bouquet may help readers to understand that they appear to be more than random individual cases. I also wanted to give examples from the reign of different presidents to show that these are not personal questions.

One may also recognise patterns, and may even be forgiven to come to the feeling that not written rules, but the ethics of a good old boy network, and the ethics of silence govern conduct in sensitive matters within the IOF.

The career of the secretary

Here are some points that one may connect in different ways

  • March 2008 – Anna Zeelig joined the IOF as a secretary
  • Until May 2010 her title was “Assistant to the Secretary General” in Council minutes
  • From August 2010 her title become “Assistant Secretary General”, i.e. a junior officer
  • This significant promotion happened with no announcement, not even a mention in the Council minutes, just a quiet disappearance of five letters from her title
  • January 2012 Anna came to the joint IOF meeting heavily pregnant, but refused to say anything about the father to be, in an unusually reserved approach within the big family atmosphere of these meetings
  • Spring 2012 Ake Jacobson, the President since 2004, unexpectedly decided not to stand for re-election in July at the end of his term
  • July 2012, on the General Assembly where Ake stepped down, the close relationship between Ake and Anna has become known
  • Late summer 2012 Anna changed her name to Jacobson
  • January 2013, on the joint IOF meeting, Brian introduced Anna as Assistant Secretary General, giving the impression that her promotion was a recent event
  • Anna remained with the IOF in a key position, increasingly taking control of the office, and seen as many as the successor to the Secretary General
  • Summer 2015, after the appointment of Tom as General Secretary, Anna left the IOF
  • February 2016, in an interview, Anna referred to meeting Ake, her husband, as the “personally, the best thing of it all”  remembering her time with the IOF

There are many ways to connect these points. Many emerging pictures raise ethical questions around conflict of interest, a significant promotion of a paid employee by the head of the organisation in a situation when they may have been closer to each other than appropriate.

Was this a #MeToo event? Did anything morally or legally inappropriate happened? Quite important questions for a sports organisation where high ethics are essential.

Yet, there was no known IOF enquiry on this matter.

Several Council members I talked to expressed their private views with disapproval. They claimed that the relationship was kept secret until July 2012, so they were shocked to learn about it.  “She should have been requested to leave”, “It is not right” were the comments given, but as far as I know, none of them took action to raise this topic even informally on a Council meeting.

In July 2014, after pieces of the above points started to emerge for me, I wrote to Brian enquiring about his opinion on this apparent conflict of interest situation, that might mean that the Jacobson family benefited from an inappropriate promotion for years. After all he, as the President of the IOF, was responsible for both the moral and legal integrity of the organisation.

Brian never replied in written form. On a personal meeting he said that he needed more time to think about the situation. He did not reply to my follow up email sent in November, and no known steps were taken by him. In January 2015 Brian announced that he was stepping down as President to follow his calling, and devote his time in his church to teach morals.

After all, if we look away, it is easy to pretend that nothing happened.

A three quarters majority applause

Related to the above story is the anomalous  appointment of Ake as Honorary President in July 2012 after he stepped down as President.

In the IOF Statutes 2010, the one that was in force in 2012, the following two points governed the relevant aspects of voting:

Point 8.10.3 “Voting shall be by secret ballot, unless the General Assembly decides unanimously to the contrary or unless the number of candidates does not exceed the number of places available.”

Point 8.10.11 “A three quarters majority of votes expressed shall be required for the election of Honorary Members or appointment to the position of Honorary President.”

Putting together the two clearly implies that the appointment of an Honorary President requires secret ballot. There is no such thing as three quarter majority acclamation, at least not in this part of the world.

Yet, according to Point 21 of the GA Minutes 2012 General Assembly Minutes, “Brian Porteous proposed to the General Assembly that Ake Jacobson be appointed Honorary President of the IOF. The General Assembly approved the proposal by acclamation.”

It is remarkable, that one of the first acts of Brian, as newly appointed President, was to break the Statutes of the IOF.

Was it done as a favour to an old friend? Ake was not particularly popular amongst member federations, so there was a real possibility that he may not get the required three quarters in a secret ballot.

Or was it done  upon bad advice from the IOF Office staff? Anna, the Assistant Secretary General was always adamant that formal processes are closely followed by others. But she was also the soon become wife Ake, and she was obviously very well aware of the mixed feelings about her sweetheart by many members.

We may not learn what was the reason for this anomalous  appointment, hence the bad feeling of an apparently unlawful process and all the associated ethical questions about Ake as Honorary President may linger on for a while.

Cui bono?

The 2013 European MTBO Championships in Poland was a disaster. Without getting into much detail, below is the result of the MTBO event evaluation that demonstrates not only the quality, but also the fact that people are more likely to respond when they feel negative about events.

EMTBOC - 2013

Probably the most blatant violation of the rules was that Polish FootO Championships were organised on some of the maps of the EMTBOC only 2 weeks before. International participants have learnt about this only a week after the European Championships. Even the Senior Event Adviser was misled on multiple occasions and was not made aware of serious rule violations.

The MTBO Commission tried to investigate the situation. Heated discussions followed both online and with the organisers. The MTBO Commission was highly upset to hear  the highly contradictory explanations of the head organiser (Jan), and the attitude of the the national controller (Lech). The national controller could not be bothered with rule violations, proudly stating that he was selective in observing rules, including basic embargo rules.  “Rules that have to be observed are observed” was his mantra.

Unfortunately, this was not a l’art pour l’art discussion. The same organising team was in charge of WMTBOC 2014 in Poland and everybody was scared about the prospects. It was imperative to understand what happened and if there was a need to change the organising country for 2014. The Polish Federation was ready to pass on the privilege of organisation. The MTBO Commission could identify a candidate to step in with short notice, if needed. The only people who would lose were the organisers who cocked up EMTBOC 2013.

This was the point when the IOF President (Brian) took control of events. He discussed the matters within the Council on the July 2013 meeting without the involvement of the Senior Event Adviser or the MTBO Commission. The MTBO Commission was reprimanded for taking initiative to openly discuss the anomalies. The Polish Federation was told that if they do not organise the World Championships in 2014, it will be cancelled. The MTBO Commission was told that the Council would not look into alternative arrangements. The anomalies of the European Championships were never properly investigated.

A telling element of this resolute process was that the President of the IOF informed the Council that even an official letter of complaint was received from the Polish Federation about the conduct of the MTBO Commission. Council members told me that this piece of news made them upset, but the letter itself was never shown to them. There was a good reason for that: it did not exist.

As it turned out, the President referred to a letter from the national controller complaining about the MTBO Commission, as a letter from the Polish Federation. The really interesting thing is, that the letter did not claim to be written on behalf of the Polish Federation, it was not written by an official of the Polish Federation, and in fact, it did not even contain the words “Polish Federation”. The President presented alternative facts, as they would say nowadays.

What could make the President of the IOF to pressure a federation to organise an event when there are willing others to step in? Why would the President misrepresent a member federation?  When one sees actions that make little sense, it is always a good idea to ask the ancient question: Cui bono? Who benefits?

Apparently the only people who benefited from these developments were the organisers responsible for the substandard European Championships. Whatever happened got covered up. Their 2014 arrangements stayed, though they were not formally in charge any longer. No face was lost.

At the face value the actions of the IOF President made little sense. Not until it emerged that the national controller of the scandalous European Championships had a very good relationship with the President in the “good old days”. From there everything fits.

The 2014 World Championships went down fine, thanks to a major international effort of friends of MTBO. The ones responsible for the scandals of 2013 were saved thanks to the President of the IOF.

Respect of the rules

The January 2015 IOF joint meeting brought a memorable example of relative priorities between the will of the President and IOF rules.

For the Council meeting the MTBO Commission has submitted 6 proposals. They were all rejected without asking a single question from the Commission that had its meeting 2 doors away in the corridor. As the Chairman of the MTBO Commission, I was invited to attend only to be told that the MTBO World Cup round of Hungary will not be sanctioned as an official World Cup event, unless the organisers remove details from the Bulletin about IOF imposed fees. See below the offending statement.

MTBO 2015 WCup fees in B2

The President stated that it was completely unacceptable to inform participants about the charges imposed by the IOF. When I argued that no rule restricts the organisers from disclosing this type of information, Brian shouted at me: “I do not care about rules!”

Based on my previous experience, some of which were mentioned above, I had no reason to doubt the words of the President. The members of the Council sat quietly. It seemed that this was no new information to them. The discussion was over. The organisers of the World Cup complied for the sake of the athletes.

The IOF Code of Ethics states that “All persons shall operate within and abide by the rules of the sport” only in the subsection about Fair Play. Should this obligation be elevated maybe to a higher level to include all IOF business?

A dream budget

On the General Assembly of 26 August 2016, Leho (as the outgoing Senior Vice President and to be elected President) presented the Council’s proposal for the budget for the fiscal years 2017 and 2018 (including a positive update for 2016 as part of the documents). It was a dream budget promising the 3 most profitable years of the IOF history with a combined surplus of €302,700.

It has turned out to be a bad dream. Or a budget that was simply dreamt up. According to the latest information the combined result of 2016-18 is expected to be a loss of €25,500. You may find details on that in my previous posts here and here.

Missing a proposed budget now and then is an unavoidable part of financials.

Missing 10 budgets in a row, as done by the IOF Council, may raise serious questions around skill and will to propose a realistic budget, and to work within the constraints of an approved budget.

Starting to modify a proposed budget only 2 months after its approval, without a hint of an extraordinary event happening, may raise serious ethical questions around the trustworthiness of the original proposal.

The 2017 IOF Budget was approved by the General Assembly in August 2016 with no modification to the proposal. The IOF leadership did a “full review” in October/November 2016, as stated in a IOF – Letter to members July 2017. In the letter – or through any other channel – there was not a hint of any extraordinary events.

Based on the 2016 actuals and the latest update of the 2017 expected figures, it is difficult to believe that at the time it was presented to the General Assembly there was a realistic chance to deliver the 2017 budget (and the 2016 update) . No wonder that in 2 months a “full review” had to be started.

Could it happen that the “dream budget” was proposed to ensure a smooth General Assembly? Or did the IOF leadership “forgot” to give an update about the deteriorating financial situation of the IOF?  That may have resulted in inconvenient questions from members and may have spoilt the retirement party of Brian, the outgoing President, and the acclamation of Leho, the incoming President.

The IOF Statutes say very little of the budget. There is only one line that mentions it as part of the list that says “At least the following items shall be included on the agenda of an Ordinary General Assembly […] 8.4.14  Membership fees, budget and activity plan for the two calendar years following the General Assembly.” 

The Council always referred to the Activity Plan (especially in the discussions about the Olympic Agenda), as something unmodifiable, because it was approved by the General Assembly.

Interestingly, the budget that is also approved by the General Assembly, receives much less respect from the IOF leadership than the Olympic Vision. It was regularly stepped over by the Council, or apparently even by the President at his own decision, without any consequences.

There is nothing in the IOF Statutes or in the IOF Code of Ethics that would require the Council to propose a realistic budget to the General Assembly. Also, there is nothing that would require the Council to respect the approved budget, or require a more elaborate process for modifying the approved budget than an ad hoc decision of somebody in the leadership.

Does it mean that there are no ethical questions regarding the current practice around the proposal and modification of the IOF Budget?


An open and honest discussion

IOF strategy was the key topic on the IOF Council – Commissions joint meeting in January 2017. In the beginning of the plenary session Mikko, one of the Vice Presidents, asked everybody who were not fully committed to the Olympic Vision to leave the session. That is to leave the session that was supposed to discuss amongst other things the IOF’s future approach towards the Olympics.

Some participants recalled the situation as follows:

“it sounds hardly believable, but unfortunately it wasn’t meant as a joke”

“the intent and “mild” aggression to stifle debate was very clear. I was quite shocked as it would not be acceptable behaviour in any of the multi million businesses let alone a voluntary organisation”  

Mikko’s commitment to the Olympics is undeniable. Last year he has become the CEO of the Finnish Olympic Committee. Yet, some may raise ethical questions around suppressing open and honest debate in the IOF by a Vice President, no matter what his personal views are.

These days the IOF is registered in Sweden. For a Swedish organisations the Swedish democratic principles shall govern matters not specifically prescribed in the Statutes or Code of Ethics. These base documents of the IOF do not state specifically that debates should be open and honest, or that people in leadership position shall not exclude people from meetings even if they have different opinions. Yet, due to the general Swedish legal framework, these basic ethical principles of democracy shall be fully observed in IOF business and in the conduct of IOF leadership. Shouldn’t they?

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There are many more stories around where some may raise questions with ethical aspects. The objective of this post was not to give a full review of possible ethical questions around the workings of the IOF. The intention was to show that there are ethical questions around that cannot be simply solved by adding a line or two to existing documents. There are practices and attitudes within the IOF that may require a broader debate. The current mechanisms and practices of the Council and the General Assembly do not appear to be particularly good to handle them.

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