IOF Event Quality

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.

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Reflections after the events in China

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.

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Adieu, Paris 2024!

There will be no orienteering in Paris on the Olympics in 2024. No surprise there.

The interesting bit is how the IOF leadership (did not) communicate the non-delivery of a key objective of their Goal 2020, a target recommended by the IOF leadership to the General Assembly. It was a “no event”. After the failed Paris 2024 bid the CEO of the World Squash Federation resigned. Even the World Flying Disc Federation started serious soul searching.

According to my psychologist friend, the deep silence around the failure to deliver on a key objective may suggest that either the IOF leadership so strongly believed in success that now they are in complete denial, or that they did not believe at all that it was deliverable, so failure is no news.

Yet, for whatever reason, the situation made me remember the old Russian joke about Napoleon’s admiration of Pravda, the newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party.

paris-2024-olympics-logo

The Olympic ambition

The Olympic ambition is a core component of the IOF’s strategy as discussed before. This is nothing new. According to the research of Heinz Tschudin, the late President of the IOF, the Olympic dream has been around for 75 years. It has preceded even the foundation of the IOF.

What’s new, is that it has become the Main Goal of the IOF, and not only at a conceptual level. Not only did the Vice President show the door to IOF activists who did not believe in the Olympic Dream before a discussion on IOF strategy in 2017, but very specific targets pop up in IOF documents, like in Goal 2020 – proposed by the IOF leadership to the General Assembly in October 2018 (and duly approved by the GA, as usual).

iof strategic directions 2018-2022

IOF ambition - Paris 2024

 

So what happened?

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75 years chasing Olympic Glory

The biennial General Assembly of the IOF takes place this weekend in Prague. Whoever attended these events before, or at least heard eyewitness reports, knows that it is very unlikely that anything unexpected would happen. There could be a handful of Member Federations who may try to throw a pebble into the quiet pond, but those attempts typically get attenuated by the quiet passivity of the majority, or by the deflecting tactics of the IOF Leadership. It is very, very unlikely that serious debate would take place on the General Assembly around questions of financials or anti-doping activity, no matter how much delegates may gossip about those questions over a beer or two.

I still hope though, that a Member Federation, or the IOF Leadership themselves may raise their voice to correct a very unfortunate oversight in the Strategic Directions and Focus Areas for the Congress Period 2018-2020 regarding the Olympic Ambition as quoted below (original in is in the Congress Binder):

AMBITION: TO BE INCLUDED IN THE OLYMPIC AND PARALYMPIC GAMES
Goal 2020:
✓ Inclusion as an optional sport for the Olympic Games in Paris 2024,
✓ Inclusion as an optional sport to Youth Olympic Games 2022 (FootO) and 2024 (SkiO)
✓ Be elected or appointed to a position in one of our stakeholder organisations

So far this is part of the usual General Assembly process that got established over the past two decades or so. The Council includes “Olympic Ambition” in the strategic plan. The General Assembly approves everything proposed by the Council with no modification. And from then on, the IOF leadership pushes the Olympic Dream, because “we have no choice; that is the mandate given by the GA; we cannot modify it; etc, etc.”

Funnily, this moral stance of  fully respecting General Assembly decisions is not observed when the President and the Council regularly modify the approved budget, even within 2 months of its approval. But that is another story.

The point of this post is to call attention to the following oversight in the 2018-2020 plan:

2019 marks the 75th year anniversary of the endeavour to include orienteering in the Olympic Games. The first negotiations with the IOC on orienteering began back in 1944, even though the IOF was not established until 1961.

This somewhat surprising, but nevertheless heartwarming information comes from the article of Heinz Tschudin, the late President of the IOF. In 1992 he published an article in Orienteering World titled Orienteering and the Olympics. I could not get a copy of the original, but here you can read a reprint published in Orienteering Canada in 1992.

Orienteering and the Olympics (1of2) - OrienteeringCanada_Newsletter_1992_Vol20_No2_FallOrienteering and the Olympics (2of2) - OrienteeringCanada_Newsletter_1992_Vol20_No2_Fall

It would be really interesting to see more information on this fact unearthed by Heinz Tschudin. It does sound strange at first sight, as we know that in 1944 majority of Europe was somewhat distracted from discussing future Olympic programmes. Yet, if we consider that in 1944 Sigfrid Edström, a Swede was the acting president of the IOC, and that SOFT, the Swedish Orienteering Federation, was already founded 1938, the story starts to look plausible. It would be fascinating to see more details on this either from the notes left by Heinz, or from the the SOFT or IOC archives.

This 26 year old article of Heinz provides superb insights into the process of trying to get  orienteering into the Olympics. I will discuss those under separate cover. Yet, I would like to call your attention to the point Heinz made about the core question he faced when tried to negotiate with the organisers of the 1982 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary:

How much money will you bring in?

36(!) years passed, but the IOF Leadership has not even tried to answer this core question that is required just to start the discussion about getting on the Olympic programme. Without a solid financial basis all the talk about Olympic Ambitions feels rather empty.

But now let’s focus on the many unique opportunities offered by this 75th anniversary, as listed below. It would be a major mistake not to use this occasion for the promotion of orienteering and the IOF’s Olympic Ambition.

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World Orienteering Day – fewer organisers in 2018

This was a busy summer. I had no time to write proper posts. I had to help more than expected to organise the European and World Masters MTBO Championship, went to the World MTBO Championship, and also spent lots of time mapping and then organising the Isle of Man Orienteering Championships (and even done some proper work on the side).

Now it is time to get back to this blog, as there is a long list of topics waiting to be published from concluding the WOD quatrology to a more in-depth look into the history of the IOF Leadership’s Olympic ambitions.

*  –  *  –  *

The announcement on the IOF website on the final numbers of the World Orienteering Day is rather subdued compared to in previous years. Not only the “World record” focused communication is gone, but there was little celebration compared to previous years. For good reasons.

The overblown targets of 500,000 participants on 5000 events in 100 countries set by the IOF leadership were missed by a wide margin from 19% to a whopping 56%. In 2018 over seven days there were even fewer events organised than in 2017 on a single day!

The Council, unsurprisingly, did not flinch in the face of defeat. There is no hint in the Council minutes #189 and #190 that they tried to understand the reasons for missing their own targets by a wide margin, figure out why organisers were not interested in WOD activities, or alter their approach other than setting the 500,000 target now for 2020 in the strategic directions (see the congress binder). As a reminder, “Let’s reach together half a million participants during WOD in 2017!” was the call of Leho for a single day event. We could get nowhere near even over a week in 2018.

One may even get the feeling as if IOF volunteers are expected to behave like Boxer, the  hardworking naive horse, who would never question the direction set by Napoleon, but believes that any problem can be solved if he works harder. In the meantime, the numbers suggest that there is a yawning gap between reality and the ambitions of the IOF leadership.

WOD countries -3

WOD events -3

WOD participants -3

WOD by country

The targets were missed by a wide margin. Even these numbers are hinging primarily on Turkey that delivered almost quarter of all participants, just a little bit less than the next three countries, Norway, Russia and Sweden combined. Unfortunately, Turkey does not have the orienteering traditions that could make these impressive numbers sustainable without strong central will. If Turkish organisers lose interest, WOD numbers will collapse.

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Our leaders are the finest men

This post is not another one about the ethics of the IOF, but about elections. The title comes from a classic American protest song of the 1960s by Tom Paxton.

Many, many moons ago, in high school, my English teacher used American protest songs to liven up his classes and to make us learn more than just proper grammar. His unorthodox methods eventually earned him even a CBE, but that is another story. These days when I think about the IOF I often recall Tom Paxton’s song about how children are taught to avoid questioning the status quo.

Tom Paxton saw the stability of the US political system a hindrance to progress and accountability. The stability built into the IOF governance system may well be a hindrance to the development and accountability in orienteering.

I learned our government must be strong
It’s always right and never wrong
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again

You can find the original here on Youtube.

It seems that the current IOF governance system is a key component of the issues around the federation. The checks and balances that are supposed to ensure that the Council works for the general good in practice do not really work.

These include, but not limited to the following:

  • There is no control over the Council between the General Assemblies (i.e. on 729 days out of 730), thus the President and Council does what they want, including modifying GA decisions at will (the most obvious is the modification of the budget only months after approval – here and here )
  • There are no consequences for giving information to the General Assembly that may raise serious questions around its reliability (the 2016 financial status is probably the best documented one here)
  • There are no accountability for actions (or in some cases inactions) that could raise serious ethical questions in a more disciplined environment. (see here a few examples)

The contested elections would provide the ultimate checks and balances, but in practice they do not exist. Just the opposite: the IOF election system provides the stability for the Council to stay in place. There is stability derived from the low number of candidates, from the system, and the culture of Council itself.

Stability in the numbers

On paper the General Assembly elects the President and the Council, but in practice they have little choice. A few charts speak better that thousand words:

IOF Presidential election 2000-16

I do not have hard data from previous years, but nobody I spoke to could remember another occasion other than 2012 since 1961 (28 elections altogether) when the election of the president was contested.  Sorry to say, but President Putin and President Erdoğan have to face much more competition in their quest to retain their position. It seems that IOF Presidents stay in position unchallenged until they want.

The number of candidates for Council positions is not much higher. In fact, the total choice offered over the last 9 elections is remarkably similar: 10 for 9 for president (11% extra) and 93 for 82 (13% extra to choose from) for Council positions.

IOF Council election 2000-16

(for simplicity I combined the number of candidates for vice president and council member, though they are elected separately)

The number of people actually facing election is far less due to low number of candidates and set quotas (at least 2 of each gender and at least 2 from outside Europe). In 2016 three people were “elected” with no competition. In 2014 the whole Council, all the eleven people, took their position with the General Assembly given the possibility other than to applaud them.

Funnily enough, the Council’s trump card in any discussion when they face arguments from the experts of support and discipline commissions is that they are the “elected body” to make decisions for the sport. Yes, elected for the lack of choice.

Continue reading “Our leaders are the finest men”

IOF Finances presentation

Next weekend, on 19-20 January, the IOF Council and the Commissions are meeting in Warsaw for the regular annual IOF joint meeting. The short common program contains an interesting topic: IOF Finances.

 

IOF meeting Jan 2018

This is a most interesting development for several reasons. The IOF leadership was not particularly interested in talking about finances before. They did not present anything even on the Presidents’ Conference in July 2017. Despite the IOF finances being on a knife edge the leadership just sent a letter to members July 2017 a week later to explain that they were handling financial issues since october 2016. It makes you wonder what happened that now they decided to talk about finances.

What makes it even more interesting is that the audience of this joint meeting has little to do with finances. There will be 60 or so participants invited to discuss commission matters and meet the Council for half a day. The participants are delegated to different commissions who have rather technical mandates from discipline development through mapping standards to environmental protection. They are not representing member federations. Few of the participants have relevant business background to understand finances.

In financially distressed companies management typically starts to talk about finances to technical people when they see the possibility of a financial meltdown right around the corner. We have to follow these developments closely. I will share with you any information I receive as soon as they become available.