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.
Major events are marred by quality issues
Experienced organisers know that we all need good luck to deliver an orienteering event with no major issues, not to talk about a “perfect” event. There are just so many variables beyond the control of the organiser. One may argue that orienteering organisers are the most exposed to factors beyond their control amongst all sports recognised by the IOC.
Good example of “out of the blue” quality issue was the vanishing print on WOC 2016. Apparently, a batch of paper received by the printer had an unknown change in fiber composition that allowed the print to wash off. No matter how many times and how rigorously one tests the printing quality before printing the final maps, one may never come to the idea that the last batch will have an invisible fault that makes all the difference. (picture from Twitter)
Not only FootO, but all the other orienteering disciplines (MTBO, SkiO, TrailO) had their fair share of problems over the years, often related to map quality. The trend of moving our events closer to urban environments results in a double whammy: mapping becomes more difficult because of the large number of subscale features that may seriously impact competitions (small paths and passages, small private areas, even flower beds like in China), but higher external activity is also more likely to impact events. Yet, only major FootO competitions suffered from quality problems to the extent that they had to be voided.
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. For example, the highly criticised map of the Middle distance in China (picture from World of O) was apparently redrawn four times before it was okayed by the Map Commission. Despite all the effort, it still did not fully comply with IOF map drawing standards. Difficult to see what could have been done more to ensure that the map complies with IOF standards on the given terrain at the 1:10,000 scale set by the IOF rules.
Athletes are unhappy. In fact, when I talked to some world class FootO athletes, they kept listing serious quality issues for most major events, and thinking long to come up with ones that had no problem. One might argue that these athletes have higher standards, they expect more. But give or take, half of the quality issues mentioned would have been unacceptable on any orienteering event (controls collected early, control stations not working, etc), while the other half would have still raised eyebrows on most events (timing issues, mapping problems, no official results on the day, etc). And they were probably not aware of the large number of “near misses” one can hear about when talking to insiders.
After the major quality problems on the middle distance in China the world elite of FootO athletes had enough. On a stormy meeting in China they decided to write a letter to the IOF leadership stating that the quality of cartography was unacceptable and fairness was not ensured. They also demanded that the IOF reviews the current system of event advising and controlling. The statement was signed by around 100 athletes from 16 countries.
Whose competition is it anyway?
It seems that the athletes did not recognise one crucial point. Although on every orienteering event, across all disciplines the “client” is the athlete, the same is not true for major IOF FootO events.
The “client” for FootO WOC and World Cup events is the great unknown TV viewer.
Since 2000, the declaration of the Leibnitz Convention, the IOF is consciously trying to get away from the “we for us” mentality of organising events, and instead working on serving the needs of the media. This approach puts a handful of events in a very different socioeconomic sphere than the rest of the orienteering world. Unavoidably, that comes both with compromises in event quality and with attention of organisers diverted from the basics. Top level strategic ambitions are not aligned with the fundamentals of this sport.
Can you find above the attention to basics and the focus on fairness athletes crave for?
“Competitors” are 1 of 6 in the list in 1 of 2 bullets discussing the approach. That gives 8.3% share of consideration with equal weighting. Not exactly what one would call the focus of attention.
In addition, there is not even a trace of consideration for athletes, or for quality of competition under the actions expected from organisers in order to get orienteering into the Olympic Games.
“Why do gladiators think that they should get a fair chance in the media circus?” was the question of my brother who loves to see the world in historic perspectives. “Does anybody care if Jürgen Klopp complains that his team is overloaded to an extent that it impacts the health of the players and the fairness of their games?”
Leibnitz in practice
Interestingly enough, the Leibnitz approach was clearly demonstrated on the Council meeting on 25-26 October, just before the controversial Middle distance competition in China. The agenda called for a decision on the organiser of the European FootO Championship 2022.
It is important to note that according to the FootO Commission minutes 2-2019 of 3-4 May, there were no applicants to organise EOC 2022 by the application deadline. To find an applicant the Chair of the FOC was in discussion with one potential organiser.
According to Council minutes #196 on October 25-26, half a year later, there was finally one applicant for EOC 2022: Hungary, a country with a reasonable track record of staging major events. Yet, the Council did not approve the application, because there was no guarantee of live TV broadcast. The decision was postponed till January.
Live TV for 3 days is estimated at approximately €80,000 extra cost for the organiser. A small part of that money spent on quality assurance could significantly improve the chances of a problem free event. A further delay in an already delayed approval process is unlikely to help quality assurance. Apparently these were not part of the Council’s consideration. Good event quality is taken for granted.
After all, what could go wrong on a major IOF event?
The importance of learning
Despite the serious and ongoing quality issues, according to the minutes there were no Council discussions to understand what was going on. There were Council talks about proposals on Event Supervisors and an Event Quality Monitoring and Improvement Process, but apparently nothing on specifics. Even this general approach was not conclusive. In January 2019 (#193) “Council decided that it was not able to change its previous decision regarding the document [Monitoring and Improving Event Quality] and it was not approved at this time [either].”
Yet, something has changed in August 2019, almost 2 years after the IOF President’s “critical to quality” address about mapping, courses and IT. The Finnish Council member, the new kid on the block elected in 2018, took charge of the quality issues as the Council member responsible for the FootO Commission. On the August 2019 FOC meeting he talked about “One area of attention is to identify possible root causes for the fatal mistakes that unfortunately are sometimes found in our High Level Events.” On the October Council meeting (#196) “He highlighted the importance of learning from analysis of failures to constructively and systematically improve the quality of IOF Major Events.”
Identify possible root causes? Learning from analysis of failures? These might be standard practices for professional managers, but he may not realise how revolutionary this approach is within the IOF Council. We shall look forward to reading the results of his work.