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What Does the Sheikh Want?


Marius Vizer was recently elected president of SportAccord, the umbrella organization of international sports federations. Ordinarily, this development would be consigned to the sports section’s back pages, and understandably. In this instance, however, Vizer’s election signals the undeniable emergence of significant trends and personalities, with increasingly significant roles within the international sports movement, in this year’s even more important elections and beyond.

Vizer, 54, a Romanian-born Hungarian who is president of the international judo federation, defeated Bernard Lapasset of France, president of the international rugby board. The tally: 52-37.

Marius Vizer was elected the new President of SportAccord.

SportAccord represents both Olympic and non-Olympic sports federations.

Vizer succeeds Hein Verbruggen, the former international cycling federation president, who had been SportAccord president since 2004. Verbruggen has long been seen within the movement as a close associate of the current IOC president, Jacques Rogge.

An element in Friday’s voting is that Lapasset was seen, rightly or wrongly, as the candidate more likely to be affiliated with the establishment.

The core of Vizer’s winning platform: the notion of transforming SportAccord into a new power base. He envisions a “United World  Championships” every four years for both Olympic and non-Olympic sports. He said he hopes the first such event, with 91 sports, could be organized in 2017. Such an event could, of course, be seen as a direct threat to the Games themselves. Moreover, that summer of 2017, per their regular cycles, the swimming and track and field federations — among others — are due to stage their own world championships.

The allure of a new mega-event, particularly for federations not affiliated with the Olympics, is easy to understand: the possibility of more money.
That said, it remains to be seen whether such an event can — or will — be organized, and what the IOC’s response over time will be.

At a news conference wrapping up the 2013 SportAccord convention, noting that his 12 years as IOC president will end in about three months, Rogge said Friday he expects Vizer and his successor — whoever it will be — to “come together and to discuss collaboration.” Then he added, “if you ask my personal opinion,” cautioning, “I am nearing the level of my irrelevance,” because his term is so close to ending. The sports calendar is already too crowded — as another sports body, the Assn. of Summer Olympic International Federations, suggested just a few days ago.

In the minutes after the vote, Vizer told reporters, “The Olympic spirit and Olympic Games are something very different and special. They have to be happy with my plan to bring additional resources to sport and finance the base of sport. They don’t have to worry because it’s a different event with a different background, a different strategy.”

Voting Friday was done by secret ballot. And the balloting showed — yet again — the political strength within the movement, indeed international sports, of Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad  al-Sabah of Kuwait. Just moments after the election results were announced, the two hugged in victory.

An obvious question raised by many Olympic insiders — with no immediate answer — is what Friday’s results mean for the sheikh and the role he will play, or wants to play, in the IOC presidential election Sept. 7 in Buenos Aires.

Six candidates have declared for the post: Thomas Bach of Germany; Ser Miang Ng of Singapore; Richard Carrión of Puerto Rico; C.K. Wu of Chinese Taipei; Denis Oswald of Switzerland; and Sergei Bubka of Ukraine.

At issue is how many of them can claim allegiances to the sheikh, or want to — or, for that matter, would want to. Also this: what does the sheikh want? And why?

Such matters, understandably, can prove delicate as the politics of the moment unwind. Even so, some connections are hardly a secret. Bach, for instance, is up front on his Olympic C.V. about the fact that he is president of the Ghorfa Arab-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, with ties throughout the Gulf region. “They are good colleagues,” said a Bach spokesman.

The sheikh, 49, has been an IOC member since 1992. He was chairman of OPEC from 2003-2005 and has served in various Kuwaiti ministries for
years, since 2006 as its minister of national security.

Since 1991, he has been president of the Olympic Council of Asia. Last year, at a meeting in Moscow, he took over as president of the Assn. of National Olympic Committees, replacing the venerable Mario Vazquez Raña of Mexico. ANOC represents the world’s 204 national Olympic bodies. The vote: 174 in his favor, one against, two abstentions.

He said then that his leadership would include a “vision to help the underdeveloped countries’ national Olympic committees.”

In his new role, the sheikh also now oversees the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity Commission, a program that aims to provide financial, technical and
administrative assistance to national Olympic committees, particularly those in developing nations.

Its 2009-2013 budget: $435 million, up nearly 40 percent from the 2009-12 cycle’s $311 million.

Again, and for emphasis, the sheikh has been president of the Olympic confederation of the world’s largest continent, a group that obviously  includes Japan and China, and has done so non-stop since 1991, when he was still in his 20s, from Kuwait, where in an apparent nod to his influence, the IOC held an executive board meeting in 2006.

Last November, Bach publicly noted the importance of the OCA, saying in a statement issued by the confederation, “The OCA is a very flourishing
continental association with many activities.”

Making matters all the more remarkable, the national Olympic committee of Kuwait was suspended for two years — from early in 2010 until just before last year’s London Games — because of complexities relating to what the IOC perceived as governmental interference in committee autonomy.

In recent years, the sheikh is widely believed to have played a significant role in electing Wu to the IOC’s policy-making executive board, as well as
Patrick Hickey of Ireland.

Earlier this month, the sheikh played a pivotal role in seeing Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa become the top figure in Asian soccer circles — at elections in Malaysia, first becoming president of the Asian Football Confederation, then defeating Qatar 2022 World Cup organizing committee chief Hassan al-Thawadi to claim a vacant spot on the FIFA executive committee.

In both cases, Sheikh Salman had to defeat the friends and former associates of a longtime Qatari rival, Mohamed bin Hammam, whom FIFA had expelled for alleged corruption.

Now Vizer.

Bach, asked about Vizer and his plan for a super-sized world championships, like Rogge cited the ASOIF opposition to the already jam-packed calendar and said, “From the IOC, the point of view, the IOC will not agree to any kind of idea which would dilute the uniqueness and the image of the Olympic Games.

“We will have to see what the ideas of Mr. Vizier, whom I congratulate on his elections, will be now after the elections. Sometimes,” he said, “there are slight differences in the attitudes before and after the elections.”

This article by Alan Abrahamson first appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl Heinz-Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Mr. Heinz-Huba.


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