The International Olympic Committee and the Olympic System

Jean-Loup Chappelet and Brenda Kübler-Mabbott, The International Olympic Committee and the Olympic System: The Governance of World Sport, Routledge, 2008, 208pp. + xiv  ISBN 978-0-415-43168-2

(This is an amended version of a book review to be published in the academic journal Sport in History)

This is the twenty-fourth book to appear in an ambitious initiative, the ‘Routledge Global Institutions’ series edited by Thomas G. Weiss and Rorden Wilkinson, political scientists based in New York and Manchester (England) respectively – at least sixteen more books are also published or commissioned. But it is the first in the series to focus upon a sport-based organisation: as the series editors say, the book ‘deals with one of the less visible aspects of global governance’ (p. xiii), filling ‘a curious void in the contemporary literature’ on institutions of global governance. Their point is that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as an ‘informal civil institution’, has had a massive profile in and immense impact upon world culture and politics, but has not really been subjected to analytical scrutiny of its organisational ways of working and its institutional politics. There have of course been innumerable studies of aspects of the IOC’s work, or of particular products (the IOC’s main one of course being the Summer and Winter Olympic Games) or controversies (vote-rigging, bias in decision-making). But Chappelet and Kübler-Mabbott’s brief was to produce an overview and analysis of the IOC and its ‘system’ that could take readers beyond official sources or opportunistic commercial perspectives – an overview that would be of use to anyone from diplomats to undergraduates.

The authors have provided a comprehensive, detailed, and invaluably informative text. It is clearly structured on the basis of their conception of the Olympic system. Early on, we are given organisational graphics – elements of the Olympic system represented as circles, with arrows connecting the different links between those elements, and showing the swirling reciprocity between most of them, in a system that the authors understand as one of negotiated equilibrium in an imperfect world. Reading the book in one go, I was acronymed out, given the thorough coverage of any type of organisation related to the IOC, and the splinter movements that some organisations stimulated in challenging the IOC, or the IOC itself – through, say, a particular IOC president’s cunning, Machiavellian (a word not used by the authors) manoeuvres – put in place. I have read a lot of IOC documents and consulted the increasingly dense detail available on the IOC’s website. Indeed, the IOC is to be congratulated, in the post-Samaranch era – Juan Antonio Samaranch stepped down as IOC president after the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympic Games – on this level of public accountability and organisational and financial transparency; Chappelet and Kübler-Mabbott organise this material in a very systematic fashion and take the reader on a clear journey through the institutional dynamics of Olympic organisations, and some of the politics of intra- and inter-organisational dynamics. For that they are to be congratulated; I felt like a lucky tourist who’d got lots of attention from a top tour guide. But there was so much on the tour, that I wasn’t always getting the full story before moving on to the next item.

The first chapter overviews the Olympic system, and the different ‘actors’ or ‘entities’ that make up the ‘robust structure’ of the Olympic Movement. The core five actors are the IOC itself, the respective and relatively short-lived Organising Committees of the particular Games, the International Sports Federations, the National Olympic Committees, and the National Sports Federations. Four newer actors are governments and inter-governmental organizations, multi-national sponsors, national sponsors, and professional leagues of teams/athletes. It’s become a closely linked network, ‘a new, expanded Olympic system’ (p. 9), encompassing ‘a broad range of partners: public, private and associative, and national, international and transnational’ (p. 16). Joint governance by this range of partners and interests is, not surprisingly, complex and volatile, so ‘the equilibrium is a precarious one’ (p. 16). Three regulating influences that the IOC has spawned are the Court of Arbitration for Sport (1983), and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the Ethics Commission, both founded in 1999 in a climate of controversy and crisis for the IOC amidst revelations of administrative corruption and escalating revelations of drug abuse by athletes and coaches. The IOC at the end of Samaranch’s reign hardly emerges with much credit here, reforming and restructuring only in response to pressure from the world media, partner sponsors (US company John Hancock in particular) and US Congress investigations. The book’s penultimate chapter is dedicated to the emergence and role of these three regulators, including a lengthy case-study of WADA, and the final, eighth chapter offers ‘five major political and management principles’ (p. 177) upon which a more developed model of adequate governance by the IOC might be based: transparency, democracy, accountability, autonomy, and social responsibility. Chappelet and Kübler-Mabbott are enthusiasts of the IOC and the Olympic Movement/System, reiterating several times throughout the  book that the Olympic Games constitutes an important cultural heritage for humankind, and that the IOC has achieved across its 114 year-long history a remarkable significance as a symbol of international co-operation and , peace (see p. 124 for instance). Yet they worry for the future of the IOC and its system, and the core product of the Games, threatened as the latter is by the scale of the events (the issue of gigantism, as discussed in Olympic circles). Their final words are that there are ‘very real threats to the credibility of sport: doping, violence and corruption’ (p. 181). Their solution is that the United Nations steps in with a global sport policy; and that the IOC stimulates a diplomatic conference to get as many countries in the world as possible to sign up to ‘Lausanne Conventions’ confirming sport as a public good, and ‘the Olympic Games as a world heritage’ (p. 180).

After their exhaustive collation of the mechanisms, systems and practices of the actors in the Olympic system – chapters 2 to 6 cover the IOC itself, National Olympic Committees, International Sports Federations, Organising Committees, and governments – you can see why they might recommend an even higher level of global oversight of the sport sphere. The authors have certainly captured the transformation of the IOC, and show how Samaranch modernized it and why and how his successor Jacques Rogge has reformed aspects of its administration. They also catalogue some of the cases of corrupt administration that stimulated a review of practices and procedures at the end of the 1990s. And there are some carefully worded assertions, too; former UK prime minister Tony Blair is in effect accused of violating Olympic bidding ethics in Singapore in July 2005, in his intensive lobbying of IOC members just hours before the vote to decide the 2012 Olympic host – but the IOC Ethics Commission chair had not gone to Singapore, so nothing could be done (p. 163). Blair was of course supporting a bid led by former athlete Lord Coe, who became inaugural chair of football federation FIFA’s new ‘independent ethics committee … FIFA’s third judicial body’ (p. 160) the following year. The authors are very good on the IOC’s belated entry into the Ethics field, commenting that after reading redundant, reworked ethics and rules texts over the years, ‘the impression gained is one of a juridical tangle that is difficult for common mortals to grasp’ (p. 161). But there is, also, a tone to the book of the insider. In their Acknowledgments they express their gratitude ‘to a number of IOC members – including presidents – and senior and junior staff who have interacted with us over the years’, answering their questions and explaining what ‘Olympism’ is and how it works. No interviews or interrogation, it seems: rather, careful cultivation of contacts, assiduous information-gathering and faithful collation. It’s as if, at times, courtesy to your sources prevails over analysis and interpretation. It’s never noted, for instance, that Samaranch came to the IOC with a pedigree as a high-ranking figure in Franco’s Fascist regime. Nothing is really made of Horst Dassler’s role as the Mr. Fixit of world sport finances in the 1970s and 1980s. And when the Swiss government revised its arrangements for sport organizations’ status – including entry to the country, work and residence permits, property acquisition, and taxation of staff – in 2001, this is described as the provision of ‘sufficient flexibility in order for them to function in an unrestricted way as the entities governing world sport’ (p. 109) – isn’t this management-speak for unaccountability? How does this fit with the authors’ own list of necessary principles for good governance? There’s no doubt, though, that this addition to the ‘Global Institutions’ series will be a widely used source for policy-makers and sport lobbyists, as well as academic constituencies. Among the latter, historians of sport may have wanted more on the earlier IOC, its leaders and practices. It’s a fascinating fact that only one country has provided two IOC presidents, but one of these – Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, of Belgium – gets very little coverage: his successor, Swede Sigfrid Edstrom, who preserved the flickerings of an Olympic flame throughout World War II and into the 1950s, gets none, beyond a listing. The topic of the IOC and its networks is vast though, and the authors have chosen to concentrate upon the transformational phase of IOC history from the last quarter of the twentieth century onwards. To do that, lucidly and succinctly, in so much meticulous organisational and policy detail, is a service to the field. As a prospective further contributor to this series – commissioned to write on the world governing body of football, FIFA – I am grateful to these authors for their painstaking attention to detail and their contextualization of the IOC in the world sport system. My own perspective may aspire to give fuller voices to the influential actors, past and present, in world sport, but this valuable study provides a splendid marker for those entering this field of research.

© Alan Tomlinson, October 2008

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