A bear of a man, Serbia’s Nenad Lalovic has become a familiar and unmistakeable sight on the Olympic circuit since his election as president of the renamed United World Wrestling in 2013, then as an IOC member in 2015.
He is immediately identifiable by his physique (despite appearances, he’s not an ex-wrestler), his deep rumble of a voice, his facility with languages (he speaks “three or four,” he tells me) - and, unfortunately, by his left-handed handshake, following a car crash three and a half years ago that has left his right arm in a sling.
He has not allowed the injury to slow him down, though, especially with respect to the ambitious and wide-ranging reform programme he has been busy introducing at UWW, following the biggest crisis in the sport’s Olympic history, when it was controversially recommended for exclusion from the programme of the 2020 Olympics by the IOC’s executive board in 2013 (it was later reinstated in a vote of the full IOC Session).
The threat to the federation was provoked, by common consent, by a perception that it had gone its own way for too long, failing to modernise, to adapt to changes in the ways that sport is viewed and, most seriously of all, failing to pay essential homage to its ultimate paymaster, the IOC.
Lalovic, who had been a member of the ruling Bureau of FILA, as the federation was then known, said at the time that Bureau members had not even been aware of the danger, concluding: “We have been bad neighbours, our approach to the Olympic movement was in the past a little bit problematic…”
He vowed: “I will try to meet with IOC members, to see as many as I can and for them to tell us what we have to change. We will also have professional presentation of our sport.”
He’s been working on that ever since, following the resignation of his predecessor Raphael Martinetti as a direct result of that IOC executive board recommendation, and Lalovic’s subsequent election as FILA (then UWW) president and, importantly, his election as an IOC member.
No one thinks wrestling is in danger of losing its place in the Olympics now, albeit the reform process is far from done. Asked if he thinks he’ll need another term as UWW president to complete the work (his present six-year term ends in 2020), Lalovic says: “Most probably, yes. I don’t have enough time to organise in one term an organisation that should be practically a machine.
“International federations should be organised as big companies where nothing depends on one personality, and everything depends on the whole system. The strategy we have adopted on the board is to construct the international federation so it’s working like a big company, with the difference that it’s to be non-profit. Once this goal is achieved I will immediately retire.”
The first move Lalovic made after succeeding Martinetti was to begin a process of changing the rules of the sport, which had been seen by many as antiquated and as contributing to its near Olympic extinction. One surprised expert commentator, Mike Riordan, a wrestling coach, greeted the first raft of these changes in 2013 by writing: “Shockingly, the rules largely institute changes which should improve the sport.
International federations should be organised as big companies where nothing depends on one personality, and everything depends on the whole system
“I say ‘shockingly’ because, for many years, FILA rule changes signalled a new nadir for the sport as it spiralled inexorably towards its own doom.”
Enhancing wrestling’s appeal as an Olympic sport, Lalovic says, will require further “adjusting” of the rules. “What we already did this winter was testing some new rules, and implementing some adjustments. We want to reward active wrestling, and punish negative wrestling which makes the sport unwatchable. Spectators cannot understand little differences in techniques. We have to push all participants in the process to deliver something spectacular. With freestyle wrestling this is achieved. We have to do more adjustments for Greco-Roman. We have to work on presentation, improvements in design of singlets, ways to present athletes before bouts…”
But before even starting on the rules, Lalovic says, “First of all we had to upgrade the functioning of the international federation. This job has been done. We have eight new employees, we have established development, sport, legal and communications departments.”
UWW has an annual budget of SFr7 million ($7.1 million), with roughly one third of this amount deriving from the IOC, one third from licence and organising fees and the final third from sponsors. Two new sponsorship contracts are on the horizon with a sportswear company and a bank, Lalovic says, while talks are also under way with an airline.
UWW plans to increase its commercial revenues, Lalovic adds, through “improved activity in selling TV rights.” He points to a new four-year contract agreed in February with NBC, the US Olympic broadcaster, covering TV and streaming rights to 24 UWW events each year until 2020. The federation is also in negotiations over new broadcast deals in the important wrestling markets of Japan and Iran.
UWW was not professionally run before, according to Lalovic, who says: “Today it’s completely different. Then we had to assist the continental councils to do the same. That process is still running. We will have in the next month and a half elections in all continents. Then we have to finish until the end of my term the reconstruction of national federations who need to be reorganised and execute all works and duties. Some are in a very good position. Some are not. Without that, it’s impossible to serve athletes in the proper way.”
Lalovic is proud that, as part of the series of rule changes he instituted, UWW is the sole Olympic federation to actually reduce the number of athletes it will send to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, as a result of a redistribution of weight categories between men and women to achieve greater gender equity, and of a reduction in the number of athletes per weight category from 20 to 16. “So now other international federations have to make an effort,” he says. "The games became too expensive, and that has caused a lot of difficulties.”
We’ll return to the IOC’s difficulties later, but, I ask, how has Lalovic overcome opposition to his innovative plans? After all, change is rarely implemented, especially in such a venerable and traditional sport as wrestling (one of the few to feature in both the ancient and modern Olympics) without opposition.
Yet he was, it seems, pushing at an open door. In 2013, Coach Riordan lamented the loss of two men’s weight categories, writing: “We knew before these changes came out that men's freestyle and Greco would lose a weight each, while women's freestyle would gain two weights. I do not believe this tragic sacrifice ought to have been made, and it breaks my heart.”
Nevertheless, Riordan concluded: “Yes, I hate the fact that we lost Olympic weights, but the addition of three more weights to the programme at World Championships in non-Olympic years goes a decent way towards making up for it.”
Our world championships usually have more than 100 nations participating, with every religion and every ethnicity
Lalovic himself says: “There was no resistance to the reforms. In order to change the rules of the competition format we contacted all the national federations, and prepared a questionnaire. They responded in a very good way. All decisions were made by a majority of suggestions made by national federations. It’s the first time this happens. They took part actively in the decisions.”
Asked if he anticipates battles ahead all the same, he replies: “If we present what we want in a proper way, to collect the suggestions of stakeholders, in that case there cannot be opposition. That’s what I’ve been trying to do all the time in the last few years.”
Lalovic was born in Belgrade in 1958. His introduction to sport came through soccer, he says. “My uncle was a Red Star defender, and a national team player. Then for 40 years he was the Red Star doctor and national team doctor. I have had a Red Star membership card since I was two years old. Like all Serbians you always play soccer, but not in an organised way.”
His international outlook (and facility with languages) is a legacy of the fact that his father was a diplomat and served as ambassador for the former Yugoslavia in Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Belgium and Switzerland. Lalovic went to primary school in Tunisia, Yugoslavia and Belgium and completed his high schooling in Geneva.
Having taken a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Novi Sad, Lalovic returned to Belgrade to start businesses including a restaurant and a tennis club. But then came the Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990s (by which time his father had retired), affecting sport “in a terrible way” and also restricting Lalovic’s business activities: “Most of business practically stopped,” he says. “Economic sanctions were in place. That’s when I started with the cosmetic production” (his company producing natural shampoo is now run by his son Milos).
Recalling the sporting sanctions that were also imposed, Lalovic says: “I remember in 1992 at the European Championships, the Yugoslavia team was banned because of the sanctions and replaced by Denmark [which had failed to qualify, but which went on to win the tournament]. They took our place!”
His involvement with wrestling came through Milos, who had joined a small local wrestling club, and after the war ended and sanctions were lifted in 1995, he felt a responsibility for “repairing the damage done,” he says. “This is what we owed to our youngsters: to organise in the country the practice of any sport. Serbia and Yugoslavia have a great tradition of wrestling. We first won a medal in 1956. The only period we didn’t have medals was the war period.”
So did his experiences during that devastating and destructive war shape his later approach to sport, I ask? “Absolutely,” he says, “I try to use sport to bring people together. The latest example is probably with the US wrestlers. This is what we owe to our athletes. Definitely, sport is the best way to unite nations, peoples and religions. Every experience is valuable, especially the difficult ones.”
The ‘US wrestlers’ reference is to a threat by the Iranian government to withhold visas from the USA team competing at the Freestyle World Cup in Kermanshah in February this year, in response to Donald Trump’s move to ban immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations, including Iran. Eventually, the Iranian government reversed its decision after Trump’s measure was suspended on the direction of a federal judge, but Lalovic was heavily involved in diplomacy over the issue.
“I wanted to implement reciprocity in those decisions,” he says. “First they said they would not deliver entry visas, but then we negotiated and I explained that, as well as fighting for the US, I have to fight for Iranian wrestlers in other situations. They love wrestling, so do they want to harm their own competition?”
It seems that for every mistake made everywhere in sport the IOC is the sole guilty body
Having an international outlook and speaking several languages “certainly helps a lot,” Lalovic says. “Communication is a very important part; of course it gives you a better understanding of the other nations and religions.” Sport can also play a part in promoting understanding between western countries and the Islamic world, according to Lalovic, who says: “Absolutely, we’re trying to bring Muslim countries together with western countries. We really don’t have that problem in our competitions. It’s not an issue, and I’m very happy for that fact. Our world championships usually have more than 100 nations participating, with every religion and every ethnicity.”
Asked what would happen if athletes from any given country were barred by the hosts from taking part in a competition in future, Lalovic says firmly: “If that happens I will change the place of the competition. I will choose only those countries that accept everyone. We cannot be victimised by political decisions from any side. In this situation, like in every other situation, we have to protect the interests of every athlete, no matter their nationality, religion or the colour of their eyes. That has no impact on our decisions. We have to provide the right to compete if a wrestler fulfils the basic conditions.”
Having been introduced to wrestling at the end of the 1990s through his son’s club, Lalovic – who, if anything, regarded himself as a tennis player – gradually became sucked into the administration and governance of the sport. “I was involved a little bit by helping a very small club,” he says, “but the national federation was in trouble - during the sanctions and war it had no funds and no office - and I was proposed to be president.
“I was not really decided if wanted to help but finally in 2001 I accepted. Then in 2004 I became a member of the European council board, and in 2006 I was elected onto the board of the international federation. I brought in the internal organisation of the federation and insisted on establishing criteria on every level, thanks to my business background. At that time I was a partner in a big construction company. I also had a car import company for Suzuki. I just sold it because I don’t want to be accused [of a conflict of interest]. Japan got seven medals in the [Rio 2016] games.”
And so to the IOC’s difficulties. Since his election as a member in 2015, the body has endured mounting scrutiny and criticism over a perception that it is bloated and out of touch, that its members are self-serving and that the Olympic Games are elitist and losing their relevance. “I would say it’s under media fire more than it deserves,” Lalovic responds. “Of course, in every community where you have 100 people you will find some that are non-compliant. That happens everywhere. The situation in politics is even worse, but someone elects them anyway. I do not join this criticism because I know what is happening in the IOC in reality.”
Asked what the IOC can do to change the damaging perception, Lalovic says: “The discussion within the IOC is already open on that matter. The IOC will find a strategy to rebuild a better image. For the criticism, I fully disagree, but everyone is attacking, often without arguments - or constructive arguments. It seems that for every mistake made everywhere in sport the IOC is the sole guilty body.”
As for the criticism that the games are regarded as elitist and irrelevant, Lalovic says, “No, I wouldn’t say that. My case is the best example. The sport was out of the games, so we implemented changes. Wrestling is not perceived as a sport of the people? Or athletics? No one runs? My sport is the most important sport in at least 25 countries, including Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Senegal... The problem is that soccer is developed in Europe, especially in western Europe, but the world doesn’t end in those countries. The world is the whole globe.”
I know it’s a potentially sensitive subject, but before we end I want to find out what the problem with his arm is. How come it’s been in a sling for three and half years? Initially it was badly broken, he explains, but then he picked up a bacterial infection which has “taken very long to cure.” As a result, he says without resentment, “not a lot of people from the Olympic movement know me as not injured. The day I get it fixed, maybe they will not recognise me!”
How then does he stay so positive, after such a series of setbacks in his recuperation, I ask? “I don’t have a choice,” he replies. “Being desperate will not help me. I don’t blame anyone. It’s just bad luck.”
With the presidency of the UWW, Lalovic inherited the federation’s headquarters: a grandiose chateau in the exclusive Swiss town of Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva, best known historically for its finishing schools for young ladies. He would like to sell it, and move into a more modest and up-to-date building. The problem is, he says, “It’s hard to sell the building and not easy to find something suitable that is modest, modern and efficient.
“The federation is growing and needs more space – not in square metres, but a much more efficient space. Our headquarters was built in the 17th century. I’m negotiating with the city authorities [in nearby Lausanne] to help us to find what we need.
“I hate that castle. We are a sport of poor people.”Sportcal