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?


The Olympic Podium

October 2012 was the start of the story when the then President of the IOF (Brian) reported in Council minutes  #163 that “he had attended the Olympic Summer Games in London [and] he had been very impressed with the Olympic medal ceremonies and it is clear that orienteering must improve a lot in this regard.”

In January 2013 in minutes #164 “The Council agreed that only the three medallists shall participate in the WOC medal ceremony, and only medals and flowers will be handed out to them on the podium. The six best athletes will receive a diploma but these and any other possible awards shall be handed out off the podium.”  It should be noted that the minutes included a note: “MSV [Maria Silvia] asked that her reservation against the decision be noted in the minutes.”  Chapeau!!!   Probably needless to say that there was no consultation with athletes or with discipline commissions.

It all went quiet until suddenly on 6 September 2013 the IOF Office sent around only the “Award Ceremony” and “Dress Code” section of the renewed IOF Protocol for Award Ceremonies – Sept 2013 changes with the instruction “In order to ensure that the ceremonies at IOF major events look professional, the IOF Council has revised some of the related procedures and decided to make them mandatory. Please familiarize yourselves with the attached revised Protocol for award ceremonies while we are working on updating the rest of the IOF Protocol Guide.” 

This looked like a slightly adjusted copy-paste version of the IOC Award Ceremonies with statements like “Under no circumstances should an award ceremony be held in an empty stadium” and The award ceremony for each race shall last a maximum of 5:00 minutes.”  It took very careful reading to realize that the 8th subpoint under Section 6.3 read:

“The medal ceremony is organised to give medals and flowers to the three best athletes. In the flower ceremony, six best athletes get flowers.”

The first reaction was that this was probably a copy-paste mistake. Why cannot one organise a proper prize giving with top 6 on the podium as it had been done for decades?

WOC 1983 WE relay
Xth WOC Hungary 1983

The second reaction was about the consequences. How much motivation will be lost for athletes who may never get a medal, but who have a fighting chance to reach a 5th or 6th position and stand on the podium? After all, standing on that podium could be the single greatest reward in their whole sporting life!

Now that I checked a few emails from 2013 to ensure accuracy, it was interesting to read that Event Advisers immediately pointed out that strict implementation of this Protocol Guide would be detrimental to event quality due to its high resource requirements. Concerns were immediately raised that demanding strict ceremonies with described details would divert attention from delivering the basics of the core orienteering event.


The Unprecedented Plea of the Athletes

When the news reached the athletes the reaction was a mix of disbelief and outrage. There was an unprecedented coordination between the four Athletes Commissions of the four disciplines. Together they wrote a letter to the Council signed by all four Chairs of the four Athletes Commissions on 18 September.

“The Athletes Commissions think that honouring six athletes is a very good opportunity to motivate developing athletes. For them to be able to go up onto the podium in a dignified ceremony strengthens one’s motivation to win a medal one day. All of us coordinators of the Athletes Commissions have personally worked very hard to reach the top six places. This is the same for all athletes and a podium position (top six) is an important achievement in Orienteering nowadays. To not honour the fourth to sixth finishers, these achievements will definitely lose their importance. Therefore the Athletes Commissions do not support the plans of holding the medal ceremony with only the best three athletes present.”

“The Athletes Commissions propose to change the last paragraph of chapter “6.3 Activities” so the top 3 will be present at the flower ceremony, while the award ceremony will honour the top 6.”

The response of the Council was swift, merciless and full of missionary zeal about striving to become an Olympic sport. It was documented in Council minutes #167 of 18-19 October 2013 (misdated on the pdf as 2014) under Section 19.1:

IOF Council 167 - Reject athletes

To add insult to injury, after rejecting the unprecedented joint plea of the four ACs, the Council minutes continued:

IOF Council 167 - appreciation

My feeling is that this level of hypocrisy would be considered as “over the top” even by some Communist Parties or traditional religious Churches.


Belated Happy End

Months of bitter discussions followed the Council decision to reject the plea of the athletes in October 2013. The IOF President was stressing that there was nothing to discuss after the Council made a decision. The athletes were disappointed beyond belief, but kept on fighting. The MTBO Commission have also decided to side with the athletes, though we got the message in no uncertain terms the Council did not need two MTBO Athletes Commissions, and that our role was to represent the will of the Council to the athletes. There were some national federations who also got involved on the side of the athletes.

In January 2014 the Council made the surprise move and revisited the topic. Finally it was decided – by a set of very narrow votes – to keep the tradition of top 6 on the podium for individual races. You can read the details in Council minute #168 under Section 20:

IOF Council 168 - podium happy end

Eventually, after Brian stepped down as President of the IOF in 2016, also the relay podiums were switched back to the traditional top 6 format.


Keeping Up Appearances

I found this case especially fascinating because through the whole time it felt like a pure ego trip on behalf of the Council. Keeping up appearances was more important than the plea of the athletes.

There was not a hint that there was any material benefit associated with a podium of only 3 at prize givings, or any loss resulting from staying with top 6. There were even very successful Olympic sports, like biathlon, where on World Championships the top 6 were invited to the podium. There was not a hint of logic in depriving athletes placed 4 to 6 from podium places. Just pure show of force to try to “look like Olympics”.

It is true that all over the world one may find people who are desperate to keep up appearances. For reasons unknown some middle aged Brits are particularly good at this, as it was shown by the BBC in a series about the life of Mrs. Hyacinth Bucket (to be pronounced as “Bouquet”!).  Yet, even after more than 6 years I am still baffled the way the Council rejected the athletes in a very similar style for the hollow looks of the Olympic style prize giving.

For the uninitiated, here is a bouquet of the best of Mrs Bucket.


A trendier voice for athletes in 2020

The above story is also interesting because through the years of 2012 and 2013 I was told by various members of the Council that “the Council may reject proposals from discipline commissions, but they would listen very carefully to the wish of athletes”. Yet, when the Athletes Commissions wanted to get their voice heard they were rejected without much discussion.

It may be also relevant for the reason that 8 of the 11 Council members today were members of the Council that voted down the joint plea of the four Athletes Commissions in 2013. You may find here the list of past and present Councils.

Now there is an initiative in the forming to give another channel to the athletes to voice their opinion through a seat (or two) in the Council. It is unclear though whether they would be more listened to more than the current system of athletes commissions.

This initiative started in May 2019 after the results of a governance review of the IOF were announced. As a service to its members, the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) has carried out an external independent review of a number of parameters related to the good governance of sports organisations. The IOF performed very well, but it was noted that it did not follow the “general trend across International Federations having one or two elected athletes’ representatives on the board” i.e. in the Council.


IOF GovernanceSummary - marked - 2019

There are no hints that this was anything more than a paper review. These type of reviews are typically box ticking exercises of documented structures and processes. It is all akin to the classic ISO 9000 series of quality standards that, for example, theoretically allowed manufacturing life vests out of concrete as long as the manufacturing and complaint processes were properly documented. If there is an athlete in the Council that is trendy. If there is no athlete, that is not trendy.

The imperative of keeping up appearances put things into motion in the IOF. A consultation was started whether there should be only one or two (gender balanced) athlete reps with voting rights. There was also a Council recommendation to form only a single athletes commission instead of the current discipline specific commissions. That might not be as efficient as the current system of four ACs that work very closely with their respective discipline commissions, but probably better aligned with general trends for the next GAISF review.

There was apparently little discussion, if any, on why the athletes currently have the feeling that their voices are not heard at Council level. That is a recurring theme when I talk to international FootO athletes, and as the above example shows, it is far from being groundless. If the current structures do not work for reasons unclear, there is only hope that any new structure may work better.

A more trendy representation of athletes will not solve any issues without change in attitude to athletes and change in the IOF strategy, including rethinking Leibnitz.

We shall eagerly wait for the outcome of the consultation and the final Council proposal. I guess, overwhelming majority of federations and athletes commissions will support the one or two athletes in the Council, expecting that it would improve the voice of the athletes, even if the underlying strategy does not change.

Then we shall hope for the best. Everybody knows that one swallow doesn’t make a Spring. Maybe two (gender balanced) swallows have better chances.

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