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”.
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)
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.
History and the future outlook does not support chasing the Dream of Communism Olympic participation told the Politburo Council to the local party leaders Presidents of Member Federations.
The importance of this statement went almost unnoticed in 1986 2021 on the biennial meeting that was typically embalmed in polite boredom. Few realised how significant changes might lure just behind the corner, when (and if) they were still alert at slide 90 of the presentation of the Presidents’ Conference
It is difficult to compare this change in the IOF’s strategic direction to anything less than the Перестройка lead by Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. The Olympic Dream was the undisputable anchor point of the IOF Strategy for decades despite the honest admission in 1992 by the IOF President of 1988-94 that it was a hopeless effort. Until very recently the inclusion in the Olympic Games was a focus area for the IOF. The newly elected Council member in 2020 felt the need to declare that in the next 4 years she “would like to see one of the disciplines become an Olympic sport”. The Leibnitz Convention setting the goal to get to the Olympic Games is even part of the IOF competition rules.
Only four years ago, the Finnish Vice President of the IOF, at the time, called everybody who was not fully committed to the Olympic Vision to leave the session of the Council – Commissions joint meeting on IOF Strategy. Seven of the eleven members of the current Council were present, including the President and two Vice Presidents who still hold those positions. None of them voiced their concerns about the aggressive imposition of the Olympic Dream on the IOF strategy discussion. Just like before Perestroika no party official would have voiced any concerns when an aggressive apparatchik declared that people who did not believe in the Dream of Communism should leave a discussion on how to develop Russia.
Parallels to Perestroika
The parallels with the onset of Perestroika are numerous.
There is an emerging concern that the IOF strategy is not deliverable in scope, and particularly not with the resources available. Makes you wonder who proposed those strategic action plans to the General Assembly over the past two decades…
There is a sudden awakening that there is no clarity around the terms used in the most fashionable slogans of the IOF (cf. world peace; the victory of the proletariat; workers of the world, unite!, etc).
There is an emerging understanding that the decade long “professionalization” of the IOF (and the corresponding alienation of volunteers) leads to difficulties when the money runs out.
These concerns must have been amplified by the lack of qualified applicants to replace the CEO/GenSec who announced his retirement earlier this year. It is unclear whether there were any qualified applicants for the re-announced split positions, but that would be a rather pleasant surprise.
When there are little funds left, it is time to attract volunteers, as it happened before when the delivery of great ambitions got slowed down due to a shortage of resources.
The future is bright
Before launching the full fledged Perestroika in 1987, Gorbachev was a member of the Central Committee (i.e. the party elite) from 1971, Secretary of the Central Committee from 1978, and the leader of the Party from 1985.
The President of the IOF has been a member of the Council since 2002, Vice President since 2010, and President since 2016. With all this experience (including his personal exposure to Perestroika), he is perfectly positioned to reassess the situation of the IOF, point out the mistakes of the past, re-energise the organisation, and set a new strategy for the development of international orienteering.
We shall have all the confidence that the re-evaluation of the IOF strategic direction will be a resounding success.
That made me realize that there are two important cornerstones of major international orienteering events: deep trust in Fair Play, and willful blindness to acknowledge that this trust is supported only by a near religious belief in this very trust itself.
Deep trust that makes international orienteering so special and so different compared to other sports. Deep trust is also the Achilles heel of international orienteering that will bring it down in the quest for more money, more fame, and the Olympic dream.
In this post I write about the nature of this trust at individual level. In my next post I will write about the nature of this trust at institutional level, including the dangers of trying to build an ever larger house of cards of international orienteering anchored on this trust.
Of course, trust in Fair Play is an essential element of all sports. Without trust in fair competition, few honest sportsmen would invest time and effort into training. There could be anomalies on some events, but those are typically detectable and rectifiable. Rogue players and referees can be banned, inspection of equipment and doping tests can be stepped up.
What differentiates orienteering from other sports, is that some of the most impactful methods of cheating – certain forms of information doping – are both unpreventable and undetectable by practical means.
Nobody can stop an organiser to give a map with a course to their favourite athlete, or stop an athlete to visit the competition area with that map. These days athletes can also make highly accurate maps from publicly available Lidar data, and no organiser can stop them visiting the terrain in secret. Even worse, nobody can prove under normal circumstances that this has ever happened.
We can only rely on trust in the ethical standards of organisers and athletes. We have to maintain this trust despite knowing that there is increasing temptation, especially for professional and semi-professional athletes, to do everything possible for better performance that brings in more money through better sponsorship contracts.
Despite the cardinal importance of this trust in Fair Play, there was little attention paid to the nature of this trust within orienteering circles. It is taken for granted and no effort was made to understand the way it works in an environment where we can only trust in trust.
For lack of time (rather than lack of interest) to write a PhD thesis on this topic, I would like to call attention to three aspects of this trust at individual level. Trust of this kind is a very complex phenomena, but I hope that calling attention to it, orienteers will start to think a bit deeper about the way it works.
The three aspects discussed below are – trust as a key tribal identity attribute for orienteers; – the way affective and cognitive trust works, and; – the imperative for our tribe to dismiss any doubt about this trust.
These points may help to understand why this trust evaporates quickly in relationship to China and remains unshaken in relationship to Switzerland, irrespective how things may look for an outsider to orienteering.
Good work takes time. Especially when the topic is as important as Fair Play.
The latest Council Minutes #204 suggests that the Council is busy working on the topic in three working groups (educational tool, guidelines, and rules/sanctions). Little specifics were revealed for the general public, but that is fully understandable considering that the issue of Fair Play was raised only 14 months earlier due to the Unfortunate Events in China in October 2019. It took a full year to accept the remit of the Fair Play Working Group in November 2020 (Minutes #203).
In this post I would like to make a modest contribution to the effort of the Guidelines Sub-Working Group led by the President of the IOF himself. One may argue that this is the most important group, because many Fair Play situations are special, and thus we will have to rely on core principles to judge them.
I have to stress that we shall also fully accept the Council’s position that “In eagerness to make everything 100% fair, there was a risk to make it too complicated, there needs to be a balance.”, but I believe that there are three areas where there should be as little compromise as possible:
The case of EOC 2021 is interesting, because some myopic purists may point out that all the course setters listed in Bulletin #2 are associated with the Swiss Team as siblings, coaches, or team mates.
These associations may raise questions around Fair Play for the ones who do not see the big picture. I would like to show that the selection of course setters for EOC 2021 is a demonstration how true Fair Play works in practice, and why there should be no question around the Fair Play credentials of the Swiss organisers and the Swiss Team.
A similar setup may raise eyebrows on an event in China, but that is rightly so. A large, traditional orienteering nation with several thousand years of experience in navigation shall be treated differently by the IOF than a small landlocked nation trying to develop the sport in an inhospitable mountainous environment.
Protecting the innocent athlete
Protecting the innocent athlete should always be a core principle of Fair Play.
Obviously, it would be unfair to disadvantage somebody by not letting them start on EOC 2021 just because their coach, brother, or 21 year old sister is the best course setter in Switzerland. They could be the only ones who understand international requirements in this small orienteering nation, and thus obviously they were requested to set the courses for EOC 2021.
This is in line with previous situations related to Fair Play. The IOF’s position was clear: no innocent athlete should be disadvantaged just because they were shown the way by a compatriote, because they made a map before of the area of WOC Sprint Final, or because the World Champion was running in front of them for 70 minutes on the WOC Long course.
Similarly, innocent volunteers, the unsung heroes of our sport should not be disadvantaged either just because they take on extra jobs. The best course setters should not be excluded just because their brothers are in the national team, or just because they contribute to the sport also through training athletes in the national team.
Everybody has to understand that in a small isolated nation there are few potential course setters with international experience. China with its vast resources can afford to import organisers from Europe. But in the middle of Europe, the resources of a federation are not comparable to that of China. Compromises are unavoidable when selecting from the few who have any idea of international course setting standards, especially in a poor pedestrian discipline where athletes cannot afford even a pair of cross-country skis or a bicycle.
Creating a level playing field
It is important also to consider the objectives of Fair Play at a higher level, not just narrowed down to a single event. It is all about creating a level playing field.
We know that there is always an element of home nation advantage in orienteering due to familiarity with local terrains. There are also variations in map making and course setting styles across nations, and obviously local athletes are used to their own national style. Course setters who know certain athletes very well may be even subconsciously influenced in their work, and thus avoid situations that could disadvantage the athletes they know.
But there are other types of advantages that come from athletes growing up in environment with deep orienteering traditions and large resources available to them. A possible higher objective of Fair Play is to balance out these inequalities amongst athletes.
One may argue that home country advantage should be suppressed for large, traditional orienteering nations like China, who used maps for over 2500 years and invented the compass. For example, using foreign map makers and course setters is a way to ensure that home country advantage is limited for the powerhouses of orienteering like China.
For small and isolated nations there is no need to introduce these type of restrictions. Home country advantage is part of the game like on EOC 2021 to ensure that local athletes have a chance to achieve meaningful results against the giants in our sport.
Safeguarding the future of our sport
Finally, it should be stressed that safeguarding the future of our sport should always be a key objective also for Fair Play considerations.
We shall remind ourselves, that in these difficult days safeguarding the future is closely related to taking care of our sponsors. Nothing serves a sponsor better than a home success of a small nation. Hence, anything that is not explicitly forbidden may be considered Fair Play to ensure that small nations get that extra chance to please their sponsors.
Any artificial limitation in the name of Fair Play on small nation organisers with big sponsors may have negative consequences. That should be avoided at all cost for the benefit of our sport and the IOF.
We shall follow closely the work of the Council’s Fair Play Working Group.
Will they look into the ‘whys’ or will they limit themselves to the ‘hows’ when it comes to Fair Play violations?
Will they ever consider why some experienced organisers see no issues following questionable practices that they would not accept if it were done by others?
Will there be a two tier Fair Play system where there are usual suspects and permanent members of the Club?
Unfortunately, so far the Council’s work looks similar to a battlefield triage, where one desperately tries to deploy limited resources with highest impact. The cases that cannot be treated and the cases that can wait are ignored, and nobody questions the reason for the war.
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.
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.
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.
Today the IOF has announced the preparation for the first Unofficial World eOrienteering Championships later in 2020. It is unclear though what, when, and how will be organised. The objective is urgent control over the evolving eOrienteering landscape as stated in the Council minutes. It is a late wake up call to deal with something that has been around for years, but now it is so urgent that the Council decided even to violate the IOF’s Statutes with pushing through a unlawfully late proposal on the inclusion of eSports.
Yet, the question “who benefits” from this panicky rush has no clear answer.
Virtual orienteering is nothing new
Virtual orienteering has been around for many years, though it has started to boom only this year due to the limitations on real life events.
The Council has ignored for years the highly visible emergence of eSports until this month. The sudden rush may remind one of the symptoms of narcolepsy when patients wake up suddenly from deep sleep and feel disorientated.
The IOF has launched a Fair Play survey asking for assistance from the global orienteering community in getting answers to a number of questions about Fair Play. The IOF’s intention is to summarize the results on the first week of February, so please complete the survey asap if you have not done it yet.
The Council meeting minutes #197 says that “TH reported on the work that had been initiated on a project to create a values-based education tool around topics of Fair-play, and to connect this via a certification to the IOF Athletes License”. An interesting idea that suggests that sitting through a multiple choice test may become part of the IOF Athletes License process. It is unclear though if the intention is a pass/fail test, or some sort of an “educational” test where athletes have to keep clicking until they find the right answer.
This broad based survey is a very interesting initiative, but as often with IOF initiatives, it raises a large number of questions looking for answers. Let’s look into some of the most interesting ones.
First, it is unclear what is the objective of the “survey”. Is it about to understand if there is any divergence between attitudes to Fair Play in the community, and IOF rules on Fair Play, for example around coaching zones? Or is it about to put extra weight within the educational tool on areas where opinions may diverge from the IOF Rules? The questions repeatedly ask “How severely do the following impact fair play within orienteering?”, but that does not reveal if the survey is looking for “emerging views” or “educational gaps”. If there is a survey in a convent about the appropriateness of reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it is unclear if the intention is to buy a copy for the library, or to try to determine how much additional educational help is required to straighten the minds of the residents.
Second, the lead-in question (as shown above) asks about the inclusiveness of orienteering. This is a tricky one on multiple dimensions. It is rather unclear if it was thought through. After the events in China some people asked fairly explicitly on discussion forums whether there was a racial bias when the highly unexpected results of the Chinese athletes were questioned. This was a surprising question about racial bias, one that I have never ever seen in orienteering before. Yet, my experience after many more years of orienteering than I would like to admit, that the answer is rather simple, even if it is not very obvious.
We shall answer this question with pride: orienteering is not very inclusive. It does not welcome all types of athletes.
Orienteering welcomes athletes from all around the World*, but athletes who cheat or do not follow fair play practices are disdained.
* independent of race, color, gender, national origin, age, religion, creed, disability, military status, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression (for the avoidance of doubt)
It should be noted, that from the early days of sport, well before orienteering existed, the concept of Fair Play was developed by sporting communities to protect athletes and substitute written rules. The stronger the community, the stronger the Fair Play culture is. The stronger the community, the less inclusive it is. Fair Play is not about accepting the individual by the community, but it is about the individual accepting the rules of the community to get included. Sorry, Fair Play is not a PC concept.
But there is even a much deeper problem with the educational tool approach hinted by this survey and the suggestion in the IOF Council minutes. There was not a hint in the minutes that deeper analysis was done by the Council to try to understand the root causes of the events in China. It all appears to be a desperate reaction to demonstrate that something is being done.
The IOF appears to be working on a solution without making sure that they got the right question. Testing athletes on the knowledge of the Rules and their interpretation is not a cure for the deterioration of a community driven Fair Play culture.
Unfortunately, pushing for an educational tool without understanding the essence of the problem feels a bit like sweeping the core problem under the carpet by stopping inconvenient question because “something is being done”. This approach is not dissimilar to delegating the specific issues that popped up in China to the Ethics Panel. Delegation has ensured that for months, or maybe for years, the IOF leadership does not have to answer any question on the topic, because “there is an ongoing investigation”. The January Council minutes linked above show that the Ethics Panel apparently did not event report back on the task given in October 2019 when“Council referred to the IOF Ethics Panel to consider if sanctions could be applied to individual athletes, team officials and organising officials participating in the CISM event for future IOF activities” (Council minutes #196). Mind you, the CISM case with the on-event decision to disqualify the Chinese team was the much more simple one compared to the situation on the World Cup. We may have to wait a long time before we get any results.
The core of the problem around Fair Play in orienteering appears to be much deeper. One may argue that currently the strongest single force working against Fair Play may be the post-Leibnitz strategy of the IOF. The Leibnitz convention, as discussed earlier in my post about IOF Event Quality, was the starting point for the IOF to move away from the “we for us” mentality of organising events, and to start to serve the needs of the media. Leibnitz was the official starting gun for the beginning of the commercialization of orienteering. Nothing undermines more a community based Fair Play culture than the commercialization of the sport and Olympic inclusion. The higher the stakes, the more money involved (both nationally and internationally), the weaker the community spirit becomes, and the stronger is the incentive to break the written and unwritten rules of Fair Play.
No misunderstanding, there is nothing wrong with commercializing a sport, trying to simplify it so that it becomes consumable for the average TV viewer, and trying to move it into the realm of proshow. But there are consequences.
I am afraid there is a need for a much, much more detailed discussion around Fair Play in orienteering than a limited questionnaire about attitudes. Without asking inconvenient questions first, it is not possible to come up with the right solution.
I will look into more questions around Fair Play in orienteering in my next post.
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.
I wanted to write a post reflecting on the events in China two months ago. I guess everybody remotely interested in orienteering have heard about the events, both the serious violation of fair play rules on the CISM World Military Games, as well as the major quality issues and their consequences on the Middle, and the unbelievable results of the Sprint during last round of the FootO World Cup.
While working on my post I had to realize that the questions facing international orienteering related to the events in China are so complex and multifaceted that they cannot be jammed into a single post. So here I just touch on each and every aspect, but intend to devote separate posts to each of them over the next couple of weeks. The topics are ranging from IOF event quality to the IOF controlling system; from the respect of the athletes’ view to athletes’ trust in the system, and the role of the Ethics Panel that was left holding the baby; and from strategic relationship with China to the limits to growth of international orienteering.
The overall situation is similar to poorly managed companies that face a breakdown after embarking on ambitious expansion plans. I worked with some of these in my professional career, and believe me, it is not fun to see them breaking down soon after they start to feel happy about their prospects. The issues swept under the carpet by management for years stay under the carpet until the strain of increased demand on the organisation exposes them. Such management is often baffled by the apparently sudden breakdown of the organisation. They had no problems exposed for years, and suddenly everything blows up in their face. Yet, they seldom admit that all those problems were there under the carpet all the time, just nobody cared to address them.
On a positive note, the IOF strategy to raise the profile of orienteering through large multi-sport events (CISM, Universiade, World Games etc) is working. Orienteering was mentioned even on Fox News, currently the most influential US news channel, and featured in a large number of publications worldwide from the Guardian in the UK to the Bangkok Post. I guess this is how PR success looks like.