April 30, 2005

Jacques Rogge: Suddenly, Not So Popular

I know, I said I wasn't going to write any more about the summer Olympic programme. But it's too damn tempting!

For those of you who haven't been following along, way back on April 6 I expressed mild outrage that IOC president Jacques Rogge was planning to put each of the 28 summer Olympic sports to a simple majority vote, one at a time. I followed that up with a critique of the sport evaluation criteria.

On April 18 the international federations (IFs) for the 28 sports were publicly expressing their satisfaction with president Rogge after he reassured them that no sports would be cut from the program; although as I noted his exact statement offered no committment whatsoever. At the same time it seemed that Rogge was wavering on his plan to put the sports to a vote, but that issue was resolved at the IOC Executive Board meeting.

As the reality of the situation sinks in, the IFs are starting to make some noise about this issue, and it isn't pleasant. The Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), which represents all 28 sports in the games, has scheduled a general assembly for June.

Some of the IF heads have let the press know that they are unhappy, although from what I have seen so far they are "preferring to remain anonymous." A petition protesting the plan has been circulated, and rumour has it that 12 IFs have signed it. One of the anonymous presidents made the following comment, which is quite similar to my original reaction:

Now he [Rogge] wants us to be like 28 bidding cities, lobbying IOC members to get their vote.

Another summed up the plan in an equally blunt fashion:

Basically Rogge and the IOC's executive board have decided there is no sports programme for the 2012 Games until the IOC votes in sports [at the session] in Singapore.

It remains to be seen how serious this is going to get, and whether the IFs have any real power here; some journalists are calling this a "crisis" for Rogge, but I don't know. I agree that this is a stupid way to go about setting the 2012 programme, but it seems to me that Rogge is holding most of the cards here.

Kenyan Leader Labels Losers

When the COC sits down to write a public assessment (for example) of how Canada did at an Olympic games, they usually try to take the sunniest view possible. Where Canadian athletes did poorly, the COC just sticks to the facts and statistics of the matter. There is an implicit assumption that the athletes did the best that they could at the time.

Not so, apparently, in Kenya, where the government this week received a report that accused some athletes of malingering, giving up, and competing only for financial gain.

We Wuz Robbed (Who Knew?)

According to the CBC, the IIHF will hold a special ceremony later this year to honour the 1964 Canadian Olympic ice hockey team.

If you're like most Canadian hockey fans (including me) you might be asking yourself what's so special about the 1964 team. It turns out that in Innsbruck — the first time Canada sent a national select team instead of a club side — the 5-2 Canadian team was relegated to fourth place after a last-minute change to the agreed-upon tie-breaking formula. The unorthodox rule change was initiated by John Francis "Bunny" Ahearn (an Irishman).

In 1964, the historical dominance by Canada in ice hockey was nearing its end; the national team came back to take the bronze medal in 1968 in Grenoble, and then was shut out of the medals until 1992.

April 29, 2005

Athletes and the (Aussie) Taxman

This story reports that Australian javelin thrower Joanna Stone is going to have to pay more income tax than she wanted to:

In the 1999 tax year, Stone received prizemoney of $93,429, grants from the [Australian Olympic Committee] and the Queensland Academy of Sport worth $27,900, sponsorships worth about $12,500 and $2700 in appearance fees. The tax office claimed the entire $136,448 was taxable, while Stone thought only the sponsorship was assessable income.

My first thought when I read this was: holy crap, a javelin thrower earned $130,000!? And her international record, while very good, was nothing to compare to the best of Australia's best. She was second-ranked in the world in 1997, and fourth in 1998. She won a silver medal at the World Championships in 1997.

According to the story, the Australian court ruled that Stone's athletic career was a business because she accepted sponsorships on top of her prize money; whereas Stone claimed that the money should not be taxable because she was only motivated by "her desire to excel, to represent her country and win medals, not to make money."

It's an intriguing argument, but I am not surprised it didn't fly. It is difficult to see any difference between prize money earned in a javelin competition and the salary paid to a professional football player. (I never won enough prize money to break through the poverty line, myself!) The article doesn't break down where the prize money came from. I know that for many athletics competitions the organizers and sponsors offer significant cash prizes to draw top competitors; but I also know that Australia is one of the many countries that pays its own athletes "bonuses" for winning medals. I would be curious to know how much of the $93,000 came from each source.

It is also interesting that the Australian Olympic Committee bankrolled Stone's legal case. Clearly the AOC recognizes that income tax will diminish the real value of their incentive program considerably.

April 20, 2005

Will They, or Won't They?

they will put all 28 summer Olympic sports to a majority vote.

The IOC website spells out the process and general policy to be followed in detail, including the mechanism for adding a new sport in the event that one or more are removed.

And that's all I am going to write about that subject for a couple of months.

April 19, 2005

More Confusion Over Olympic Programme

Well, at least I am getting more confused by the day.

Several news outlets reported yesterday that IOC chairman Jaques Rogge "reassured" the heads of the international sports federations that nobody would be dropped from the Olympic programme. I had a hard time understanding how that could be, if Rogge really planned to put each sport to a majority vote of the IOC delegates.

This more detailed story ran under a similar headline, but contains a more ambiguous quote from Rogge:

There should be no anxiety. The process will be a totally fair process. Reading the report, I have only one conclusion. We have very strong federations, and strong federations should have nothing to fear.

This is not quite a promise, is it?

The article also confirms that the plan to put the 28 sports to a majority vote is only one of several options being considered. The decision-making procedure will be decided in the next week.

Commonwealth Games Get the Short End

Last month I commented on the scheduling conflict between the Commonwealth Games and the Winter Paralympics. It looks like the Commonwealth Games are not going to be broadcast on CBC, and this article in the Toronto Star notes that George Heller is pretty upset about it.

(There are a couple of factual errors in this story. The article claims that Heller is president of the Commonwealth Games Foundation of Canada, but I can't figure out what that is. The official national committee is Commonwealth Games Canada, which lists Claude Bennett as its president. Heller does not appear to be affiliated with the international Commonwealth Games Federation, either. And he claims that "we're bidding to hold the 2010 Games in Hamilton," when in fact those Games have already been awarded to Delhi.)

I hope that Heller is successful in his bid to have the Commonwealth Games televised in Canada, but either way Canada'a athletes are not going to get a lot of publicity out of it. That's what happens when you schedule a summer competition in February. The Melbourne organizers didn't do Canada any favours in that regard. Of course, the rest of the Commonwealth won't care in the least.

The last paragraph in the Star article includes a rumour that TSN and Chris Cuthbert are talking, proving beyond a doubt that some bigwigs in Canadian sports broadcasting read this blog (ha, ha).

April 18, 2005

Hamilton Banned Two Years

An addendum to today's post: U.S. cyclist and 2004 Olympic time trial gold medallist Tyler Hamilton has lost his doping arbitration case (decision here). Hamilton will serve a two-year ban based on a test result from the 2004 Vuelta a España. Hamilton's test showed indications of blood doping, although he still maintains that the test is flawed and that he is innocent. He will appeal to the international CAS, which is his last resort.

Hamilton had a similar test result at the Olympics, but was allowed to keep his gold medal when his B sample was destroyed before it could be tested.

Doping News That's Not About Barry Bonds

Well, I have to bring it up every once in a while, don't I?

Two Hungarian throwers, Adrian Annus and Robert Fazekas, had their appeals denied by the CAS. Both athletes had their gold medals stripped in Athens, not for positive tests but for failing to comply with doping procedures. Annus' samples showed signs of tampering. The IAAF is also seeking two-year bans for each.

Waterford Crystal of Ireland also lost a gold medal due to a positive test, but is probably unaware of the significance of this ruling, being a horse. The horse's rider, Cian O'Connor, was cleared of any deliberate wrongdoing, but did violate doping rules (Waterford Crystal was given an illegal sedative). O'Connor has decided not to appeal the verdict.

On March 27, UCI president Hein Verbruggen went on the attack, calling WADA chairman Dick Pound a liar and questioning his objectivity. Although cycling has its problems on the doping front, I have to say that some of Verbruggen's comments were on the mark:

Pound's the sheriff who shoots everything that moves. WADA should be above all that and he should establish proof before he speaks.

On the other hand, Pound might be justified in thinking that he can't win either way. At around the same time as the Verbruggen comments, WADA named a new athlete committee. One of the members is Canadian Beckie Scott, who has had a few words with chairman Pound in the past. Her criticism — essentially the opposite of Verbruggen's — was that Pound was ridiculously naive if he relied on positive tests as proof of guilt.

Later that week, IOC Chairman Jacques Rogge was in the press urging world governments to make WADA's World Anti-Doping Code into law, and threatening to exclude countries from the Olympics if they don't. Governments play a key role in WADA, which has been part of the plan since the inception of the organization. The WADA anti-doping code is a key plank in the IOC's "war on drugs" strategy. Does anybody else find this kind of rhetoric a bit scary?

The sports movement is unable to do it alone. We have no judicial powers. We cannot interrogate people, we cannot search baggage, we cannot issue a warrant and search a room and we cannot arrest people. Governments can do that and they do it well and that's the reason WADA wants the support of the governments together with the sports movements. It's going to be an eternal fight, we can never hope to have a doping-free sport because doping is to sport what criminality is to society.

April 17, 2005

Olympic Programme Review Complete

Following up on my recent posts about the Olympic programme: this Reuters story notes that the IOC Programme Commission has completed its report reviewing the summer Olympic sports.

Included in the article is this interesting statement:

While the Programme Commission's report remains private, IOC insiders say it is unlikely any sport will be dropped from the Games programme, thus denying any new entry.

The AP version of the same story confirms the anonymous tip, and also implies that the 28 existing sports might not be put to a majority vote at July's session:

While details have not been finalized, the IOC is considering putting the 28 sports to a roll call vote in Singapore. Members would vote one sport at a time on whether it should remain or be cut. Removal of a sport would require a vote of at least a majority of the 100-plus members.

How long before the report is leaked to the press?

April 15, 2005

Team Selection in Curling

There's a new BlogSpot blog about Curling and recently Alan Adamson wrote a post contrasting Canada's and Great Britain's selection processes for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Canada allows curlers to make up their own teams, has a head-to-head competition, and sends the winner. Great Britain attempts to construct one "super-rink" from its best players, regardless of whether they normally curl together or not. Alan later posted that the U.S. is following essentially the Canadian approach.

Athlete selection for team sports is an interesting topic and always the matter of some debate. I felt that I could add something to Alan's post and my comment turned into a fairly long essay (surprise!), which you can read at the bottom of the post. You can add your own comments, but be warned that Curling does not accept anonymous comments so you will need a Blogger username.

April 12, 2005

Canada and China Reach Bilateral Agreement

There was an interesting news item from the COC this week, which I didn't see reported in my local paper or anywhere else. It seems that Canada and China have agreed to an exchange program between the two countries.

The agreement will provide Canadian athletes early access to training and acclimatization sites prior to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing while offering Chinese athletes training opportunities in Canada. … The Canadian delegation identified that the key to performance in 2008 was to have Canadian athletes benefit from training, coaching and competition opportunities in China leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games while the Chinese indicated interest in learning from Canada's highly regarded Canoe/Kayak and Rowing programs as well as a number of winter sport programs … In addition to athlete exchange programs, the agreement supports the exchange of officials, trainers, judges, experts and scientists for participation in seminars, courses, conferences and meetings of mutual interest. The agreement also includes closer cooperation between the two National Olympic Committees …

I know that physical and cultural acclimatization are big concerns for the COC leading up to 2008, and I think it is great that they have secured at least some access to Chinese facilities for preparation. But maybe calling it the "key to performance" is a bit strong. Perhaps there are some readers out there who competed in Seoul who want to comment on this?

The Chinese, too, are being pretty clear about what they want out of this exchange; they've identified current areas of weakness, and don't see any shame in borrowing expertise where they can find it. (As an example, China won its first-ever medal in canoe/kayak in 2004. The C-2 is coached by a Polish-born Canadian citizen.)

China's sporting strengths don't overlap much with Canada's — diving and short-track speed skating being the two sports I can think of — so Canada could also benefit by extracting expertise from China. I hope that this is part of the plan, but the press release doesn't mention any sports where Canada is hoping to learn from the Chinese. Frankly, the COC does not put much emphasis on sport development, preferring to spend its money and energy on sports where Canada is already strong (witness Own the Podium). Bringing Canada's table tennis or badminton teams up to elite international standards might simply require money that the COC doesn't have, and the Canadian government won't spend.

China, on the other hand, doesn't appear to have those same limitations, and is spending a big pile of money on sports where it hasn't had much past success. These bilateral exchanges seem to be part of their broader plan, as I notice that they have reached a somewhat similar agreement with Kenya, too.

April 10, 2005

Doping and the "Culture of Pills and Powders"

Here's a very well-researched story from the New York Daily News about dietary supplements that are marketed as performance enhancers for athletes.

Critics say it is no surprise that Major League Baseball finds itself facing a steroids crisis 11 years after the passage of [the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act]. Most professional athletes grew up in a culture that suggested that pills and powders, regardless of their legal status, were necessary to reach the top levels of their sport.

There's no doubt that powders and pills are part of the modern athletic culture, and it's nearly universal. The fact that "legal" supplements have such poor quality control should be an enormous cause for concern for the honest athlete.

Islamic Solidarity

Covering an event that has been largely inaccessible to Westerners, Alan Hubbard of The Independent has an insider's view of the first-ever Islamic Solidarity Games being held in Saudi Arabia.

No alcohol, no women, and no Saudi women allowed to watch. Here is the closest a sports event has been to the days of the original Olympics in Ancient Greece, where females were also forbidden from playing and peeping.

Worth a read.

April 09, 2005

The Olympic Programme

Last time I posted about the upcoming vote by the IOC to decide the Olympic summer sports programme. A couple of times, now, I have promised to comment on the programme and the evaluation criteria, so that's today's topic.

The 32 evaluation criteria in this report are nominally divided into 7 categories: History and Tradition (3); Universality (7); Popularity of the Sport (9); Image - Environment (4); Athletes' Health (1); Development of the IF (3); and Costs (5). I'll address these in these broad categories.

History and Tradition

I think it's important that a sport should have an established history before it is allowed into the Games, because you want to make sure that a sport or a discipline is more than just a fad. I think that the criteria set by the IOC in the report due a good job of measuring the important aspects of a sport's history. Beyond a certain point, on the other hand, it doesn't matter much. Should 100 years of history count more than 50 years?

Universality

The universality criteria are an attempt to measure the number of countries participating in a sport, and their competitiveness at the international level. This is, in my opinion, the most important category of criteria. Unfortunately, there is a little bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here, since putting a sport in the summer Olympics generally leads to a sharp increase in worldwide competitiveness. But sports that can't maintain broad participation at the elite level should be dropped from the programme.

Popularity of the Sport

This category has more criteria than any other, which might be an indication of the importance the IOC attaches to popularity. This is going to seem radical to some, but I would drop almost all of the criteria in this category. I believe that press coverage and spectator attendance are completely irrelevant. Sure, all that popularity means money, but that is really not the point. If the Olympics generated less revenue, they would become correspondingly less expensive to put on, because host cities wouldn't spend as much. I don't think that it would detract from the sporting competition in any significant way.

I guess I don't believe that the Olympics are important because hundreds of millions of people watch them — they're important because of the level of competition. There is one criterion in this category that attempts to address this issue, and why it's under Popularity I cannot guess. Criterion number 11 is called "Best athlete participation in the Olympic Games and qualifying events," and attempts to quantify the drawing power of the Olympics for a sport's top athletes. This is a critical factor, and why I feel strongly that golf should not be added to the programme. If added, golf will become another tennis, where the world's best athletes make up injuries and other excuses not to attend. What's the point of adding a sport to the programme if the athletes just don't care that much about the Olympics?

For the same reason, there are other sports that should probably be dropped, men's soccer being the prime example. Men's soccer is the only sport, as far as I know, that restricts participation in the Olympics by age. Think about that. I know that soccer is insanely popular, but really, why does the IOC tolerate this?

Image — Environment

These criteria have to do with some cultural and political issues such as gender equity, which should be secondary considerations in my opinion. Criterion number 22 deals with the "objective outcome" of the competition, which sounds like it might count against judged sports, and that would be fine with me. The same criterion talks about "present[ing] your sport in the most interesting and attractive manner," which seems be about popularity again.

Athletes' Health

This category should be called "anti-doping," since that's what it's about. I don't really believe that performance-enhancing substances are banned because they endanger athletes' health, anyway, but that's a topic for another day. I do think that it's a good idea to try to evaluate how dirty a sport is, and what kind of efforts are being made to clean it up.

Development of the IF

I'm not sure what the point of this section is. It seems to be attempting to measure the organizational health of the IF. Is poor organizational health a reason to knock a sport off the programme? Surely, if an IF is not doing a good job, then the other criteria are going to pick up on the important symptoms of that incompetence. I don't see how these particular criteria are directly relevant.

Costs

These criteria are related to the cost of including a sport at the Olympic games. This can be a bit tricky where separate sports share expensive facilities. For example, rowing and the flatwater discipline of canoe/kayak share a regatta course at most Olympics. So who claims that cost?

In terms of adding sports to the programme, the cost of adding new facilities and venues cannot be taken lightly. I suppose that this is one place where popularity might come into play, since some new venues might have a good chance of paying for themselves, whereas others are going to sit unused after the Olympics are over. A better way to address a sport's popularity might be to factor it in here, in terms of some kind of "net cost" criteria.

Summary

In my opinion, here is a prioritized list of criteria that should be applied in evaluating Olympic sports:

  • The Olympic Games should be (or have the potential to be) the most important event on the sport's competition schedule
  • The world's elite performers should be drawn from a large number of countries around the world
  • A sport should have enough history to demonstrate that it is more than a fad
  • The extent of doping and progress in anti-doping should be considered
  • The net cost of including the event in the programme, including use of the venues and equipment after the games, should be considered
  • Political and cultural issues (e.g. gender equity) should be secondary considerations

April 06, 2005

Sometimes Democracy is a Bad Idea

In July the 117th Session of the IOC will be held in Singapore. The highlight of that meeting will be the election of the host city for the 2012 Summer Games. That contest — between Paris, New York, Moscow, London, and Madrid — is receiving an enormous amount of attention from the world media. The Evaluation Commission has completed its five site visits, which have been good for a lot of ink. Personally, I don't think that the visits have changed the situation much since I last posted on this subject. You can follow all the goings-on over at GamesBids.com if you find it interesting.

Although the site election will get most of the press, the IOC will make a much more important (in my opinion) decision to at the July session: the composition of the Olympic programme for 2012. While you're over at GamesBids.com, take a look at this fascinating tidbit from President Jacques Rogge:

At the IOC session the IOC members will vote on the different 28 sports and make a decision; it will take a simple majority whether they are in or out [of the 2012 programme].

Holy crap, is he serious?

I was aware that the IOC Programme Commission is in the process of completing a report on their recommendations, and I knew that decisions would be made by the full membership in July. But I had no idea that the decision would be made by majority vote, with every one of the 28 current sports on the table. I'm all for having a vote, but shouldn't the delegates be voting yea or nay on a specific proposal? Is putting the whole programme up for grabs the best way to get the best programme? If you ask me (and nobody has), this is a bad idea.

Here's a recap of how the IOC has arrived at this point, in their own words:

[In 2002] the IOC decided to cap the numbers for the Games of the Olympiad to 28 sports, 300 events and 10,500 athletes, and therefore to systematically apply the principle of the Olympic Charter to review the composition of the programme after each edition of the Games. The attractiveness and popularity of the Olympic Games depends to a large extent on the quality of the sports programme. It must be varied and of high quality, and must produce competitions that are exciting, attractive, action-packed and athlete-focused. The Olympic Programme must also reflect the constant evolution of public expectations. Consequently, it was felt that the regular review of the programme was needed to ensure that its composition continues to be relevant and meet new expectations.

Five Outsiders

The sport evaluation will be presented for all 28 summer Olympic sports, plus five other recognized IFs:

In 2004, the IOC accepted this report (PDF), which lists the criteria that will be used in evaluating sports and disciplines. It contains 32 specific items under various topics, plus a 33rd called "general" intended as a catch-all. The Programme Commission constructed a questionnaire covering the 33 criteria, which was then given to the international sports federations (IFs) to complete and return.

So far, not a bad plan. I have some issues with the criteria, which I will comment on in another post, but at least the IOC has clearly described exactly what a sport needs to do to get (or stay) on the programme. In July, the IOC delegates will be presented with an evaluation of all 28 summer Olympic sports, plus five others (see inset), against these detailed criteria … and then they're going to allow a free-for-all vote?! What was the point of setting out the criteria, anyway? The vote probably isn't going to be influenced by the evaluation any more than the site election will be influenced by the report on the technical merits of the different bids. It's going to come down to politics, plain and simple, in both cases. For the host city election, that's OK, but in my opinion the sports programme is too important to play politics with.