2021 Worlds Strange Days


Premeditated Murder or Suicide?

Sorry for the personal note: after having organized everything in International Athletics in the previous 20 years, including lately Olympic Games, I have spent the last 20 years of my sporting career working on bids, mostly for the Olympic Games.

I have learned a lot thanks to Gilbert Felli, the historical IOC Olympic Games Executive Director, and I have adapted some of those principles set by the IOC inside the Organizational Manual that more than 10 years ago I edited for the European Athletics Association. Those principles set up there, very similar to the one used by the IOC, have proven the seriousness of European Athletics in its process of bidding and organizing events.

So now I feel myself a little bit confused on how the IAAF is handling the organization and the awarding of its World Championships. I ask myself: should I cancel everything I have learned and should I adapt my brain to a new logic? This is now a very difficult question for me not only because of my age…

But let us start with:

The Organization

I already commented about it in my recent article “Sergey BUBKA and Sebastian COE: who will be the new IAAF President?” but I think it is necessary to repeat it.

The IAAF before 1983 has never organized a World Championship. For Athletics until then the World Championships were the Olympic Games. Due to this the IOC was recognizing to the IAAF 20% of the Olympic Television rights. I think the maximum the IAAF received was around 200.000$ because the Olympic TV rights were around one million dollar. If that rule would be in place now the IAAF should receive more than 400 million dollars!

Then in 1978 thanks to Aadrian Paulen the IAAF decided to introduce its World Championships, which were awarded in a record time to Helsinki. At that point the IAAF philosophy became the Robin Hood philosophy: to steal to the rich in order to help the poor. Nobody was more capable to do that than Primo Nebiolo, who implemented the World Championships from 1983 on.

Thanks to the greater resources coming from the World Championships (television and sponsorship) all other minor athletics events were properly financed. The World Championships themselves were benefitting greatly: each organizer received an organizing grant that, in 1993, reached the amount of 7 million dollars; furthermore the IAAF was paying for travelling and accommodation of the teams and through the EBU contract (or in case of events in the another continent) had the TV production paid by the Host Broadcaster. But not only that, it was also possible to launch a Development Program - budgeted at 20 million a year - which since then has allowed all countries to receive a great benefit in different areas and also get travel and accommodation paid for all athletes taking part at the different IAAF events.

At that time the fight to achieve a World Championship started to grow and Nebiolo - applying something that he had done in FISU with the Universiade - opened the possibility to make specific offers to the IAAF by organizers. Due to that the organizational grant was cancelled. However the IAAF still continued guarantying the organizers with TV production (through its TV contract), and the cost of participation/accommodation of teams. Plus when they were introduced the IAAF was providing directly resources for the so called Prize Money (about 7 million dollars).

It has to be remembered that as far as the Universiade was concerned in exchange of the grant received by the Organizers (that in most of the cases it was a Public Institution), FISU was letting all commercial rights (television and sponsor) to the organizers themselves. This is not the case of the IAAF who keeps for itself all commercial rights, asking the LOC to pay a fee to their consulting agency in case of releasing some space to National Sponsors.

But you know the saying “appetite comes with eating” and slowly Nebiolo - making a mistake - started to exploit organizers who were just eager to have the Championships. This mistake was not felt at that time because most economies were blooming and so Gothenburg was the last one financially supported by the IAAF. After that we had Athens, Seville, Edmonton, Paris, Helsinki (again after the London renounce), Osaka, Berlin, Daegu, Moscow and now Beijing. Each of them had a story behind, not always very clear and transparent.

On the way to each attempt, like in the High Jump (or Pole Vault if you prefer) the bar was raised and so organizers were asked on one hand to forget about the IAAF grant, and on the other to offer more. So the IAAF started to put on shoulder of the Organizers the payment of the travelling of all officiating persons, of the athletes and officials, their accommodation, the prize money (with some fiscal problems for those countries where the tax men exist), the TV production etc…Luckily the WCH never come back to Rome otherwise we should have needed to offer maybe a piece of the Coliseum!

Now on the last bid when Doha was awarded the 2019 Championships the IAAF introduced a new concept: who offers more? Like in a public auction. Consequently since then the bar of the World Championships reached a height of 100 million dollars, plus any additional benefit. As I wrote in a previous article it has still to be proven that the offer given by Doha will be a real advantage for IAAF, who has to count on a decrease of the EBU contract due to the date chosen (being very late in the season).

The IAAF attitude is totally the opposite chosen by the IOC in the last years and more with the Agenda 2020. The IOC provides 2 billions (…billions not millions) to the Olympic Organizers, pays for travel and accommodation of officials and athletes taking part and for the TV production. Furthermore the IOC, who keeps only 8 % of the Olympic Games income for itself, is distributing to NOC and Ifs. Now the IOC even pays the cost of the bidding cities in 4 different occasions (travel and accommodation for 6 persons).

With the system put in place by the IAAF who is able to bid in the future? Are the today’s economical situations such as to allow this crazy approach? And it should not be forgotten what I wrote on my previous article that “in the audit report of the IAAF for the end of 2012, the reserves were listed at $ 89,229,998 US” which means that by the end of 2015 will surely arrive close to 100 million.

The Bidding

The IAAF similar to the IOC has put in place the same system for bidding, with all the different necessary steps and probably due to its very professional structure and its larger financial resources even better than European Athletics.

But I do not know why all these very serious procedures then fall into the paper bin when the time to decide comes. What has happened with the 2019 World Championships given to Doha is well known. The IAAF was stating in their documents that the preferred dates for the Championships are in the months of July/August and then they have awarded the Championships, in exchange of some millions of dollars, to take place in October, when in all different continents and in all televisions Athletics is prohibitive due to the professional sport leagues clashes, without talking about the athletes who will have to keep the top form for extra two months.

Later I will say what I would have done instead. I know that it is easy to criticize, but I also know that proposals for solutions are needed.

What has happened in the case of 2021 will not find any specific explanation in any present or future bidding document. It is a masterpiece by itself. Already in Monte Carlo in November - the day after the decision for 2019 was made - there was a tentative re-convey by an IAAF Council Member to the IAAF Council to decide also on 2021 in favor of Eugene beaten by Doha. It was refused. However even being against the rules this could have been accepted, also because it happened in the past to award two venues at the same time even if the bidding process was not yet opened.

Who can deny the fact that the USA and Eugene should finally have the World Championships? Nobody, because the contribution that US Athletics has given to the IAAF in its history is such that they are for sure worth it. Also Eugene, even though being a small city, thanks to his athletics tradition, is surely worth it. But why to embarrass them in this way?

What is surprising of this case is that on the official Agenda of the IAAF Council in Beijing last week the point referring to the 2021 WCH was not included. Only 3 days before the Council received a new Agenda where the point “WCH 2021” was hidden. But what is even worse is that the IAAF President (and the General Secretary) had received 2 letters by the Gothenburg, the last one in November 2014, signed by the President of the Swedish Federation and the Lord Mayor of Gothenburg, before the Council decision on the 2019 Championships, willing to bid for that year due to the fact that the city will celebrate their 400 years in that year. Furthermore the President of the IAAF in two occasions had formally met the delegates of the City of Gothenburg, once in Gothenburg itself in 2013 and then in March 2014 during the World Indoor Championships in Sopot. So the wish of the Swedish Member Federation and of the City were substantially and formally known to the IAAF.

In spite of all these to make things even worse IAAF invited at its last Council meeting in Beijing leader of Eugene bid to reply to Council question, but only after the decision was taken ! Nor the EBU was informed in spite of the fact that the existing contract between the EBU and the IAAF clearly state that action. This will now authorize EBU to reduce even more their contract. And it is not difficult to think that from 80 million it will go further down (40), having now two Championships one in a date which is not suitable to broadcaster and the other one 9 hours away of CET. It is to be remembered that the EBU contract with IAAF was at the end of the 90ies over 120 million plus production cost!

The IAAF through statement of its President did justify this decision as “unique strategic opportunity to be seized” . He said this waving the NBC flags, without having any proper substantial agreement. Will this means that in Beijing 2015 , in London 2017 , in Doha 2019 and then in Eugene 2021 NBC will transmit the WCH live on its Network ? Or the IAAF will continue to see their best event, the WCH, transmitted on Universal Sport web site with very law audience ? Without mentioning that Beijing 2015 , Doha 2019 and Eugene 2021 will continue to mark a decrease on their respective audience in the biggest and more lucrative TV Market (Europe) due to dates and disadvantaged timing.

Somebody, very ingenuous, would request at this point: but why did the IAAF Council accept this procedure, without saying anything ? You know what will happen in 4 months time? Only the IAAF election! And most of them were under one’s thumb.

Allow me to say that if I would be the Swedish Federation I would appeal to the Tribunal Arbitral du Sport in Lausanne, requesting that the IAAF decision to award the WCH to Eugene in the way it happened, should be considered as void/invalid. Anticipating that if this appeal would be accepted they will not bid for 2021 and will leave the IAAF to decide to go to Eugene. It would be for the IAAF a well deserved humiliation, like the one offered by the Sabin to the Roman after having defeated them (we are talking of 321 b.c.) when they forced the Romans to pass through the Caudine Forks.

What a lesson of style would this be! But the Swedish are too correct to do something like that and it is a pity, as IAAF would need this. What will be the credibility of the IAAF in Sweden for long time is to be imagined.

Which should have been the solution?

The practical solution should have been this, and it still is feasible. Open a discussion within the IAAF well in advance and question if it is suitable to have the Championships in Doha climate and in October, remembering that the 2020 Olympics are 10 months away and that the IAAF has also the World Indoor in the same year.

The reply, in the interest of Athletics, would have been very clear: no, it is not possible. But the question remains: can you refuse the offer of Doha? No. So, like in the legendary movie of “Chariots of Fire”, when Liddell was offered to run the 400m because the 100m final was on Sunday, the IAAF should have offered to Doha some alternative events. Another World Indoor, a permanent venue for the Relays WCH, the Continental Cup or even all of them?

This would be quite easy to explain to the Qatari officials supported by two facts: a) the IOC has already refused 2 times to consider their bid for the Summer Olympics in Doha due to the climate and has never accepted a different date than July/August and b) in spite of all the good will that the Qatari Federation has shown towards Athletics, for them it is still impossible to run their own National Championships due to the lack of domestic athletes, even though the fact of running a National Championships is a basic requirement for any Member Federation.

In this case it would allow the IAAF to award the 2019 Championships to Eugene and to accept the 2021 Candidature of Gothenburg. This would also make the IAAF main partner EBU satisfied. But do you need to be a genius to think about this solution? Not surely, then there is something else behind that we do not know officially but that we can imagine.

Now today I read on Inside the Games two different statement by the IAAF President “I am not a dictator…..I am a democrat” referring to the 2021 decision. And then talking about Vizer attack to the IOC during the opening of SportAccord he stated that Marius Vizer resembled “a chief or dictator coming from nowhere.” . To me Vizer resemble a typical prototype of the Ifs Presidents, egocentric, egoistic and affected of paranoia for his own sport/organization.

Finally, my feeling is that the actual candidates to the IAAF Presidency have unfortunately not understood the implication and the danger of their recent decisions. And I would like to reiterate that I have nothing against Eugene or the USA, they both are worth to have received this unexpected gift. However the question remains: what will happen afterwards? Who will bid in the future? What about credibility and transparency? Who can financially afford the IAAF system and their requests? Who will trust the system?

Only time will tell us the right answer… for the moment I will have to read again Il Principe of Niccolò Machiavelli (written in 1513 a.c.) and put order in my mind about the word “democracy”.

Luciano Barra

April 2015