Reflections after the events in China

I wanted to write a post reflecting on the events in China two months ago. I guess everybody remotely interested in orienteering have heard about the events, both the serious violation of fair play rules on the CISM World Military Games, as well as the major quality issues and their consequences on the Middle, and the unbelievable results of the Sprint during last round of the FootO World Cup.

While working on my post I had to realize that the questions facing international orienteering related to the events in China are so complex and multifaceted that they cannot be jammed into a single post. So here I just touch on each and every aspect, but intend to devote separate posts to each of them over the next couple of weeks. The topics are ranging from IOF event quality to the IOF controlling system; from the respect of the athletes’ view to athletes’ trust in the system, and the role of the Ethics Panel that was left holding the baby; and from strategic relationship with China to the limits to growth of international orienteering.

The overall situation is similar to poorly managed companies that face a breakdown after embarking on ambitious expansion plans. I worked with some of these in my professional career, and believe me, it is not fun to see them breaking down soon after they start to feel happy about their prospects. The issues swept under the carpet by management for years stay under the carpet until the strain of increased demand on the organisation exposes them. Such management is often baffled by the apparently sudden breakdown of the organisation. They had no problems exposed for years, and suddenly everything blows up in their face. Yet, they seldom admit that all those problems were there under the carpet all the time, just nobody cared to address them.

On a positive note, the IOF strategy to raise the profile of orienteering through large multi-sport events (CISM, Universiade, World Games etc) is working.  Orienteering was mentioned even on Fox News, currently the most influential US news channel, and featured in a large number of publications worldwide from the Guardian in the UK to the Bangkok Post. I guess this is how PR success looks like.


IOF Event Quality

Issues around IOF event quality are nothing new. There must have been a reason why the President of the IOF specifically shared his thoughts in December 2017 about what he believed to be critical to quality (currently readable only on the old IOF website):

“For me, CTQ at IOF major events are maps, course setting, punching and timekeeping. Of course, there are also important areas like event arenas, logistics, accommodation, ceremonies etc. at big events. But if we fail in CTQ areas, the event will be remembered forever!”    How right he was when it comes to China 2019!

Pity that the President did not go beyond sharing his wise words. I dared to point out on this blog that the requirements of the IOF towards main event organisers have nothing to do with the quality aspects listed above, and organisers are forced to spend money on show elements, while only “expected” to spend money on quality elements. The IOF leadership hasn’t changed that. The results were striking in China.

Will we see actions beyond the nice words and expectations of the IOF President, or shall we just hope for the best?

Respect of the Athletes

The elite athletes in China were outraged after the Middle of the World Cup. The technical quality of the event made it impossible to settle on fair results. This was not the first time that they experienced substandard IOF competitions, and they were getting fed up. In an unusual move they sent a letter to the IOF leadership signed by many athletes from over a dozen nations expressing disappointment and asking for change.

We shall wait and see if anything beyond consoling words come from the IOF leadership. The IOF Council is not known for handling athletes as partners. Part of this is demonstrated by sharing very little of the proceeds gained from selling athletes’ performance. Part of this is shown by not taking athletes’ requests seriously. The best documented case (that I shall write about in detail later) was when in 2013 the Council decided in the name of their Olympic ambition that prize giving ceremonies shall feature only the medalists, not the traditional top six on podium. The Athletes’ Commissions of all four disciplines wrote a joint letter asking the Council to keep the top six podium. The Council’s reply was a big fat “No!” to the unprecedented joint plea of the athletes.

One may call it an old story, after all 2013 may feel like prehistoric times to young athletes. But 8 of the 11 council members who rejected the athletes in 2013 are still council members in 2019. The current President and two of the Vice Presidents today were all Vice Presidents in 2013. Eventually that decision was changed due to mounting pressure, but we may only hope that the Council’s attitude towards athletes has changed.

Trust in IOF competitions

Orienteering is very special amongst top level sports. Trust in fair play is such a key element that we often do not realize until it is broken. In China it was shattered. Andreas Kyburz wrote about this in detail in his post “Not a happy end”.

It is very difficult to rebuild trust, especially in an area where it is nigh impossible to prove even with hindsight whether that trust was abused or not. It is difficult to see that any event in China, and any performance of Chinese athletes in China would be trusted by the athletes any time soon. Yet, it is an “open secret” that China is the frontrunner for the 2024 Sprint World Championships.

Could the IOF ignore the deep distrust developed against Chinese competitions? Will the athletes take confrontational steps like boycott if they feel ignored by the IOF awarding WOC 2024 to China?

IOF Controlling System

The current IOF controlling system for major events was developed for a different world where enthusiastic amateurs were working with enthusiastic amateurs to stage events for enthusiastic amateurs. In fact, the IOF “Controller” is called “Event Adviser”. Although on paper the Adviser has lots of power, in practice that means very little. If the organiser does not cooperate beyond reassuring words, the Adviser may – theoretically – not approve things, but that in the end “hoping for the best” is the ultimate guiding principle of any Event Adviser. Cancelling an event and thus depriving athletes from a major competition and bringing the sport in disrepute is not a real option as long as there is any hope left.

In practice, the strongest steps an Event Adviser can take is to insist of the involvement of additional foreign helpers, typically at the expense of the organisers. But that is far from being a surefire solution. Rumour says that some of the negative criticism now being directed at the Chinese organisers at the World Cup was, actually, foreign sourced work.

To make things even more complicated, the IOF Council has a track record siding with rogue organisers (Cui bono?) who knowingly mislead a Senior Event Adviser. The Council took the side of the organiser without even asking a single question either from the Senior Event Adviser or from the discipline commission. That was the 2013 Council mentioned above, that changed very little over the past 6 years.

Did anything happen that changed the attitude of the Council over the past 6 years? Are they ready to spend serious effort to try to rethink the whole IOF controlling system to ensure better event quality?

Role of Ethics Panel

Very interesting development that the IOF Secretary General in a statement first dismissed any  speculation about the results on the Sprint saying “There was and is no verifiable proof nor material evidence of any wrongdoing.” but just a day later the IOF President referred the matter to the Ethics Panel for investigation “based on the information collected from various sources”.

Leho China Ethics Panel

This was a smart move. It takes off pressure from the IOF Leadership in matters related to the Chinese events for months, maybe even for years. Before an Ethics Panel decision the IOF Leadership has all the right to refuse any comment on an ongoing investigation, thus ensuring a piece of mind. The Ethics Panel has no procedural deadlines, they may spend as much time on this as they want. It took them 8 months to conclude that they could not press charges when they investigated this blog in a much, much simpler matter. The investigation of the CISM rule violations and the World Cup suspicion may take years at that speed, especially if the Chinese side is not very cooperative.

I even start to feel pity for the Ethics Panel. They were left holding the baby in a situation that may be unsolvable. Typically, Ethics Panels are not stretched beyond a decision whether to ban a proven drugs cheat for 2 or for 4 years. Now they have to investigate and decide in a matter that is nigh impossible to prove in the lack of a smoking gun. Their skill set is limited. For example, when they investigated this blog, they could not even name a specific allegation after 8 months despite having all the data in front of them. It would be rather difficult for them to come up with any solid basis for condemnation that would stand scrutiny in front of the Court of Arbitration of Sport after a Chinese appeal. Likewise, it would be difficult to find a solid basis for acquittal that would stand the scrutiny of elite athletes. Sounds like mission impossible.

Relationship with China

The IOF leadership had high hopes on China and invested lots of effort to build a relationship. This is understandable considering the enormous potential the country may have. Not only the World Cup Final was moved there, but also a Council meeting to demonstrate its commitment to the development of Chinese orienteering. It is an open secret that the 2024 Sprint World Championship is (was?) expected to be organised in China.

This was not met with undivided enthusiasm by the athletes even before the issues around CISM and the World Cup Final. Gustav Bergman did not hesitate to voice his reservations in his blog “Thoughts on the World Cup in China”. He disagreed with the common arguments that sport and politics should not be mixed. After the events many athletes are likely to have even more more reservations about China.

The interesting bit is that China agrees with the position of Gustav: they do not separate politics and sport. Arsenal Football Club can testify after being retaliated for private comments made by Mesut Özil, one their players.  The NBA has suffered “substantial” losses after an online comment from a team executive prompted a crisis in its relations with China.

So this makes one wonder if the IOF leadership has thought about the possibility of China making some steps if they get the 2024 WOC. For example, what if some athletes are not allowed to enter the country for the WOC due to their private opinion blogged on Chinese politics? Will the IOF cancel the WOC with all the financial losses or tell athletes to shut up? Was there any thinking done along these lines besides the excitement of making it big in China?

Limits to Growth

In 2000 on the 20th IOF General Assembly in Leibnitz, Austria, it was declared that
“It is of decisive importance to raise the profile of the sport to further the spread of orienteering to more people and new areas, and to get orienteering into the Olympic Games.”  That is still the main guideline to all major IOF events. The IOF wants organisers to stage events attractive enough for public, media and sponsors. In practice this means moving away from a „we for us“ productions where fairness was the absolute maxim and focus was on maps and courses. Starting from Leibnitz 2000 “fairness” for elite orienteering was placed on the same level as the requirements from media, sponsor partners, and the public. Focus was changed from maps and courses to good arenas, attractive working conditions for media and new “exciting” competition formats. The expected result was a raised profile of orienteering as a media and sponsor friendly sport, suited for incorporation into the Olympic Games. The Leibnitz Convention is the current governing guideline for the development of international elite orienteering.

Unfortunately, there is little sign that there was any thinking done at the level of the IOF on the likely impact of more money, more fame and more glory on orienteering itself, in particular when it comes to the incentive of braking fair play rules.

In a “we for us” setting there is very little incentive to cheat, both because the reward is mainly symbolic (the appreciation of the community),  and because even a hint of cheating would make one a cast out in the community whose appreciation is the highest possible reward.

Add more money and glory, let it be Olympic or national, (and that translates to substantial money in many parts of the world), and the incentive for cheating increases by several magnitude. Make an effort to involve nations that do not mix well with others due to political restrictions, and the power of the traditional anti-cheating retention, the power of the community, becomes zero. The resultant outcome is CISM in China, and very bad feelings in the international orienteering community.

This is the real face of the Olympic Dream.

* – * – *

There are lots of things to think about, talk about and write about. We shall hope that the IOF leadership actually engages in public conversations around the many issues that surfaced in connection with the events in China. Their track record is not particularly good in this. But hope dies last.

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