Who exactly has the sovereign right in the management of sports in any country – the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the government of the day?
The line is being increasingly blurred in recent years with both the IOC and respective governments attempting to wield more control.
There is no question that the rights to any sports belong to its respective international governing body and that the IOC decides on the direction of the multi-sports events including the Olympics and the Paralympics.
But does this give the international body total autonomy over the rules of the land of any country?
The spat between the IOC and the Italian government is turning out to be something that the whole sporting world needs to pay attention to. The IOC has been at loggerheads with the Italian government over the latter’s decision to enact law, which could severely reduce the role of the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) in Italian sport.
The IOC president Thomas Bach has even warned that that CONI could be suspended if it is passed by the Government. This would certainly put the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in jeopardy.
In December 2018, the Italian Parliament approved a law to dramatically alter the role of the CONI, with a separate body “Sport e Salute” – or Sport and Health to be set-up to distribute funds to the country’s national governing bodies.
The law was expected to come into force this year but may have been delayed because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
The move was said to allegedly reduce the CONI’s annual budget reduced from €400 million (USD453 million) to just €40 million (USD $45 million).
Last year, the IOC had issued a warning letter to CONI, just two months after Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo were awarded the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics – threatening a possible suspension if drastic changes were not made to the law.
Bach had also confirmed that the IOC had written to Italian Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora outlining its issues with the law.
If the government is allocating taxpayers money to CONI, should they not have better control over how the money is spent or who receives it?
This is not something new, and the IOC had hardly batted an eyelid with similar stance made by many other countries.
Even in Malaysia, the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) does not have full control on who goes to the multi-sports events. The National Sports Council (NSC) brandishes as much power to dictate the selection of athletes and official to any multi-sports games.
The only key difference here is that Italy will be hosting the 2026 Winter Olympiads, and it is one of cash-cows that the IOC needs to protect. And they do need to ensure that their affiliate CONI has a bigger say in the matter.
The law is also expected to reduce the term limits of key office bearers in sports associations including CONI. The body is currently led by IOC member Giovanni Malagò,
Spadafora, the Italian Sports Minister, has lambasted the IOC and Thomas Bach for their “ridiculous” warnings to the steps taken by his government to streamline Italian sports.
He had also questioned IOC and Bach’s silence on the situation in Belarus where it’s NOC is led by President Alexander Lukashenko.
India had also enforced its Sports Code that limit the terms of sports association office bearers and a number of national governing bodies have been suspended because their failure to adhere to the Code.
The IOC’s response to Indian government’s stance has been tepid at the best.
While the IOC have in so many in stances claimed that there should not be political influence in running of sports and had taken the unpopular step of stopping athletes from making political statements, the reality has been different.
Sports organisations at the national level in many countries are still dominated by politicians and Ministers.
There is no hiding the fact that in China, while sports associations are considered as non-governmental organisations, the office bearers only serve so long as the government wants them to.
Why even in Malaysia, the decade long unwritten rule that Ministers should not be holding positions in sports bodies was thrown out when Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation Khairy Jamaluddin was elected as the president of a Negri Sembilan Cycling Associtaion (NSCA) recently.
Even the current World Anti-Doping Agency president, Witold Banka, is a serving Minister in the Polish government.
No one can deny that having a politician at the helm, give sports organisations advantage over others when it comes to government support and financial aid from corporations.
In Italy, the sports law has not been received well among the sports associations, with some officials claiming it delegates too much power to the Italian Sports Ministry.
So what is different between what Italy is doing and in Malaysia? Basically not much.
The Sports Development Act of Malaysia virtually makes the position of the Sports Minister the judge, jury and executioner in all matters related to sports. There are very few options available to any disgruntled sports association in Malaysia to go up against the Sports Minister, who simple put holds absolute authority.
Neighbours Indonesia have two “Olympic” bodies – Komite Olimpiade Indonesia (KOI) and the Komite Olahraga Nasional Indonesia (KONI).
KOI is recognised by the IOC while KONI is supported and funded by the government. The two bodies are akin to the OCM and the MSN, with their roles sometimes overlapping.
Again in Indonesia, the IOC seemed to have turned a blind eye to the whole issue.
It is untenable that the IOC wants governments to fund its activities but squirm at the thought the same government clamours for a bigger voice in sports.
Take a look at the postponed Tokyo Olympics. The delay is expected to add USD2.7 billion to Japan’s costs. The tally of expenses sunk into Tokyo’s preparation have varied, with the most recent estimate before postponement at USD12.6 billion. But Japan’s National Audit Board has estimated the real cost could be nearly double that, at $22.3 billion.
The IOC said that they plan to spend up to USD800 million to help cover costs for the postponed Games and other expenses stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of the $800 million sum, $650 million was allocated toward the costs of putting on the Tokyo Games and the remaining $150 million as “aid package” going to international sporting federations, national Olympic committees, and athletes.
The sum is paltry compared to what the Japanese government has committed and will still need to fork out.
The Olympics cannot simply be organised without the host government support. The IOC cannot have it both ways – hoping to be financed by the government yet wanting total control of sports.
The 2026 Winter Games was awarded to Italy, strongly based on the support of the Italian government.
No matter how the scenario between the IOC and the Italian government plays out, it is unlikely to be the end of it.
Globalisation has made such issues likely to surface over and over again. The pandemic has also laid bare to the fact that future hosts of major sports events, would be wary of the financial implications.
The Olympic Games has become a major money earner that has made the IOC believe they are the undisputed kings of sports. The IOC president and its key office bearers are treated like leaders of countries wherever they go.
The organisation cannot continue to believe that it is not answerable to anyone and that sovereign countries must bow down to their whims and fancies.
Just who is going to take the first step back?