A brilliant Kick of the Fair Play Can down the Road

The IOF leadership performed at world class level handling the Fair Play Issue. Having spent two decades advising companies, small and large, to handle complex situations, I have to admire the use of modern management techniques by the IOF. We shall hope that on the General Assembly this week (8 and 10 July) member federations will also recognise this achievement.

I believe that this brilliance has to be documented as a case study also for the benefit of the general orienteering public. Orienteering athletes often study for a professional career or work in managerial and professional positions. They can benefit a lot from studying how the IOF leadership avoided to deal with the very difficult problem of Fair Play, while taking control of the situation.

Critics may point out that that the focus of the IOF management was not on solving the Fair Play Problem in orienteering. There was no sign of any specific investigation or even data collection to understand how widespread the problem is beyond the Unfortunate Events in China, there was no problem analysis, there were no objectives set, no success criteria or boundary conditions defined for any potential solution. There was no sign of a structured approach to understand the problem, despite the fact that the results of the broad based survey conducted by the IOF on Fair Play attitudes, and practical observations suggest that Fair Play violation is more widespread than we would like to admit.

These critics completely miss the point. These days the mainstream management focus, both for public and business administration, is not on solving problems, but on controlling communication and giving the impression that the issue is handled. The problem is swept under the carpet for the time being with the hope it will not come back while current management is in office. This was done brilliantly by the IOF leadership.

kick the can down the road - Fair Play Orienteering - wide

Solving complex problems is not easy, because they do not have objectively correct solutions like high-school maths problems. Every possible solution is a compromise. Evaluating and syndicating multidimensional compromises is difficult and prone to failure. It is a high effort, high risk approach – if one wants to do it well.

No wonder that kicking down the can the road – the best alternative to solving the problem – has become so popular up to the highest level of politics and the corporate world.

The IOF management deployed the best course of action one can advise these days to management keen to avoid dealing with the problem itself:

  • Defuse the situation through delaying tactics
    (e.g. delegating investigation to a committee, launching broad general surveys)
  • Focus attention on the usual suspects, don’t admit that the problem is widespread
    (blacks, migrants, muslims, uncivilised “new” nations are good picks these days)
  • Promise non-committing initiatives with no specific objectives
    (educational programs, future reviews, etc)
  • Avoid analysing the problem, the depth and breadth of it, or its root causes
    (it would just keep inconvenient discussion alive)

The IOF leadership has meticulously followed this textbook approach. Analysis that would have shown the links between the Fair Play Problem and IOF strategy was avoided. No meaningful debate can be launched by the public, because there is “work in progress”. No success/failure question can be raised for the lack of clear objectives and success criteria.

Perfect!

Below are a couple of interesting details that both budding managers may find educational, and future academics may find useful when writing up this case study as teaching material for the best schools of public and business administration.

Continue reading “A brilliant Kick of the Fair Play Can down the Road”

Zero Tolerance and Zero Sensitivity

The IOF maintains Zero Tolerance against doping in orienteering, and rightly so. Yet, until the outcry after the Unfortunate Events in China, Fair Play was treated with near Zero Sensitivity by the IOF leadership. In fact, reduced attention to Fair Play was (is?) seen as an acceptable price for the IOF’s Olympic Dream and more media friendly strategy.

In practice Fair Play violations means some form of “information doping”, including not only knowledge of the terrain, but also information from spectators and other athletes (for example following a better one). Biophysical doping is close to non existent in orienteering, while “information doping” in different forms is prevalent.

The impact on results could be just as significant, and often even bigger when it comes to information doping.  No chemical doping would have helped an athlete to get a World Championship medal after losing 4 minutes to the winner on the first 20% of a course simply on orienteering speed, without a major mistake.

My recent post on Orienteering Fair Play in Practice has received lots of attention, and  become one of the four most read posts on this blog within a week. I also received some very interesting private messages on the extent of the Fair Play Problem.

One thought that has emerged from the follow up discussions was that Fair Play violations are often similar to Anti Doping violations. Some comments pointed out the similarity between the Anti-Doping and Fair Play attitudes amongst elite athletes, the emergence of a subculture within some orienteering athletes on “information doping” that is quite similar in its approach to the one used by athletes using doping in doping infested sports, like road cycling.

“If others are doing everything they can get away with to gain some advantage, I should also do everything I can get away with – just to stay competitive!”

And when it comes to Fair Play in Orienteering, one can get away with a lot even in front of the IOF leadership, as discussed in the examples in my recent post. Well, a lot if you are not from an “uncivilised” new nation.

Seeing that the scandal of the Unfortunate Events in China was too big to be ignored, the communication of the IOF was squarely focused on Fair play and major events in new orienteering countries. The CEO of the IOF stressed that “I personally have been too naïve in believing that the strong ethical value of fair play which we have in orienteering as I know it, are automatically transmitted to new orienteering nations and across cultures.”

Yet, the prevalence of Fair Play problems in orienteering was confirmed by one of the slides of the IOF’s Fair Play survey.

 

IOF Survey - Fair Play - elite - JPEG

Could they all refer to the Fair Play issues of “uncivilised” new nations?

Or is this a confirmation that Fair Play violations are endemic amongst elite athletes?

Can you imagine the IOF’s reaction if this survey was about Anti-Doping violations?

Athletes are protected from Anti-Doping violations by Zero Tolerance and substantial resources invested on deterrent checks. There was very little communicated by the IOF on Fair Play during the past 8 months since China, other than hoping that education on Fair Play will solve the problem. As if Fair Play violations happen for the lack of knowledge of athletes, coaches and organisers.

No proper investigation, no analysis on the root causes, no Zero Tolerance approach.

The General Assembly documents include nice words and a general approach based on education. Not a hint about the need to look at the basics, like the impact of the IOF’s Olympic and media focused strategy on Fair Play.

IOF 2020 GA - Fair Play goalsIOF 2020 GA - Fair Play route choice

Athletes who saw (near) Zero Sensitivity to Fair Play violations until China may be rightly sceptical about the effectiveness of an IOF “educational tool” to protect the ones who follow Fair Play rules when the practice is just the opposite.

“It is not nice to show the competitor the control in a city sprint, but if you do, we will not say a word.”

“It is not nice to win a World Championship medal by following, but if you do, we will congratulate you for the result.”

“It is not nice to run the World Championship final as favourite on a map that you surveyed a couple of years ago, but if you do, we will look away.”

Isn’t it time to get more serious about Fair Play and “information doping” in orienteering and look deeper into this problem?

Or would it be enough if the “uncivilised” new nations get some formal education?