It took 15 years for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to host the 13th edition of the Olympic Congress and yet for all of the expenses incurred the result was perhaps one of the most disappointing of all time.
There is an unfortunate truism that in the world of international sport there remains a façade of democracy and nothing more. There is not an International Federation (IF) that can escape this accusation and the IOC can readily be added to that list.
The IOC began its preparation for the Olympic Congress by identifying its theme several years in advance. The theme was: The Olympic Movement and Society. This general theme was then broken down into several sub themes that gave one the impression that the organisation was serious about utilising the Congress to engage in critical self-examination with view to enhancing its capacities to deliver its mandate to an increasingly troubled world.
To its credit the IOC invited inputs from the global community almost two years ago. The appeal was not limited to IOC members and affiliates or the IFs but to anyone with an interest in the Olympic Movement and who had something to contribute to the discussion. The means for submitting the different contributions was a Virtual Congress offered online.
The IOC then compiled the contributions and had them summarised and both the complete compendium of contributions and the summaries were circulated amongst those registered as participants in the Olympic Congress scheduled for 3 – 5 October in Copenhagen, Denmark.
It should be noted very early that within the Caribbean there was very limited participation in the Virtual Congress. Few NOCs took the time to engage themselves in discussing the sub themes and make submissions in a timely manner. Happily St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines were among those that made timely submissions. However, the point needs to be made that the Caribbean remains well behind the rest of the world in terms of making contributions to the analysis of the work of international sporting organisations in which it is involved. It seems, to the international sports community at least, that we are anxious to reap the benefits of membership but hesitant to contribute to the process of development.
Too few of our NOCs and sporting organisations as well as their leaders are given to engaging in serious study of the organisations in which they are involved and their global linkages such that we could readily participate meaningfully in discussions about their development.
As happens at most such sessions some presentations at the Olympic Congress were excellent, others were fair while yet others were simply awful.
The presentation styles were different. Some made power point presentations while others did not have anything but themselves standing before the gathering making lengthy speeches.
At the Congress the IOC organised a system of Plenary and Breakout sessions. Participants would have pre-determined those Breakout sessions in which they were interested whilst the IOC had itself determined the panellists for both sessions. For the most part the presenters were drawn from the IOC itself, the IFs, the NOCs and other organisations. The mechanism for selecting the aforementioned presenters was never really disclosed to the general membership of the Olympic Movement.
The Plenary sessions featured speeches from the aforementioned for approximately one and a half hours with no questions or comments.
Within the Breakout sessions one would have expected an approach that was significantly different from the Plenary. That was not the case with the exception that participants were allowed to ask some questions and make comments. The style of presentation was the same.
The moderator was allocated 10 minutes to make a presentation then four other speakers were given five minutes each. Participants in attendance were given two minutes to make their contributions.
For the most part the IOC members seemed to be suggesting in their presentations that all is well with the organisation and that it is aware of its role in working with society to fulfil its mandate of helping to create a better world.
In some respects the President of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, appeared to have been on the campaign trail given that elections were only a few days away. In a rather strange move he elected to chair all of the Plenary Sessions, a task that could easily have been delegated to any of a number of persons at the Congress.
Significantly, there was no rocking of the boat. Everyone selected to make presentations was careful not to create any undue challenges to the existing social and political order within the IOC or the Olympic Movement.
In any Congress where organisers are serious about examining the state of their organisation one would expect discussions to be particularly important.
At the end of the Olympic Congress one wondered what was the purpose of having called on the world to make inputs into the Virtual Congress. Few presenters made reference to the contributions. Instead, at the Plenary, we heard mostly new presentations that did not necessarily have anything to do with the numerous contributions on the particular topic. This was also the situation in the Breakout sessions.
One would have imagined that the focus would have been on the Contributions, however varied they were.
Participants who thought that they had something to contribute to the discussions were told that there was no need for more than two minutes or for rebuttal of any sort since there were people taking notes and an editorial panel would consider all points of significance.
As expected the conclusions of the Congress paid very little attention to many of the contributions at the Breakout sessions. The conclusion was as tame as ever leaving many participants disappointed that after all their efforts they were not really given due consideration.
There are many who would suggest that it is to be expected that when we have major Congresses and Conferences work on the final document begins even before the activities begin. Such was said about the Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago recently where the Final Communiqué was being circulated to potential participating countries prior to their even arriving in the twin-island Republic.
The rationale is often that it is not possible to do this during the Conference because of the varying views and the Communiqué usually speaks to generalities. Somehow such an approach seems to fly in the face of genuine democracy.
In the case of the Olympic Congress one did not know what to expect.
However, as the activities progressed one got the distinct impression that things were somehow being stage-managed.
Questions raised from the floor of the Breakout sessions did not necessarily receive any answers. Instead in a majority of cases the individual raising the question was told that it would fall in with the rest of questions raised by participants to be dealt with at some later stage. When? No one was ever told.
Comments that reflected some major concerns not yet addressed or perhaps inadequately addressed by the Olympic Movement received a response that simply indicated that they were noted. Where? Again, no one was certain.
Even when some of the presenters sought to raise questions in their presentations no answers were really given.
The idea of having discussions on the youths of the world today and of what they want and how their needs must shape the future of the Olympic Movement in a fast-paced globalised world was all poppycock given the absence of youths at the Congress. Indeed, when the question was raised as to where were the youths, the halls went silent.
It may well be that the custodians of the Movement today did not see it fit to involve the very youths about whom they claim to have such great interest. Maybe it is a case of feeling that they would be unable to control what the youths would say in such a forum.
Yet the Olympic Movement has prided itself in understanding today’s youth and have prepared programmes for these youth without youth involvement.
Much was made of the ‘magic’ of the Olympic Games and how it serves as an endorsement and perhaps fulfilment of the vision of one of the founders of the Olympic Movement, Pierre de Coubertin. However, the more one listened the more one was convinced that the commercial viability of the Olympic Games remains the top priority of the custodians of the Movement today.
Olympism, with all of its positive values does not seem to be the raison d’etre of the Olympic Movement today and the introduction of the Summer and Winter Youth Olympics remains more of a legacy item on the agenda of the current President of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, than a well-thought out and thoroughly discussed institution for the advancement of the Movement.
To a large extent the IOC remains an exclusive club to which many hanker to join yet have to be invited.
The post-Salt Lake City scandals have impacted the Movement only to the extent that it offers the world an Ethics Commission. The way in which the IOC members bonded together in their clear dominance of the Olympic Congress suggests that nothing much has really changed. In many respects it is business as usual.
At best the Olympic Congress reflected the state of the organisation today. The IOC remains very much an eclectic grouping who are not in any way anxious to change from their modus. What they agree upon becomes acceptable by all and sundry.
The decision to include Rugby and Golf in the Summer Olympics of 2016 and 2020 reflects more the commercial interests than anything else.
The emphasis that de Coubertin placed on values remain somewhere in the background and called up front when it so pleases the leadership of the organisation.
The place of Olympism in the determination of the future of society remains open to question.
The Olympic Congress in Copenhagen ended as it started, a very bland gathering determined to leave things just as they are.