Fair Play, or What You Will

The IOF has launched a Fair Play survey asking for assistance from the global orienteering community in getting answers to a number of questions about Fair Play. The IOF’s intention is to summarize the results on the first week of February, so please complete the survey asap if you have not done it yet.

The Council meeting minutes #197 says that  TH reported on the work that had been initiated on a project to create a values-based education tool around topics of Fair-play, and to connect this via a certification to the IOF Athletes License”. An interesting idea that suggests that sitting through a multiple choice test may become part of the IOF Athletes License process. It is unclear though if the intention is a pass/fail test, or some sort of an “educational” test where athletes have to keep clicking until they find the right answer.

This broad based survey is a very interesting initiative, but as often with IOF initiatives, it raises a large number of questions looking for answers. Let’s look into some of the most interesting ones.

First, it is unclear what is the objective of the “survey”. Is it about to understand if there is any divergence between attitudes to Fair Play in the community, and IOF rules on Fair Play, for example around coaching zones? Or is it about to put extra weight within the educational tool on areas where opinions may diverge from the IOF Rules? The questions repeatedly ask “How severely do the following impact fair play within orienteering?”, but that does not reveal if the survey is looking for “emerging views” or “educational gaps”.  If there is a survey in a convent about the appropriateness of reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it is unclear if the intention is to buy a copy for the library, or to try to determine how much additional educational help is required to straighten the minds of the residents.

IOF inclusivity

Second, the lead-in question (as shown above) asks about the inclusiveness of orienteering. This is a tricky one on multiple dimensions. It is rather unclear if it was thought through. After the events in China some people asked fairly explicitly on discussion forums whether there was a racial bias when the highly unexpected results of the Chinese athletes were questioned. This was a surprising question about racial bias, one that I have never ever seen in orienteering before. Yet, my experience after many more years of orienteering than I would like to admit, that the answer is rather simple, even if it is not very obvious.

We shall answer this question with pride: orienteering is not very inclusive. It does not welcome all types of athletes.

Orienteering welcomes athletes from all around the World*, but athletes who cheat or do not follow fair play practices are disdained.

* independent of race, color, gender, national origin, age, religion, creed, disability, military status, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression (for the avoidance of doubt)

It should be noted, that from the early days of sport, well before orienteering existed, the concept of Fair Play was developed by sporting communities to protect athletes and substitute written rules. The stronger the community, the stronger the Fair Play culture is. The stronger the community, the less inclusive it is. Fair Play is not about accepting the individual by the community, but it is about the individual accepting the rules of the community to get included. Sorry, Fair Play is not a PC concept.

But there is even a much deeper problem with the educational tool approach hinted by this survey and the suggestion in the IOF Council minutes. There was not a hint in the minutes that deeper analysis was done by the Council to try to understand the root causes of the events in China. It all appears to be a desperate reaction to demonstrate that something is being done.

The IOF appears to be working on a solution without making sure that they got the right question. Testing athletes on the knowledge of the Rules and their interpretation is not a cure for the deterioration of a community driven Fair Play culture.

Unfortunately, pushing for an educational tool without understanding the essence of the problem feels a bit like sweeping the core problem under the carpet by stopping inconvenient question because “something is being done”. This approach is not dissimilar to delegating the specific issues that popped up in China to the Ethics Panel. Delegation has ensured that for months, or maybe for years, the IOF leadership does not have to answer any question on the topic, because “there is an ongoing investigation”. The January Council minutes linked above show that the Ethics Panel apparently did not event report back on the task given in October 2019 when“Council referred to the IOF Ethics Panel to consider if sanctions could be applied to individual athletes, team officials and organising officials participating in the CISM event for future IOF activities” (Council minutes #196).  Mind you, the CISM case with the on-event decision to disqualify the Chinese team was the much more simple one compared to the situation on the World Cup. We may have to wait a long time before we get any results.


The core of the problem around Fair Play in orienteering appears to be much deeper. One may argue that currently the strongest single force working against Fair Play may be the post-Leibnitz strategy of the IOF. The Leibnitz convention, as discussed earlier in my post about IOF Event Quality, was the starting point for the IOF to move away from the “we for us” mentality of organising events, and to start to serve the needs of the media. Leibnitz was the official starting gun for the beginning of the commercialization of orienteering. Nothing undermines more a community based Fair Play culture than the commercialization of the sport and Olympic inclusion. The higher the stakes, the more money involved (both nationally and internationally), the weaker the community spirit becomes, and the stronger is the incentive to break the written and unwritten rules of Fair Play.

No misunderstanding, there is nothing wrong with commercializing a sport, trying to simplify it so that it becomes consumable for the average TV viewer, and trying to move it into the realm of proshow. But there are consequences.

I am afraid there is a need for a much, much more detailed discussion around Fair Play in orienteering than a limited questionnaire about attitudes. Without asking inconvenient questions first, it is not possible to come up with the right solution.

I will look into more questions around Fair Play in orienteering in my next post.

The Voice of Athletes vs Keeping Up Appearances

In the previous post it was discussed that after the continuing quality issues on major IOF events in China the FootO Athletes Commission had enough. They wrote a statement to the IOF leadership, signed by 100 or so international elite athletes, requesting changes to ensure more fairness for athletes on major events. They received an apology from the IOF President for the problems on the Middle Distance competition on the World Cup in China. He thanked them for raising the issue, and promised a reply after discussion in the Council. So far so good. We shall eagerly await the outcome, though finding a solution to the problems discussed in the previous post would require a major rethink of the IOF’s approach to major FootO events.

Unfortunately, the track record of the IOF Council is not particularly good when it comes to listening to athletes in strategic questions. Probably the most memorable moment was when the IOF Council rejected the unprecedented joint plea of the four Athletes Commissions of all four disciplines in the Autumn of 2013. The Council decided to introduce “Olympic style” prize givings in 2013 with only the 3 medalists on the podium. The athletes wanted to keep top 6 on the podium. The Council rejected the athletes because

“orienteering strives to become an Olympic sport and Council would like the award ceremony to mirror that of the Olympic Games.”

No money was involved, and no external demand. Just a choice between “Keeping Up Appearances” and the request of the athletes. It was a pure ego trip. Eventually the pressure from other corners became too big and the Council had to budge three months later keeping top 6 podiums on award ceremonies.

One may call this an old story. After all, this happened 6 years ago. Yet, 8 of the 11 Council members today, including the President and the three Vice Presidents, were amongst the ones who voted against the unprecedented joint plea of all athletes commissions in 2013. Did those 8 Council members change their attitude towards the athletes since 2013?

This story is interesting not only for placing a show element above the request of the athletes. It also serves as an example how much weight the words of the Athlete Commissions carry when it comes to questions close to the heart of some members of the Council. Recently the Council announced an initiative to modify the IOF Statutes to include one or two (gender balanced) athletes as voting members of the Council. This was apparently triggered by the governance audit that showed that the IOF does not one trend amongst international federations.

Does the new initiative to include athletes in the Council represents a new approach to athletes, or is it just another manifestation of the keeping up appearances approach? Is it done for genuine interest to work with the athletes, or just to make the IOF look better to the outside world?

Continue reading “The Voice of Athletes vs Keeping Up Appearances”

IOF Event Quality

Serious quality problems are the striking symptoms that something is not right around the IOF major events. Large part of the problems that popped up in China were related to quality issues. But this was just the latest manifestation of a long series of quality problems in major IOF events. In fact, there are few IOF events across all disciplines that did not have quality problems (or luckily avoided “near misses”) that should never occur on our top competitions. Despite all the effort, the problems in FootO, the IOF flagship discipline,  appear to be the biggest ones, even resulting in competitions that were voided or should have been voided like the men’s Middle distance in China.

Quality issues keep popping up not for the lack of want to avoid them. Most organisers put in a heroic effort to stage high quality events, but in practice there are many avoidable banana peels that they slip on more often than not. These are typically different banana peels that should have been easily spotted in hindsight, but the abundance of them suggests that the problem is systemic rather than a long series of bad luck or individual errors.

The IOF leadership recognized the problem a while ago. In 2017 the IOF President specifically voiced his expectations that organisers should care more about quality and spend more on it. In practice, the selection of organisers of major FootO events is still driven by the “show elements”, because the fundamentals of these events are very different according to the Leibnitz convention.

The client of major IOF FootO events is the TV viewer, not the athlete. This is in stark contrast with all other events, small or large, across all four orienteering disciplines.

The latest manifestation of this was seen in China just the day before the disastrous Middle distance competition. The IOF Council did not approve the only candidate to organise EOC 2022 because it did not commit to live TV broadcast, an extra €80,000 or so expense.

Analogue situations in business are quite common. Persistent service quality issues are typical symptoms of an organisation where strategic directions (if you prefer, management ambitions) got detached from the capabilities of the organisation and the realities of the external environment. The management trap lies in the fact that individual quality issues always look fixable with a little more attention. Hence, the underlying root cause of overstretched ambitions is far from being obvious. To make things more complicated, even if the root cause is identified as the gap between management ambitions and capabilities, politically it may not be admissible to point it out. Yet, the very fact that quality issues keep popping up left and right despite never ending attempts to fix them, shows that the real issue lies in the fundamentals.

There is an interesting development though that we have to watch out for. The new Finnish Council member, who is responsible for Foot-O, has shown a particular interest in major event quality. Even before China he told the Foot-O Commission that one of his area of attention is to identify possible root causes for the fatal mistakes in High Level Events and learn from analysis of failures. Analysing root causes of problems and learning from failures is a revolutionary new approach to be introduced to the IOF Council. We shall eagerly wait for the outcome of his work.

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