Spotlight on IAAF: A critical analysis of athletics’ governing body from Edström to Nebiolo

Malcolm MacLean
University of Gibraltar; The University of Queensland

Jörg Krieger
Power and Politics in World Athletics: A Critical History
267 pages, hardcover
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2021 (Routledge Critical Studies in Sport)
ISBN 978-0-367-43447-2

Several decades ago, as a relatively new arrival in the world of scholarly sports studies, having taken a roundabout path from urban history and trying to get a sense of the institutions and structures of this new field, I was stuck by the paucity of work exploring this pastime’s and industry’s global organisations. There was little if anything that took me beyond the IOC and FIFA and, aside from some investigative journalists, critical work on either of those organisations was sparse. Now, when I am older, greyer and less svelte, that situation has changed – a bit – but the literature dealing with those organisations, including an overwhelming number of self-produced titles, remains, for the most part, somewhere on a continuum between celebratory and hagiographic, especially when dealing with the men (and it is almost exclusively White men) who lead those groups.

This situation makes Jörg Krieger’s unravelling of the governance of international athletics all the more welcome, and all the more valuable. This value lies in the book’s historiographic, critical comparative approach and its central attributes. First, its powerful rebuttal of the myths of nostalgia, that fantasy of a golden age that so often pervades sport. Second, Krieger explores both organisational structures and cultures. Third, he highlights and provides a sustained exploration of anti-democratic formations and tendencies within the governance of the sport. Fourth, he makes extensive and excellent use of international sources. Fifth, despite the presidential focus, there is an emphasis on those disempowered both by the organisation of governance structures and by geopolitical histories and regimes of power.

Krieger focuses on the period from the formation of the International Amateur Athletic Federation in 1912 through to 1999. While there is a close focus on organisational structural matters he frames that with questions of political context, state formation and interstate rivalry as they impacted on and shaped issues of membership, participation in and the operations of international athletic events as well as on relations with other international governing bodies, the IOC and institutional and personal aggrandisement. It could be dull – there is little intrinsically interesting in the operation of executive boards – but it is not: Krieger writes well, engages and maintains a constant dialogue between the specificity of focus, its institutional and wider contexts and its implications for the culture and practice of athletics on a global stage.

His analysis of the Edström era shows that he set the culture of the IAAF with an inner circle of fellow thinkers who were also well placed in the IOC. This combination meant that these men shaped policy around amateurism, doping and sex testing during the 1930s.

It is symptomatic of the undemocratic character of the organisation that Krieger structures the book around the three long serving Presidents: Sigfrid Edström, David Burghley and Primo Nebiolo. Between them, these three men led the IAAF for all but five of its first 85 years, shaped its form, style and approach, and in the cases of Edström and Burghley did all they could to ensure continuing western and northern European control: Krieger’s case is that while Nebiolo changed the structure to shift voting power away from those traditional powerbrokers, he did so because it suited his interests, not out of some deep-seated democratic commitment. Despite this focus, there is also a close reading of Adriaan Paulsen’s single term of office, and discussion of the 21st century through both the Diack era and issues of athlete governance.

That Edström was not the initial ‘likely leader’ is an important indicator of a key theme running though Krieger’s analysis – that strained, complex, compromised relationship between the IAAF and the IOC, where the IOC, keen to protect its sole product, resisted separate organisation for athletics and then pressed the IAAF to make the Olympics its world championships. Krieger makes good use of this relationship to unpack the IAAF’s role in global sports governance. He shows that its leaders sought to position themselves as deal makers and network controllers in relations between the IOC and the federations, in part, Krieger suggests, for personal self-interest but also in an increasingly commercialising sports world to shore up the IAAF’s otherwise weak financial base, a product in part of there being no separate income from world championship events until into Nebiolo’s term.

As good as Krieger is on the internal machinations of the IAAF, he comes to life in the discussions of the complexities of the political wrangling each president had to deal with – although admittedly that assessment might also be a reflection of my interests. Here we see relations with the Soviet Union, the position of East Germany, the questions of ‘state amateurism’ and the problem of systematic doping woven through Edström’s and especially Burghley’s terms of office. These issues sit alongside the challenge to conservative institutions of the isolation of apartheid South Africa, fraught relations with the Asian federation over Israel, the rise and demise of GANEFO, the two-Chinas question, issues of women’s participation and of sex testing/’verification’, and of commercialisation and corruption.

From left to right: Sigfrid Edström (1870–1864) IAAF President 1912–1946; David Burghley (1905–1981) IAAF President 1946–1976; and Primo Nebiolo (1923–1999) IAAF President 1981–1999.

Running through all of this is a depiction of a federation run as an old boys’ club that Krieger describes as a system of “personal preferences, favouritism, and internal decision-making” (pp 76–7) marked by the contradiction between the IAAF’s democratic structure (even if for most of the period the voting system favoured a Euro-American elite) and its undemocratic practice. Within this overall analysis, Krieger makes a powerful and convincing case in his three stage argument. His analysis of the Edström era shows that he set the culture of the IAAF with an inner circle of fellow thinkers who were also well placed in the IOC. This combination meant that these men shaped policy around amateurism, doping and sex testing during the 1930s. He shows also how this forceful ‘no politics’ lobby had a strong rightist disposition where the strength of German athletics organisations encouraged engagement through the Nazi era in the interests of the IAAF, but also through its leadership’s authoritarian sympathies and a degree of anti-Semitism. In this analysis he shows the IAAF’s leaders as a confederation of powerful men, with key roles in international sport governance and acting as an undemocratic clique despite leading an ostensibly democratic alliance of national governing bodies.

Whereas Burghley inherited this system and culture he did little to mitigate it, with Krieger showing his focus instead on international diplomatic issues and membership questions where the undemocratic practice suited his needs, making strategic appointments to key roles to keep, for instance, the Soviets and their allies on side. Amid all of this Krieger also shows how Burghley left questions of both doping and sex testing to others, contributing significantly to those issues’ medicalisation. Despite this engagement with diplomacy, Krieger also shows quite compellingly that Burghley failed to keep on top of shifting global political outlooks but more importantly changes in the sporting context.

This is an essential contribution to our understandings of sport governance; I doubt it is one that World Athletics will be recommending or that Krieger is on their Christmas card list.

Krieger’s case regarding Nebiolo shows that he was much more aware of and engaged in the social, cultural and economic context that seemed to outpace Burghley. As a result, Nebiolo’s leadership was marked by three things. First, he was the key driver of the commercialisation of athletics; second, he used the undemocratic practices of the IAAF increasingly to concentrate power in his own hands; and third, he sought to reinforce the existing systemic approaches. Krieger then paints a picture of the Nebiolo era as one aligned with commerce, where power was heavily centralised resulting in an IAAF that met corporate needs, maintained an elite and facilitated corruption through secretive clientelism and that marginalised ethical concerns. His brief subsequent discussion of the Diack era and the limitations of 21st century athlete governance mean that Krieger is cautious if not pessimistic about the potential for reform. It is a conclusion that is fully in line with the argument.

The author notes that his access to official IAAF archives was limited, meaning that he had to go elsewhere – to national federations, to public archives and the key figures’ private papers. I can’t help but think that the IAAF’s reluctance drove Krieger to seek out alternatives over which it had less control and as a consequence led to more critical insights than might otherwise have been the case. I’m not suggesting that Krieger would not have sought out those other sources anyway, but that the IAAF gave up any ability it might have had to influence the narrative. Noting this gave me pause to reflect on the ways the curatorial politics of archives influence the histories we do, reminding me of the need to explore sources widely.

Jörg Krieger’s story of his motivation to ask about the IAAF’s history, a fluke encounter as a volunteer that saw him witness a cosy chat between the ‘big wigs’ over the status of and what to do about Caster Semenya, has given us an essential analysis of sports governance. Yet, in retaining his close and understandable focus on internal matters Krieger leaves commentary on and assessment of the external forces, tendencies and drivers that shaped that culture and its practices, the forces that the IAAF’s elite were responding to, as implicit at best – but perhaps elaborating that assessment too far would have made this a different, possibly less powerful, book.

It is a convincing and damning critique of the organisation and culture of an international federation; one that asserts the importance of the federations and the informal networks that sustain their power. In doing so Krieger shows the need for similar critical assessments of other international federations. This is an essential contribution to our understandings of sport governance; I doubt it is one that World Athletics will be recommending or that Krieger is on their Christmas card list.

Copyright © Malcolm MacLean 2022


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