Biathlon’s careful reforms

Der neue IBU-Präsident Olle Dahlin

IBU congress

Biathlon’s careful reforms

Von Nick Butler and Hajo Seppelt

The annual congress of International Biathlon Union ended with Oberhof being awarded the right to host the world championships 2023. Biathlon provides a snapshot of a changing global sports landscape where the biggest dilemma remains Russia rather than the plight of athletes.

It all ended in a final German triumph. On the final day of the congress of the International Biathlon Union the country that delivers most of the bigger sponsors to biathlon’s governing body was granted the right to host the world championships 2023 in Oberhof. The vote was tight but convincing: Oberhof, which had prior seen its bid for 2020 fail, because Antholz made the race, collected 28 votes, whilst its competitor Nove Mesto was left with 21 supporters.

World sport is currently in a funny position. 

It enjoyed 30 years of virtually constant growth following the professionalism and broadcasting revolution of the 1980s. Yes, there were occasional setbacks and problems with doping and corruption, but, largely speaking, these good years rolled on through the 1990s and 2000s and into the 2010s. Large sponsorship and television revenues remain lucrative today, but other aspects have changed. A public that is increasingly sceptical of unaccountable sports bodies no longer tolerates the most lavish excesses and paying only lip service to themes like "good governance", "transparency" and an "athlete-first" approach is no longer enough.

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The Russian Connection

Russia was the spark that ignited the fuse when ARD's doping editorial team published evidence of doping in athletics in 2014. Ex-International Association of Athletics Federations President Lamine Diack was implicated the following year after allegations of corruption emerged in connection with Russia. In 2016, we first learned the name of ex-Moscow Laboratory director turned whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov. The Sochi Winter Olympics were soon engulfed in a scandal which has come close to puncturing the heart of the International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency. 

This year it has been biathlon's turn. 

Norway's Anders Besseberg, the International Biathlon Union President since 1993, and his secretary general Nicole Resch each stepped-down while denying allegations taken up by the Austrian police that they had accepted payments amounting to $300,000 (€243,000) and other benefits in return for a sympathetic stance towards Russia. 

Remarkably, last week's IBU Congress in Porec featured the election of just the second President in the organisation's history. 

Sports politics in action

The meeting on the Croatian coastline can be cautiously hailed as a success. The election of Sweden's Olle Dahlin over his Latvian opponent Baiba Broka followed a vote to extend Russia's largely symbolic suspension as a full IBU member. Russian athletes will still be able to compete under their own flag at IBU events, but no representatives from the country can vote in IBU meetings. The world's largest nation is also exempt from bidding for IBU events while ever they remain WADA non-compliant. 

The Russian decision provided a fascinating glimpse of sports politics in action. 

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Delegates from Armenia, Georgia and India spoke in favour of reinstatement while Greenland and Canada performed for the other side. It was explained how four more Russians are under investigation for doping in cases based on WADA's McLaren Report and the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) Database it obtained from the Moscow Laboratory. The vote was 29-20 against reinstatement, with two abstentions.

Delegates, as ever, were influenced by more than just the facts at hand.

"I believe in hating the sin and not the sinner," Brig. Jagmohan Varma, secretary general of the Indian Biathlon Association, told ARD afterwards. "If you see Russia the way geography is located, it is a country with a lot of terrain favouring skiing and biathlon, so to put them out would risk a lot of young, budding potential. The people who have violated [rules] should be penalised. We could put a penalty on them for violation and we [must] set up systems and processes where [people] cannot afford to do doping."

But Varma, who praised Dahlin's bid for the Presidency, also revealed an "emotional" reason behind their decision.

Reward for support

"India and Russia have been great friends so that is also a reason," he added. "I am from the Indian Army and, today, 60 per cent of our equipment is of Russian origin. I've done a couple of courses where Russian officers come to India and Indian officers to Russia."

South Korea have been close to Russia in biathlon ever since Anna Frolina, Timofei Lapshin, Ekaterina Avvakumova all switched to representing the host nation at this year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

"This is why we support Russia, because they support Korea, so there is no reason to be opposite about them," explained Nami Kim, who was soon to lose her position as South Korea's representative on the IBU Executive Board. "When the Federations are supportive to our small nations, we are very thankful for this."

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Austria's Klaus Leistner, meanwhile, insisted how his country supported Russia as they seek to "build bridges not dig trenches". He added: "From my information, we supported the reintegration, which is our approach also politically. The Austrian Government of course agrees with sanctions as part of the community but also encourages building bridges. It's important - Russia is a big country". 

Pending doping cases

Russia predictably also gained support from its allies in the ex-Soviet bloc and elsewhere. Russian Biathlon Union officials briefed afterwards how the decision to hold a vote by show of hands rather than secretly played against them as some countries were "forced" the other way for political reasons. It was also claimed in the Russian press that the original allegations which led to the downfall of Besseberg were made by Rodchenkov, although others dismissed this as a tactic designed to discredit the story to a domestic audience.

Many other delegates were swayed by the anti-doping and legal argument and agreed that Russian should remain a provisional member. It is likely that other historic doping cases against Russian biathletes will emerge over coming months.

The Presidential election was dominated by rumours against both candidates and Broka's political affiliations in Latvia and alleged links to Besseberg and controversial figures from biathlon's past like Russia's Alexander Tikhonov probably affected a few votes. There were certainly concerns she was being positioned as a foil for some of the sport's "old guard" to wield true power. Her 39-12 margin of defeat was larger than anticipated and Dahlin's greater experience in both business and sport was cited as the most common reason for his win. Countries like Norway did not seem impressed by either candidate but plumped for the "devil they knew" rather than the one they did not.

End of archaic rules

Dahlin did not come across as a natural speaker when talking to the press afterwards but this should improve. "He may not be the most charismatic but this is a man who represents all that is good about our sport," said one supportive delegate. An archaic rule barring media from the IBU Congress was swiftly overturned the day after the election and we were immediately ushered into the back of the room. Other positive changes included the adding of an Athletes' Commission representative to the Executive Board - something long overdue considering the almost total lack of athlete involvement in the Congress. On the other hand, a proposal to introduce term limits to ensure no repeat of Besseberg's quarter century in charge narrowly failed. It received 28 votes in support and 18 against but a two thirds majority was required. A motion to increase fines for member federations with athletes implicated in doping was also rejected despite a 26-20 vote in support.

I was told to wait two years until a new constitution comes into force at the 2020 IBU Congress. "You will find that things like term limits will be addressed then," we were promised. A Board with a majority of reformists currently in favour of Dahlin should make this easier.

All 10 current IBU Executive Board members are now from either Europe or North America. Poland's Dagmara Gerasimuk is the only woman among the 10, although this could change to two out of 11 if Athletes' Committee chair Clare Egan is added.

The same tricky process

The IBU are in a similar position to the IAAF at the end of 2015 following the Diack revelations. Both Dahlin and Diack's IAAF successor Sebastian Coe were vice-presidents under the old regime but claimed they knew nothing about the alleged wrongdoing. Coe acted swiftly in first proposing reforms and, secondly and more importantly, selling them to a largely conservative electorate of national federation members. Dahlin must now begin the same tricky process.

It appears more than a coincidence, though, that the IAAF and IBU are the only Summer or Winter Olympic International Federations which seem to be publicly pushing cases against Russian athletes based on McLaren Report and LIMS database evidence.

The cases are clearly complex, but perhaps a few other federations require a scandal to persuade them to take anti-doping seriously?

The IBU are not rushing to devolve their anti-doping activities to the IOC's new International Testing Agency, but it is likely they will be persuaded to do this to at least some extent. 

Funding from the IOC has been withheld until they can prove their house is in order, but the IBU - who have so far refrained from publishing their latest financial report - are less affected than smaller winter federations would be. This is largely due to strong broadcasting revenues of their own in European countries such as Germany.

Struggles for relevance

Another striking element of the Congress was how little focus there was on the sport itself. It is clear that governance and doping have dominated the agenda and taken the spotlight away from other matters, but developing a sport which struggles for relevance outside its European heartlands needs to be prioritised. And what about embracing gender equality by extending the length of women's races to the same distances as for men? 

Athlete prize money will increase for the World Cup series and new and potentially exciting 60 rather than 30 person mass start races will be trialled, but more must be done.

Questions like this always seem low down in the minds of administrators but the new Dahlin regime must add them to their lengthy list of challenges.

Nick Butlers statement on the IBU presidential election Sportschau 07.09.2018 02:05 Min. Verfügbar bis 07.09.2019 Das Erste

Stand: 10.09.2018, 11:33