SportAccord Was Never Going to Win Any Battles With The IOC – Vizer’s Downfall Explained by Michael Pirrie
June 1, 2015
While the sudden resignation of controversial SportAccord President Marius Vizer following a recent attack on the IOC in Sochi has stunned the sports world, Michael Pirrie, who attended the recent Sochi SportAccord summit in Russia, traces the key developments that led to the downfall of the outspoken critic who had lost the support of world sports leaders.
Early on as the newly elected President of SportAccord, Marius Vizer identified “Visibility” of SportAccord as a key objective. His speech attacking the International Olympic Committee, Olympic Agenda 2020 and on President Thomas Bach himself, certainly achieved that. He had taken Sport Accord’s visibility to record, even viral, levels, but sadly for him and his organisation, it was for all the wrong reasons.
As SportAccord’s “visibility” soared to new heights, it was also simultaneously in a downward spiral – membership dwindled and withered to next to nothing, prompting questions about the future and about the raison d’être of the SportAccord organization itself, and of the man who wanted to make SportAccord a dominant player in the sports world.
The Vizer attack speech and in particular his continuing outbursts prompted an unprecedented boycott of his SportAccord power base by the sports world, especially the Olympic sporting federations (more than 20), and representative sporting bodies and events owners and governing bodies including the IPC and Commonwealth Games Federation, amongst others.
Paradoxically, the very vehicle invented to facilitate the business and future of sport for the federations had only succeeded in driving the Federations away.
The Association of International Olympic Winter Federations (AIOWF) was just one of the key organizations to recently suspend its cooperation “with immediate effect and until further notice.” It joined its stable-mate ASOIF whose President Francesco Ricci Bitti told Vizer, “I urge you politely to refrain from speaking publicly on behalf of the International Federations as they do not feel represented by Sport Accord and more importantly do not agree with the position or views that you have taken.”
Two other hammer blows for Vizer were the cancellation of the Combat Games which was to have been one of the flagship events of Sport Accord – followed by the strong criticism from ANOC that once had seemed like an ally.
In a statement Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, a key power player in the politics of world sport, clearly distanced himself from Vizer. And significantly, also demanded an explanation from Vizer about “how Sport Accord shares its income with the International Sports Federations.”
Later, the Recognized Federations ARISF joined the rush for the exit doors, its President Rafaela Chili expressing his “growing concern and disappointment” with the SportAccord President’s lack of prior consultation with the SportAccord Council. “Furthermore,” he pointed out, “it was gravely noted that no such consultation took place with the ARISF Council.”
And it only worsened for Vizer amid speculation his controversial speech reflected his own personal views, as these views and positions were clearly working against the best interests of SportAccord’s constituent federations.
All this controversy emanating from the same room and same podium used a short time after Vizer at SportAccord by Russia Federation president Vladimir Putin, no doubt hoping to bask again, if even only briefly, in the global Olympic spotlight after the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, the location for the SportAccord convention.
The international chorus of protest over the Vizer attack and doubts it triggered about the future of Sport Accord also may have had serious implications for plans and hopes harboured in the Putin administration to hold future editions of Sport Accord in Moscow, St Petersburg and back in Sochi again to help establish a new base for international sport and influence in Russia, which is feeling increasingly isolated over sanctions imposed by Europe in response to Russia’s opposition to Ukraine’s fight for independence.
Vizer was also feeling increasingly isolated as the non-Olympic sports began to cut ties with SportAccord, including karate, korfball, orienteering and motor racing while badminton had become the 22nd Olympic federation to deregister.
Orienteering even noted: “It was clear at Sochi that many members of SportAccord did not support the approach, in principal or in detail, that you were taking. It was also clear that unlike Agenda 2020, there had been no attempt to consult with federations on the SportAccord stance”
Rather than seizing the day and inspiring the convention in Sochi with a speech outlining a vision to bring the worlds of sport and business closer together to help different sporting bodies and federations to plan, finance and develop their sports, athletes, supporter base, sponsors, and other key stakeholders, Vizer decided instead to attack IOC President Thomas Bach and IOC policies at the opening of the Sport Accord General Assembly.
Weeks later, Vizer’s SportAccord speech and attack on Thomas Bach as IOC President was continuing to dominate discussion in world sporting circles, amid swirling speculation about the possible motives, implications and circumstances surrounding the speech and the future direction and focus of Sport Accord itself.
Russian sports officials supporting and financing the SportAccord Convention and its future in Russia were understood to be concerned by the walkouts and the need to realign and reset relations with the IOC following Vizer’s speech, especially given the need for a high level Olympic presence and participation at SportAccord to draw key high profile delegates, experts, thought and opinion and industry leaders and especially sponsors for a successful SportAccord convention.
Vizer’s attack on the IOC President was so unexpected that it threw the SportAccord Convention into chaos, setting back the crucial task of building bridges, relations, and strategic partnerships and alliances between the different coalitions and networks of sporting bodies, federations and other key stakeholders involved in the business of world sport and doing business in the world of sport.
The world of sport was clearly not in accord, but a state of discord, and as uncertainty surrounding SportAccord continued to grow in wake of Vizer’s controversial comments, pressure was also growing for urgent action to stem the flood of federation resignations, and to resolve the future of SportAccord or to replace it with a new model – or even more likely with a new president.
The scale and impact of the SportAccord boycott and its inevitable outcome had been partly concealed by federations resigning on an individual basis over an extended period, rather than en masse as part of any coordinated or orchestrated protest.
Other Olympic federations that resigned or temporarily suspended membership from the SportAccord Association included Athletics, Boxing, Canoe, Equestrian, Weightlifting, Hockey, Wrestling, Modern Pentathlon, Rugby, Taekwondo, Table Tennis, Archery, Triathlon, Basketball and Volleyball, along with winter Olympic sports such as Bobsleigh, and Curling.
The only key exception was Vizer’s own International Judo Federation, and even here some members were muttering quietly that they had not been consulted and that he was not speaking for them.
It was now easier to count the number of organizations that remained in Sport Accord than those that had left.
This was an alarming situation of for world sport, as the federations involved in the SportAccord walkouts were among the best, biggest and most creative in world sport, and have developed their sports, gold medal winning athletes, revenue streams, fan bases, junior, elite and community competitions and world championships over many decades of hard work, and in association with the Olympic Games and Olympic Movement.
The scale of the exodus reflected a vote of no confidence in Vizer, and while the combined Summer and Winter Associations of Olympic Sporting Federations own 50 per cent of the SportAccord Convention, the exact role and involvement of the Olympic federations at SportAccord in the future was uncertain and unclear, a highly threatening and toxic combination of conditions and circumstances for such a global convention and association as SportAccord.
While a SportAccord-style Convention enables the international sporting federations to engage with the ever widening spectrum of specialist businesses and suppliers involved in world sport, SportAccord itself, to be commercially viable and relevant, truly needs the support and involvement of the Olympic federations and non-Olympic federations with money to host events to attract the high value, big spending exhibitors and delegates, potential host cities, government officials, tourism, hospitality, IT, major event suppliers, infrastructure and venue operators and providers, and especially, the big international sports event owners and governing bodies, and there are none bigger than the Olympic Games and Family.
The federation walkouts were not designed to destroy SportAccord but to highlight an urgent need for SportAccord to review its operations and priorities.
Vizer’s attack on IOC President Bach had puzzled and disappointed world sporting leaders. Especially since Vizer was fully involved in the Olympic Agenda 2020 reform process, taking part in Working Groups and even invited to the top level Olympic Summit, but remained silent, neither offering ideas nor criticism.
And after Bach’s highly successful push for new reforms and processes enabling new sports to win a place on the Olympic sports competition schedule, the goal of just about every sport in the Sport Accord Association – it seems few were now ready to side with Vizer and his supporting base was collapsing and shrinking by the day.
Bach’s own Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms have revived the Olympic Movement, and reversed the growing number of cities withdrawing from the Olympic Games applicant process- triggered by budget concerns in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games – and are attracting top flight cities back to the 2024 Olympic bid, while also reassuring sponsors of the enormous value and returns on investment from commercial associations and partnerships with the Olympic Games.
The self-inflicted damage that Vizer’s attack was causing to the Sport Accord brand, turned the spotlight on leadership from Bach to Vizer himself, raising important questions about the legitimacy of Vizer’s mandate to speak out on behalf of the sporting federations, and SportAccord’s mission, activities, and governance and management, especially in relation to the viability of Vizer’s World Games concept and duplication of Olympic styled services, and bureaucracy in SportAccord.
Meanwhile, amid the controversy and uncertainty of Sportaccord, the business of sport continued to grow and expand in new directions and sectors, providing new business opportunities and investment for sport and the business of sport, crucial to the interests of the federations and SportAccord.
These include the world’s first private equity fund by Massive Capital in London that will focus exclusively on the global sports industry.
The range of different sports being played is also increasing, and sports that were once considered niche are becoming more mainstream and such as skateboarding.
This all clearly demonstrates the need for a well-organized and managed SportAccord-style body to facilitate essential business services and investment opportunities for sport federations with the worldwide growth of sport and related business activity.
The only question that needed urgent answering in the wake of the Vizer crisis was whether SportAccord was the best equipped organisation moving forward to do this?
The Olympic movement has survived world wars, global financial crises, drugs and bribery scandals, and terrorism, and it was always clear that it would survive the attack by Marius Vizer. But could SportAccord – and Vizer – survive without the support of the Olympic Family and Federations.
Vizer ultimately answered that question himself with his own resignation in Shakespearean style and circumstances.
Michael Pirrie is a major events and communications strategist and advisor, who managed international communications and media relations and liaison with the IOC executive office on planning for the London 2012 Olympic Games.