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Archive for September, 2014

IBU Election Is Symptomatic of International Sports Bodies’ Lack of Term Limits

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

At the beginning of the month, Norway’s Anders Besseberg was re-elected as the President of the International Biathlon Union.

Besseberg has led the federation since it left a joint union with modern pentathlon in 1993, and has overseen incredible development of the sport.

How far has biathlon come since then? In 1992, women competed in the Olympics for the first time; today, Darya Domracheva rivals Martin Fourcade’s popularity and Magdalena Neuner wields her fame like a gavel from her comfortable retirement. Likewise, the sprint at the 1992 Olympics featured men from 27 countries; in Sochi, the tally was 31 countries.

As a supporting cast of Executive Board members have come and gone, Besseberg has stayed. With a tenure of over 20 years, he is one of the longest-serving heads of a major international sports federation.

Long-serving presidents are definitely not unusual in the sports world. International Ski Federation President Gian Franco Kasper and FIFA’s Sepp Blatter have both led their organizations since 1998. Lamine Diak has headed track and field’s IAAF since 1999, as has Francesco Ricci Bitti of the International Tennis Federation.

But Besseberg has six years on even Kasper and Blatter. Ottavio Cinquanta of the International Speedskating Union comes close to Besseberg’s mark, having held his presidency since 1994. Even if Besseberg is a great President – which in many ways he obviously has been – 20 years is too long.

The federations do not have term limits for their presidents, although there has recently been a call for FIFA to adopt term limits as Blatter decided to run for his fifth consecutive term. With the challenges plaguing FIFA, in terms of corruption and World Cup host cities, many feel that it is inappropriate for him to continue.

Nothing so sinister is happening in biathlon, a sport which is respected as being well-run. Its biggest (or at least most public) challenges revolve around doping, something which represents a struggle for all endurance sports.

But even without obvious conflict caused by his leadership, Besseberg himself seems to recognize at some level that change is good – and that he might need to leave so that the organization can rediscover its youth and vigor.

“I was in principle determined not to continue [as president], because even though I do not feel old, I know when I was born,” 68-year-old Besseberg told NRK after the election. In a separate interview earlier, he said he hadn’t decided to run until just before the deadline for declaring.

This time, what pushed him over the edge was the involvement of Russia’s Alexander Tikhonov in the race. Tikhonov is a decorated Russian biathlete who had previously served as First Vice President, so knew the organization well. But the retired World Champion has also been convicted for his involvement in the attempted murder of a regional politician in Russia.

Obviously, having such an individual as President would harm the reputation and integrity of the organization.

Another challenger declared as well: Canada’s Dr. Jim Carrabre, a respected anti-doping advocate who has served as Vice President of Medical Issues for years and taken with it the attendant position on the Executive Board.

But Besseberg did not find Carrabre to be a suitable successor either. In the same NRK interview before the election, he said that “I would not consider the other candidates.”

Carrabre may have had a chance were it not for the Russian’s involvement. As it was, many voters at Congress were rightfully jumpy at the prospect of the gangster heading their federation. Rather than risking splitting votes between the two other candidates, stuck with the incumbent to ensure that Tikhonov would not be elected.

Besseberg received 33 votes, Tikhonov 11, and Carrabre 6.

It’s tough to imagine taking on the role of President of a hugely profitable sport’s international federation without ever having done so before. The job does not come with a roadmap, much less a list of required qualifications or job experience.

But if two previous members of his own Executive Board are not qualified to lead the IBU, then who exactly does Besseberg have in mind for the job when he does eventually and inevitably step down? Or is it that there are strong candidates out there, but they are afraid to run against the longtime leader?

If there are really no viable candidates in the biathlon world, then Besseberg himself should perhaps be held partially accountable. If true, then he has apparently been neglecting to cultivate others within his organization who might eventually lead it.

And the presidency is not the only aspect of leadership where the IBU displays stagnancy. The composition of the Executive Board remained largely unchanged after the election despite some high-profile campaigns. Only two positions saw turnover: Victor Maigurov took over the First Vice President position from a fellow Russian, and Sweden’s Olle Dahlin filling the post of Vice President for Development, previously held by the late Czech Vaclav Firtik. For five of the eight positions, the incumbent ran unopposed.

This is troubling: change is good and necessary for the development of sport, like in all other aspects of professional life.

At the past Congress, Besseberg’s Executive Board proposed, and then successfully saw passed, several noteworthy changes and improvements to the sport.

They implemented a new Junior IBU Cup circuit, to offer young racers better opportunities for high-level competition. They changed the scoring system to be more fair to smaller, developing teams (a proposal that was initially developed by the Technical Committee, and then pitched to the board). And they tackled thorny issues having to do with mid-race cancellations and weather challenges that have plagued the World Cup in the last two seasons.

But some sources of innovation seem halfhearted and gimmicky. The Super Sprint Mixed Relay joined the list of approved World Cup formats, despite tepid reception after a test race in Oslo last season.

And more could be done to develop the sport outside of Europe.

The sport is certainly not headed in the wrong direction under Besseberg’s leadership. He will continue to innovate and provide the IBU with a strong financial foundation, just as he has for 20 years.

But here’s hoping that this is his final sprint to the finish line, to leave his legacy and make the sport the best it can be – and that by the time the next Congress rolls around, there is a qualified candidate who can provide the IBU with a fresh face at the very top.