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February 25, 2019

What is a place in the Olympic Games worth?

By Callum Murray

What is a place in the Olympic Games worth to a sport?

On one level, if that sport is boxing, which is fighting for its Olympic life under threat of being kicked out of the games because of its governance and financial problems, it’s worth about $18 million over an Olympic cycle. That’s the figure that the International Olympic Committee paid AIBA, the governing body for boxing in the Olympics, for its participation in the Rio 2016 games.

The next tranche of Olympic money for the Tokyo 2020 games (if boxing participates) will, AIBA forecasts, help it to wipe out debts standing at $15.6 million within the next four years. This is possible because the new leadership of AIBA has imposed a draconian cost-cutting regime since its former president, Chinese Taipei’s C.K. Wu, was ousted in October 2017, accused of serious financial mismanagement.

Without that Olympic money, Tom Virgets, AIBA’s executive director, estimates that it will take nine and a half years to clear the federation’s debts, despite having trimmed its staff from 44 to 17 and cancelled some of its more costly contracts.

Money is one of the main reasons there’s always a queue of sports hoping to gain a place on the Olympic programme 

So, the money’s important – really important – to nearly all Olympic sports, not just boxing. It’s one of the main reasons there’s always a queue of sports hoping to gain a place on the Olympic programme.

For the Paris 2024 games, that queue was said to number about 20 and included the likes of squash (unsuccessful in three previous bids for a place), plus Trial-E electric trials bike racing (a long shot, given the IOC’s historic prejudice against motorised sport), chess, billiards and bowling. And these were just the most prominent ones that had mounted specific campaigns for Paris 2024. Many more are waiting in the wings, muttering about future bids (think cricket) or vaguely hoping that the hand of Bach will somehow reach down from the clouds and pluck them from non-Olympic obscurity to enable them to take their rightful (as they see it) place among the sporting elite (think mixed martial arts).

In the event, the only new sport put forward by Paris 2024 organisers for inclusion on their sports programme last week (coming out of left field) was breakdancing, or breaking. Breaking was joined by surfing, skateboarding and climbing – which will all debut in Tokyo next year – on a list submitted to the IOC for consideration.

The reaction of reactionary media worldwide was predictable. ‘Breakdancing ahead of squash – is there no end to the IOC dinosaurs’ desperation to seem down with the kids?,’ asked the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper – perhaps forgetting that, while squash is (fairly) big in the UK and its Commonwealth, and making ground elsewhere, it’s still not regarded by many as having the worldwide appeal the IOC craves.

Meanwhile, responses to the BBC’s question on Twitter, ‘Should breakdancing be an Olympic sport?’ ranged from, “Yes, and tiddlywinks,” through to “No – it’s not a sport!” and “Well they already have the horse dancing so why not…. there’s plenty of ‘sports’ that shouldn’t be in the Olympics that are.”

But what all of this goes to show is that being in the Olympics still matters. It matters to sports, their administrators, their athletes and their fans. If it’s not all about the money, it’s definitely about the prestige and the profile. Having the status of an Olympic sport is, in fact, a money-can’t-buy privilege, and that’s what makes those that (repeatedly) miss out so frustrated.

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s announcement, the embittered World Squash Federation and Professional Squash Association jointly issued a statement accusing Paris 2024 and the IOC of favouring sports already on the Olympic programme, “leaving practically no opportunity for other sports.”

Why on earth would any of those sports already on the Olympic programme voluntarily endanger that position? 

So why on earth would any of those sports already on the programme voluntarily endanger that position? And that question brings us back to boxing.

Last week, AIBA submitted its fifth governance and financial report in a year to the IOC, as it tries to persuade it to keep boxing in the games. Two days before the deadline, Virgets, for 12 years an athletic director at the US Naval Academy, a former president of USA Boxing and generally regarded as a safe pair of hands and one of the good guys, held a round table meeting with selected Olympic media at AIBA’s headquarters in Lausanne.

The purpose of the round table seemed to be to display AIBA’s new-found transparency (there were sheaves of documents and charts available for inspection) and to prove to the world just how much it has already done to address the IOC’s concerns (the latest of the five reports that the IOC has demanded runs to four thick ring binders).

And yet, for a sport that is apparently desperate to retain its place in the games, you can’t help thinking that AIBA’s response to the threat has been inconsistent at best; at worst, it has often seemed intent on committing Olympic suicide.

In November, the IOC froze all preparations for the Olympic boxing tournament in Tokyo in 2020, including ticket sales, approval and implementation of a qualification system, test event planning and finalisation of the competition schedule, pending an ‘ad hoc’ inquiry.

AIBA responded by expressing concern that, with time running short, it could find itself unable to complete the qualifying process for the games, even if the freeze is eventually lifted.

Then, in December, the IOC issued a warning to the world’s 206 national Olympic committees that a letter sent to boxing officials by Gafur Rahimov, AIBA’s controversial president, was inaccurate and “likely to cause confusion.” The IOC told the NOCs that Rahimov’s letter “does not at all provide an accurate portrayal” of its decisions affecting AIBA.

But an apparently defiant Virgets responded with a statement saying: “Many of our members have asked me why this is happening now when AIBA on all accounts – from governance to anti-doping, from finance to refereeing & judging – are in dramatically better shape than a year ago, when at that time it was apparently not a problem.

“The AIBA leadership and administration look forward to discussing that as soon as possible with IOC Ad Hoc Inquiry Committee and to sharing the response with our members.”

At the round table, I asked Virgets why AIBA had chosen to adopt such a confrontational approach towards the body that holds boxing’s Olympic future in its hands. His answer: “I don’t know how any organisation could have been more proactive with providing the information that the IOC has asked for. I don’t know how we could have done more. We are not trying to fight the IOC. We’re asking the IOC to work with us to improve our standing in the Olympic programme.”

No other sport in the world has produced more celebrities. Muhammad Ali was the number-one face of a century. There were 2 billion tweets upon his death  

Then came, I think, the real reason that boxing feels itself to be so injured by the process it is being forced to endure. “What is happening here?”, asked Virgets, rhetorically. “We’re talking about one of the first sports in the Olympics [boxing actually made its debut in the third edition of the modern Olympics in St Louis in 1904]. No other sport in the world has produced more celebrities. Muhammad Ali was the number-one face of a century. There were 2 billion tweets upon his death.

“How does this decision get made to get rid of a sport that, if you look at Olympism, displays that better than any other sport in the world. What other sport represents such a diverse population that meets the spirit of the Olympics? What is the standard by which we’re being measured?”

Asked by one of the journalists at the round table whether the IOC is employing a different standard for AIBA from the one it applies to its own, sometimes aberrant, members, Virgets replied, meaningfully: “That’s a wonderful question. Is it a double standard?”

Remember, this is a sport that is undergoing an existential financial crisis, whose president Rahimov is listed by the US Department of the Treasury as “one of Uzbekistan’s leading criminals,” and has been accused by the US authorities of being “an important person involved in the heroin trade” (allegations he steadfastly denies), and that is occupying a position on the Olympic programme that is the envy of almost every sport that isn’t on the programme.

And AIBA talks of entitlement and implies that the IOC is guilty of double standards?

Hey, guys, like it or not, the IOC is the sole arbiter and gatekeeper of the sports programme of the Olympic Games. Asked by the IOC to jump, almost any one of those sports queuing up for a place – it could be your place – on that programme would happily reply: “How high?”

That’s what a place in the Olympic Games is worth to a sport – so maybe it’s also worth just swallowing your pride for now and doing exactly what the IOC says?

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