November 18, 2005

Athletes Nervous About More Cuts

Since this summer's Olympic programme debacle, Jacques Rogge has been trying to make it easier to add sports to the summer Olympics. On October 26, the IOC Executive Board met with the IOC Athletes' Commission:

… the Athletes' Commission, chaired by Sergey Bubka, made some recommendations on the way to move forward with the systematic review of the Olympic programme. Proposals were made to allow new sports to be included in the programme upon a simple majority of the IOC Session votes cast - instead of the two-thirds majority currently required, and to increase the minimum number of sports from 15 to 25.

Clearly, the athletes are worried about "shrinkage" of the Olympic games, and it's easy to see why they've made these proposals; under the process followed this summer, removal of a sport required a simple majority, whereas addition of a sport required two-thirds approval. That definitely looks like a recipe for contraction.

To a certain extent, though, the IOC's hands are tied on this issue, and the solution won't be simple. There aren't many details in the news release above, so I can't tell exactly what the Athletes' Commission proposed; I'll assume that the members are familiar with the Olympic Charter, which states that:

  • The IOC establishes the programme of the Olympic Games, which only includes Olympic Sports (Rule 47)
  • The sports governed by the following IFs are considered as Olympic sports [followed by list of 28 summer sport IFs and 7 winter sport IFs] (Rule 46)
  • The admission or exclusion of a sport falls within the competence of the IOC Session. (Rule 47, paragraph 7)
  • Decisions of the Session are taken by a majority of the votes cast; however, a majority of two-thirds of the IOC members attending the Session is required for any modification of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism or the Rules of the Olympic Charter. (Rule 18, paragraph 3)

So according to the rules, there are 28 sports that can be put on the summer Olympic programme without modifying the Olympic Charter — and therefore with a simple majority vote of the IOC members. Of those 28, 26 are already on the 2012 programme. The other two, of course, are softball and baseball. I don't think Rogge is really interested in putting softball and baseball back onto the programme. Nevertheless, anybody else that wants in will need a two-thirds majority, either to modify Rule 47 (which is very unlikely) or to modify Rule 46.

As it stands, things are a little bit unfair, in my opinion. Although I would personally favour baseball and softball over any of the proposed alternatives, the rules of the Charter give them an immense advantage over every other sport that isn't in the Olympics. That advantage is based purely on the fact that they have been in the Olympics before; but on that basis, rugby and golf (and tug-of-war and polo, for that matter) should also be on the list of "Olympic Sports."

One way around this problem would be to remove softball and baseball from Rule 46, giving them the same status as the other non-Olympic sports. Of course, that change to Rule 46 would itself require a two-thirds vote, and since both sports received support from at least 50 delegates at the last IOC Session, I suspect that's not going to happen. It's also not something that Rogge is likely to propose, since he wants to make it easier to add sports to the Olympics, not harder.

The only other solution is to have a number of sports added to the list in Rule 46; say, for starters, Golf, Rugby, Squash, Roller Sports, and Karate. Unfortunately, this is pretty similar to the proposal that the IOC delegates soundly rejected in July, and there's Rogge's dilemma. His best bet is to approach this as a two-step process. First, propose to have all five sports (or some other subset of the recognized group) added to the list of "Olympic sports" in Rule 46. To have any chance of success, Rogge will have to make it clear that the new sports aren't being added to the Olympic programme, and emphasize that they are really only being given the same status as baseball and softball.

Once that's accomplished, Rule 46 will include a list of 33 summer Olympic sports, from which the IOC members can choose up to 28 for each Olympics — by simple majority vote. But as long as I'm handing out free advice to the IOC, I've got a few ideas about how that choice should be made, too.

The process that was followed at this summer's session was deeply flawed, as I wrote when I first heard the details. Putting every sport to an up-or-down vote by the general membership makes the entire decision political — and puts sports at the mercy of some very ill-informed voters. The objective should be to maintain the strength and attractiveness of the sports programme above all else. Think about it this way: when it comes time to choose the host city, do you think that the IOC delegates usually pick the city that will provide the best sporting event, or the city that plays the politics best? Truly, I don't care that much about the host city election; the free vote is more unpredictable and therefore more exciting, and the host city is really just a side show, anyway. The sports programme, however, is the main event, and it should be treated with more care and attention.

The IOC has a detailed set of criteria for evaluating sports on an objective basis; I might quibble with the details, but at least somebody has given it some careful thought. The IOC also has an Olympic Programme Commission, "responsible for reviewing and analysing the programme of sports, disciplines and events … for the Games of the Olympiad and the Olympic Winter Games." Since Jacques Rogge has this ready-made panel of experts at his disposal, why doesn't he ask them to make a recommendation? The Commission's major report this spring was explicitly restricted from doing any such thing. Does that make any sense?

If you ask me (and surprisingly, nobody has, although I've been waiting since April), the IOC Olympic Programme Commission should make a specific recommendation on the composition of the programme, to be presented and either accepted or rejected (by simple majority) at an IOC Session. They should present their reasons for the recommendation — another thing that's missing in the current system — which must be based on the evaluation criteria. That doesn't prevent other suggestions from being brought forward from the floor, although they would have to follow the standard process; but it would allow a small group of experts to make a reasoned argument for their choice, which is a step up from what happened this summer.

When it comes right down to it, though, I don't like Rogge's chances of getting any new sports added to the programme in the near future. The last time the members considered it, they emphatically rejected the idea that karate and squash were worthy Olympic sports. Neither sport garnered anything close to a simple majority, and I don't see that much has changed since then.

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