The Olympic Dream – lost without a trace

The Olympic Dream was the guiding light of the IOF for decades. It was the driving force for many activities, and a substantial amount of money was spent to chase the Dream. It is still part of the Competition Rules in the form of the Leibnitz Convention. The IOF President has repeatedly confirmed his commitment to pursuing the Olympic Dream.

“Foot Orienteering has a chance and ski orienteering has a realistic chance to be a part of the Olympic Games program”.

Leho Haldna, IOF President (2016)

Yet, in 2022 the Olympic Dream was lost without a trace in the Strategic Directions proposed to the General Assembly by the IOF Council led by the same President. Not a single reference to the Olympics even in the proposed Strategic Initiatives (see pages p164-170 in the General Assembly Agenda)

IOF Strategic Directions 2023-2026

Compare this to the strategic directions of 2019-2022, where the Main Goal was clearly anchored in the Olympic Dream.

The complete abandonment of the Olympic Dream is a 180-degree change of direction. This is the most significant change in our sport since the IOF decided to award World Championship titles – in the name of Olympic ambitions – to winners of D class street races, in addition to the mentally and physically toughest endurance athletes in the World.

Although there were hints at the last Presidents’ Conference that there could be changes in the Strategic Directions, the haste of complete abandonment of the Olympic Dream is stunning. It is probably best illustrated by the 2022 nomination of one of the IOF’s Vice Presidents (who used to represent Turkey, then Russia, and is now nominated again by Turkey for obvious reasons). As one of the Top 4 in the IOF Council, she firmly declares in her application that “I strongly believe that Orienteering deserves to be in Olympic Games and I hope to be able to make it true.” (p186 of the Agenda and Background Papers) Apparently, things happened so fast that even the IOF Vice President did not realize that the Olympic Dream was dead in the water.

Despite the radical change initiated by themselves, the IOF Leadership keeps a low and silent public profile like a cow drop in tall grass. Not a public word why chasing the Olympic Dream is no longer a good direction. Not a word about the potentially numerous implications of this change on the further development of our sport. Not a word about why the complete abandonment was necessary, not only putting it on the back burner for a while.

Personally, I am happy to hear that the IOF stops the pointless waste of money and volunteer time to pursue this pie-in-the-sky dream. I resigned as the Chair of the MTBO Commission in December 2016 when the IOF Council decided that each discipline commission shall evaluate its progress annually against some hazy Olympic criteria. The IOF Leadership could not give a fine thought to imposing pointless work on volunteers in the name of the Olympic Dream.

It is most interesting when pretty much the same Council (same President, 2 of the 3 Vice Presidents, 7 of the 11 members) suddenly makes a 180-degree turn and pretends as if the Olympic Dream was never there. A remarkable achievement of change of strategic direction that is only comparable to the smartest East European Communists who embraced capitalism and democracy overnight in 1990 just to stay in power.

In the context of this radical change of strategic direction, the silence of the IOF Leadership is a clear message to all orienteering volunteers around the world: it is not your business which way they steer your favorite sport.

The Olympic Dream

To appreciate the cardinal nature of the Olympic Dream, one should read the article of Heinz Tschudin, the late President of the IOF on Orienteering and the Olympics. The first negotiations with the IOC started back in 1944, even though the IOF was not established until 1961. It should be noted that already in 1982, the IOF was clearly told that the key criterion for Olympic inclusion is: “How much money will you bring in?” Although it was clear to everybody that the answer was very close to zero, the IOF has kept pushing this lost cause for decades.

To get a feel of the stated commitment to the Olympic Dream of the IOF Leadership, one should look into some of the interviews of the current IOF President. Sadly these were removed from the IOF web, but retrievable from the internet archives.

In September 2016, in his in-depth interview, the IOF President named two main plans he was going to work on “I will work on developing and spreading orienteering throughout the world. […] I will also work on the inclusion of orienteering into the Olympic Games.” He also stressed that “Foot Orienteering and Ski Orienteering both have a realistic chance of inclusion in the Olympic Games.”

In 2017 the IOF President wrote a letter to defend the huge and runaway IOF costs of participation in the World Games both in 2013 and 2017.

“Our athletes and federations have to realise that the road to the Olympics is via The World Games.”

Leho Haldna, IOF President (2017)

Not only the President but the whole IOF Council was also fully committed to pursuing the Olympic Dream. In January 2017, at the joint meeting to discuss IOF strategy with the Commissions, one of the Vice Presidents asked everybody who was not fully committed to the Olympic Vision to leave the session. There was no hint that he did not represent the view of the whole IOF Council. According to the participants, “the intent and ‘mild’ aggression to stifle debate was very clear.”

As recently as 2020, the newly-elected Swedish Council member was transparent in her interview that she wanted to see one of the disciplines become an Olympic sport. The above-mentioned Turkish/RussianVice President wanted to show her commitment to the Olympics even when the official line had changed.

What could have happened that a Leadership so committed to delivering the Olympic Dream suddenly goes for a U-turn with no public explanation? Why there is no communication to the orienteering public about the realization of the IOF Leadership that they led the organization in the wrong direction? Do they plan to resign, or shall we just forget all the monies and effort spent chasing the Olympic Dream?

What is next?

One must realize that the abandonment of the Olympic Dream is much more than not submitting an application for Brisbane 2032. The Olympic Dream was a major driving force in many aspects of the IOF’s activities. It was even declared in the Competition Rules that “It is of decisive importance […] to get orienteering into the Olympic Games”.

For each General Meeting, the IOF Council proposed a substantial set of focus areas to achieve the Olympic Dream. Here is the page-long list of focus areas that the IOF was expected to work on between 2020 and 2022.

So far, these activities had a fairly predictable pattern: the IOF Council set the goal to get into the next Olympics, the General Assembly approved it, the Council failed to deliver, and everybody kept silent about it. See, for example, the case of Paris 2024.

What are the activities and initiatives that will remain? Will the IOF stop spending on the World Games? Will it support any longer the inclusion in the Winter Universiade? What are the intentions regarding other multi-sport games?

When an organization adopts a new strategy, the most telling aspect about the depth of thought is the clarity on what they will not do any longer. Otherwise, the inertia of activities keeps the organization on the same path with some added activities on the top of business as usual.

Unfortunately, the lack of communication by the IOF Leadership regarding the change in strategic directions gives the feeling that this idea was not thought through thoroughly. At least that aspect of the IOF’s work is business as usual.

* – * – *

The wild goose chase of the Olympic Dream was a colossal waste of IOF funds and volunteer time. Yet the way this 180-degree turn is implemented is another sad manifestation that the IOF Leadership does not appreciate that our sport – even at the international level – is built on the enthusiasm of volunteers. There are few things more disappointing to volunteers than the feeling that they are kept in the dark and not given sufficient information even when there is a radical change in the direction of their organization.

Of course, every one of us knows that leaders of the orienteering “train” can make a 180-degree mistake. But we also know that it makes little sense to keep relying on those leaders who confidently ran in one direction for a while and then suddenly start to run in the opposite direction. Chances are that they have no clue where they are going, no matter how confident they look.

One thought on “The Olympic Dream – lost without a trace”

  1. Well said about the “silence” of IOF leaders regarding the abandoned Olympic dream (U – turn). Hope to listen a conversation about it, even off the record, on the GA and to get some realistic arguments. However, it’s more interesting to look forward… Trail running, for example, brings a lot of money and has a great impact in various aspect. It is not an Olympic sport. Will it be in the future? Who knows? Even its government body is scattered in various institutions.
    The world is changing and let’s keep our beloved sport as a binder material for our future.
    Food for thought…

    Liked by 1 person

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