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).
Interestingly, the participants of the High Level Event Seminar got a glimpse into the ongoing work that you can watch on Youtube. So far everything appears to be in line with international best practice to handle difficult situations.
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:
- Protecting the innocent athlete (and volunteers)
- Creating a level playing field
- Safeguarding the future of our sport
Let me show through the example of the 2021 European Championship and Round 1 of World Cup, a real life example, how these principles can ensure fairness at a new level in our beloved sport.
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.