Orienteering Fair Play in practice

Since the Unfortunate Events in China (hope this is a PC enough reference), the IOF has put lots of emphasis on Fair Play.  The intention is to bring the topic of fair play into focus and help facilitate discussions throughout the orienteering community. A worldwide Fair Play Survey was launched and  a project has been initiated to create a values-based education tool around topics of Fair Play, and to connect this via a certification to the IOF Athletes License as reported in the Council meeting minutes #197.

For the upcoming IOF General Assembly the Finnish Orienteering Federation has also submitted a proposal (see page 98 in the GA Agenda) to “save the culture and Fair play of our sport” referring to the events in China as “an excellent wake-up for orienteers who believe in trust and in the sport’s own strong culture”.  They suggest a number of ethical and educational, as well as more technical actions as examples, but the focus of the proposal is to find out “which actions IOF has or will take to prevent unethical behaviour in our sport”.

All good stuff. Albeit, it feels somewhat theoretical. Everybody knows the right answer, or at least everybody can learn it. It is a bit like asking people in a Sunday school, if it is acceptable to sin or is it better to read the Bible; or upon a top university entry exam asking, if racism is tolerable. It is very unlikely that one gets the answer wrong.

This blog, trying to be helpful as always, would like to introduce the possibility of using real life situations from actual events to discuss fair play questions.  There are three cases taken from the IOF’s flagship World Orienteering Championships to ensure that the situations described are real life examples for international elite orienteering.

One should note that these cases all involved athletes from leading orienteering nations that provide the strong ethical basis for fair play, and not from the “uncivilised” new orienteering nations participating on their first international events. One should also note, that none of these events triggered a public reaction by the IOF on the status of Fair Play in Orienteering, like the one in China.

The three cases from the WOCs discussed below are as follows:

  • 2018: a Danish Spectator
  • 2017: a Swedish Trailer
  • 2015: a Scottish Favourite

These are all real life cases that happened over the past 5 years. Everybody remotely interested in elite orienteering will know the athletes involved. Yet, I will refer to them only by their nationality to emphasise that it is the situation that is important, not the person.

Fair Play - Latvia shown control - masked

A Danish Spectator

Sprint Final on WOC 2018 in Riga, Latvia. The Danish athlete is approaching the last control. The spectators may not know how tight the competition is, but they know that on a 14 minute long course every second counts.

The spectators also know that women approaching the last control can be confused by the start flag that they see first when approaching Control #17. Even the GPS track suggests  that some of them, including top names, had to stop, run back, or slow down. More details in the World of O analysis.

WOC 2018 Sprint WE final control vs start kite

The athlete approaching is Danish, she is fighting for the Gold medal. The sporty spectator is Danish, as suggested not only by his enthusiasm, but also confirmed by Danish friends. His blue top with red and white inserts hanging from his backpack looks very much like the top of one of the prominent Danish orienteering clubs.

The action of the Danish Spectator looks premeditated. The approaching athlete still reads the map while running at speed. It is unclear, if she turns a second later to the right or runs to the Start flag and potentially gets confused losing an unpredictable amount of time. We all know that athletes in the state of deep oxygen deprivation may get easily confused. They may lose 5 or 10 or 15 seconds, a horrible amount of time by sprint standards. Clearly, the Danish Spectator did not want to chance it, but wanted to make sure that the Danish athlete is directed to the last control with no loss of time.

Some emerging questions

Was this a matter of Fair Play violation considering that Rule 1.1. states that “competitors navigate independently”, but there is no specific rule on obtaining information from spectators?

Would you have a different opinion if the Danish athlete won by 1 second or 15 seconds?

Would you have a different opinion if this was a Chinese athlete and a Chinese spectator, not Danish ones?

If you consider this to be a Fair Play violation, would you expect the IOF to say or do something about it?

If you consider this to be a Fair Play violation, would this situation had been prevented if the IOF’s  values-based education tool linked to Athletes License would have existed at the time?


A Swedish Trailer

Long Final on WOC 2017 in Estonia. In the men’s race the Gold medal was won by the favourite Norwegian, the reigning Long distance World Champion, who already had three gold medals. No surprise there. The Silver and the Bronze medals were won by athletes whose performance was a surprise – but with a difference. If you want to follow the race, you can do it on Youtube. The men’s race starts at 2:01:20.

Screenshot 2020-06-21 at 17.29.47

The second placed Russian athlete was (virtually) neck-and-neck with the World Champion until half way, and even after making some smaller mistakes, he firmly kept the second place. His route choices were constantly analysed by the speakers, compared to the World Champion and other rivals in the lead.

The third placed Swedish athlete did not get much attention from the speakers until late despite being (quite literally) neck-and-neck with the World Champion for two-thirds of the race. We can get a glimpse of him first at 2:47:20 trailing behind the World Champion and mentioned by the speakers quite literally as an “also run”.  The next time he is mentioned 45 minutes later, at 3:31:15. We can see that the Swedish runner is respectfully following the World Champion, but this time the speakers already acknowledge that this could be a good result for him if he can hang in there. Finally, at Control #21, the last control requiring above C level navigation, the World Champion made a mistake that the Swedish athlete (running behind) could use to get away and gain back some time.

Fair Play - WOC 2017 Long - following - masked

Here is the GPS track of the event, and the excellent detailed analysis provided by World of O, including some analysis of the independent performance of the Swedish athlete until Control #2. The red line above is that of the World Champion, the blue is the Swedish trailer from the moment of the start of the World Champion. They met at the edge of the impassable marsh after Control #3.

To appreciate the level of similarity of the tracks after Control #3, compare it to the route choices available on the day. Here are two legs from the analysis of World of O:

Fair Play - Long 2017 - leg_04_.png-11
Fair Play - Long 2017 - leg_12_

The Swedish athlete was caught up by 4 minutes exactly at 20% of the course despite not making any significant mistake. At Control #2 he was 27th 3:31 behind the World Champion. Apparently, he just did not feel the map and the terrain on that day. It happens even to the best ones. Yet, this is as close as it gets to a technical KO in orienteering. The only reason to continue the day as a competition is that the Finish is anyhow at the other end of the map.

Clearly, it was not the day of the Swedish Athlete until he met the World Champion in the forest. On the press conference he was rather open about what happened:

About winning his first individual WOC medal: – It feels really good. I was caught by [the World Champion] really early, on the way to the 4th control (with 4 minutes), so I was a bit surprised. I struggled a bit to the 2nd control. When [the World Champion] caught me, I felt that the speed was no problem, but his orienteering was better.

Knowing that he stayed behind the World Champion for 70 minutes after they met, it is as close as it gets to a clear admission of following for most of the race with the knowledge that it was his only chance to achieve a meaningful result.

It should be noted that the course contained an asymmetric butterfly combination to separate trailing athletes, but it was not effective in this case. To make the event more TV-friendly the start interval was reduced to 2 minutes from the 3 minutes normal for Long competitions. As the Swedish athlete started 4 minutes before the World Champion, he could follow the World Champion through the butterfly combination.

Some emerging questions

Was this a matter of Fair Play violation considering that Rule 1.1 states that “competitors navigate independently”?

Would you have a different opinion if your friend or teammate ended up as 4th, losing maybe his only chance to win an individual WOC medal to somebody who was trailing the World Champion for most of the course?

Would you have a different opinion if the trailing medal winner was a Chinese athlete and not a Swedish one?

If you consider this to be a Fair Play violation, would you expect the IOF to say or do something about it?

If you consider this to be a Fair Play violation, would this situation had been prevented if the IOF’s  values-based education tool linked to Athletes License would have existed at the time?


A Scottish Favourite

In 2015 the World Championship was organised in Scotland. This was a special event for the small Scottish orienteering community, especially considering that the President of the IOF was also Scottish at the time. All what was missing to turn these days into a great nationwide celebration of the sport was a Scottish World Champion.

Fortunately, there was a Scottish Favourite for the Sprint event to be organised in the lovely little town of Forres, as confirmed by the official web page of the event.

Fair Play - Scottish hopefuls - masked

It was even more fortunate, that the Scottish Favourite had a very good opinion of the Forres area as confirmed by the marketing announcement of  the Moravian Orienteers for the 2009 Moray Mix weekend on the Scottish Orienteering website. Unfortunately, the web page below got deleted since, but one can find it via the Wayback Machine here. Moravian Orienteers is the largest orienteering club in Scotland, so with this announcement on the Scottish Orienteering website one may presume that this information has reached many Scottish orienteers.

Fair Play - Moray Mix Weekend - masked

Scotia Maps, the mapping company that made the Forres map, is a little known entity. There is no current trace of its existence on the web. It does not appear to be a proper company that ever existed as a formal entity according to UK’s Companies House. Even the powerful Wayback Machine web archive could not find any historic web page on the link suggested by BOF. It appears to be a trading name for a sole trader, a common practice in the UK.

Yet, Scotia Maps is clearly associated with Scottish Favourite according to an earlier list of professional mappers maintained by the British Orienteering Federation.  Considering that 22 year old elite athletes (at the time the original Forres map was made) seldom run large mapping organisations, especially just under a trading name, one may get the feeling that Scottish Favourite was intimately familiar with the maps made by Scotia Maps.

Fair Play - BOF_mappers_professionalmappers - masked

Apparently, the Scottish organisers of the World Championship also appreciated the area in and around Forres so much, that they used the area covered by the 2009 map (from the collection of World of O) both for the Sprint Qualification and the Sprint Final.

Forres - Moray Mix 2009 - World of O

Fair Play - Forres Sprint qualification

WOC 2015 - Sprint_Final_Map_Men

Strangely enough, the previous Forres map provided to teams pre-WOC (downloadable both from the pages of Qualification and Final) did not show any credentials of the mapper, or even the date of the survey. The previous maps of the other competition areas provided to teams of WOC 2015 showed these pieces of information, both for Middle/Relay (Darnaway Forest) and for Long (Glen Affric).

Forres - pre-WOC map

All this gives the feeling that Scottish Favourite had more than a running encounter, but rather an intimate knowledge of the map and area in and around Forres, and that quite a few Scottish orienteers were aware of this. Yet, Forres was chosen by the Scottish organisers as the Sprint Final for the World Championships in 2015. The association of the Scottish Favourite with the previous map of Forres was not revealed to other participants.

Some emerging questions

Was this a matter of Fair Play violation considering Rule 26.6 “The organiser shall bar from the competition any competitor who is so well acquainted with the terrain or the map, that the competitor would have a substantial advantage over other competitors. Such cases shall be discussed and decided after consultation with the IOF Event Adviser”?

Would you have a different opinion if the Scottish Favourite won Gold?

Was the open access to all participants to Forres until the day before the event  a compensation for the local knowledge of some Scottish participants?
Note that open access instead of a strict embargo was somewhat unusual considering that Forres (population 12,500) is not a major centre, it is 40km away from Event Centre, and even the local main road bypasses the town.

Would you have a different opinion if this happened with a Chinese athlete on a World Championship in China, even if open access to the Chinese competition area was permitted?

If you consider this to be a Fair Play violation, would you expect the IOF to say or do something about it?

Could it happen that the Scottish President of the IOF, at the time, was not informed about this issue within the closely knit community of Scottish orienteers?

Could it happen that the Scottish organisers could not find any other suitable sprint terrain but the one the Scottish Favourite was intimate with?

Could it happen that the IOF Senior Event Adviser was informed about Scottish Favourite’s involvement with the previous sprint map before he approved Forres as a competition venue for WOC Sprint?

Could it happen that IOF Senior Adviser advised the Scottish organisers that close involvement in making a sprint map of the area of the Sprint event (only a couple of years earlier) was not a “level of acquaintance” that would provide substantial advantage?

Could it happen that the IOF Senior adviser was influenced in his advice to the Scottish organisers by the potential renewal of his coveted job contract with the IOF that was led by a Scottish President at the time?
Note that he remained the contracted SEA by the IOF for the 2016 and 2017 WOCs.

If the IOF Senior Event Advisor was informed about this issue, and he advised the organisers that the participation of the Scottish Favourite did not violate Rule 26.6 – Would have been in the spirit of Fair Play to inform all the participating teams about this decision?

If you consider this to be a Fair Play violation, would this situation had been prevented if the IOF’s  values-based education tool linked to Athletes License would have existed at the time?

~     ~     ~     ~     ~

I hope that by providing some real life Fair Play situations I could contribute to the effort of the International Orienteering Federation to strengthen not only theoretical, but also practical Fair Play in our sport.

6 thoughts on “Orienteering Fair Play in practice”

  1. Case 1 is a tricky one, how to tell all the random spectators that their actions could lead to the disqualification of athletes?

    Case 2 I have seen too many times to count, and some also at medal level at WOC/WCs too. Have even been running in groups of athletes in races watching this happen. Part of the solution would be to implement the recommendations of Henning Sp…. (from Norway, can’t remember how to spell his surname) which was to increase the start interval to 3 minutes again. With a butterfly loop this would generally remove this following problem from the medals at least.

    Case 3 I think the athlete shouldn’t have been allowed to start, and the organisers should’ve thought more about the choice of area if they wanted to give all their athletes the best chance.


    1. Alistair,
      Yes, I agree that there are no easy solutions, though Case 3 could have been rather straightforward to avoid.

      Yet, any solution requires first an acknowledgement that there is a problem. Personally I believe that we have a serious problem in all three cases. But the silence of the IOF (as opposed to their public reaction after China) suggests that they saw no problem, hence they would be reluctant to look for a solution.


    2. For cases 2 and 3, I agree with Alistair L’s comments. Regarding case 1, I think you are confusing WOC 2018 with 2014 where the start flag did confuse competitors (and Alm was only 3rd, but the Danish men finished 1st and 3rd partly through pre-mapping the area and second-guessing the course – which is another ‘fair play’ story).

      The World of O analysis that you link to in your story above does not support your theory, as it points to the race being won by Alm on the previous leg to control 16. Her margin at the finish was 16 seconds, which is a very clear win in a sprint race, and more than your ’emerging question’ about whether 1 or 15 seconds is significant. I do agree that there needs to be an element of spectator control at crucial control points in a WOC sprint course.

      On the whole, your pursuit of IOF (particularly through the medium of Attackpoint) is rather petty in comparison to, say the FIFA scandals of a few years ago, and particularly to the current dangerous attacks on democracy in your home country.


      1. Tony,
        I am afraid that you might have missed the point. The question is whether these situations were violations of Fair Play rules and principles and principles or not. What is your opinion?

        Sorry, I do not care about FIFA. I do care about democracy, but it is neither a topic of this blog, nor can I guess what you may mean by my “home country”. The country where I was born, where I grew up, where my house is, or where I live? These happen to be four different countries. 🙂

        Life is often more complicated than it looks from a distance 😉


  2. Example 1 – the course design (start location) and the management of spectators near the finish seem to have caused a problem that could have been avoided
    Example 2 – allowing 2 min start intervals makes following more possible at this level. Butterflies need to be well designed to split runners, but in this case they were doing the same loop so it didn’t help anyway. Having starts in ranking order means that runners of similar ability are running close to each other, so this situation will continue to arise. Not sure what the solution is.


    1. Robin,
      Let’s start with the basics instead of jumping to solutions.

      Were situations where orienteering fair play rules and principles were violated?
      Would you expect the IOF to take action or not considering that they decided to take action after China?

      And do not forget about Case #3. It is just as interesting as the other two.


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