Nick Butler

Most of our focus in recent weeks has been on the multi-layered web of challenges facing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as it tussles with bidding apathy and a reputation tainted by doping and corruption scandals.

Some of these problems are unique but most are being felt across sporting landscapes. Indeed, many are also a source of concern for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) as it begins a landmark year of internal change. Nominations opened last week for all IPC Governing Board positions as the organisation prepares to elect just the third President in its 28-year history on September 8 in Abu Dhabi.

Canadian Robert Steadward was elected the founding head when the IPC replaced the International Co-ordination Committee of World Sports Organisations for the Disabled in 1989. He was replaced 12 years later by former wheelchair basketball player Sir Philip Craven. The Briton, appointed an IOC member in 2003, then capitalised on a new constitutional structure introduced in 2005 which has led to his three four-year terms "kicking off again", allowing him to serve for 16 rather than 12 years.

He will be remembered more for the past year than the 15 which preceded it.

A straight-talking Lancastrian, Sir Philip knows how to play politics with the best of them. Like his IOC counterpart Thomas Bach, he was pictured clinking champagne glasses with Russian President Vladimir Putin in numerous photos during Sochi 2014. He did not initially give the impression that he was going to be the one to take a principled stand when evidence emerged suggesting those Paralympic Games were tainted by institutional doping.

Sir Philip Craven, pictured, right, with IOC counterpart Thomas Bach at the United Nations in 2015 ©IPC
Sir Philip Craven, pictured, right, with IOC counterpart Thomas Bach at the United Nations in 2015 ©IPC

But, after staying quiet during the IOC vote in Rio de Janeiro at which only his fellow countryman Adam Pengilly opposed Russian participation in the Olympic Games, Sir Philip then took most people by surprise by banning the world’s largest country from the subsequent Paralympics. 

It was a brave move as the IPC was immediately faced with an eruption of opposition; vocally from figures within Russia and more subtly from those in the Olympic movement. At the same time, he and other IPC officials played a public relations blinder by going public about their concerns a month before the Paralympics started to put pressure on Brazilian politicians to pledge the necessary funds. Expectations were so low that the Games are now considered a resounding triumph.

Sir Philip has not played it perfectly since - being implicated in a prank phone call criticising Bach and the IOC being one, quite high-profile, blunder - but overall he has shown the decisive leadership that other organisations have been lacking.

Resolving the Russian suspension will be the number one priority for Sir Philip’s successor before Pyeongchang 2018 opens next March. 

But there are many other key Paralympic issues on the table which have understandably been on the backburner in recent months.

The first, and arguably most important, relates to relations with the IOC. The IPC are still dependent on their big brother for choosing, preparing for and - to a large extent - financing the Summer and Winter Games, so they cannot afford to fall-out too much. 

Sir Philip is currently the only Paralympic representative in the IOC, so the only one to have a vote in host city elections. However, he is only a member due to his IPC Presidency, so is now set to lose his place five days before the September 13 vote in Lima between Los Angeles and Paris for the right to host the 2024 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Pat McQuaid immediately ceased to be a IOC member after being defeated  by Brian Cookson as International Cycling Union President in 2013. The same thing happened last year when Ottavio Cinquanta stopped being head of the International Skating Union. Given Sir Philip’s persona non grata status in IOC corridors, it seems unlikely Bach will consider any exception this time around.

Russian doping and problems surrounding the Rio Paralympics has overshadowed the past year for the IPC ©Getty Images
Russian doping and problems surrounding the Rio Paralympics has overshadowed the past year for the IPC ©Getty Images

It is vital that the new IPC President must work to address these issues in the future. Here in Pyeongchang, for instance, and again in Beijing in five years’ time, it must be a concern that the Paralympics will take place in March where there is a woefully low amount of snow on the ground.

Other key issues relate to broadcasting, marketing and promotion, all of which remains poor outside the Games-period itself. The age-old problem of classifications has also still not been resolved amid concerns over consistency and athletes being put into the wrong category.

The Russia-decision has also probed open already-existing cracks between purely Paralympic and IPC-governed sports and those run by organisations also on the Olympic programme. World Archery, headed by IOC vice-president Uğur Erdener, and the International Equestrian Federation each went public in criticising the Russian suspension. 

World Archery secretary general Tom Dielen is now chairing a "Parasport Advisory Group" made up of Association of Summer Olympic International Federation members. The IPC claim to welcome the formation of this group but there is certainly potential for more tension in the future.

So who are the leading candidates at this early stage?

Contenders are not officially allowed to "go public" until the nominations close in June so we are reliant on the rumour-mill for the time being.

Brazilian Paralympic Committee President and IPC vice-president Andrew Parsons is already seen as the front-runner. Parsons, who has Scottish parentage but was born in Rio de Janeiro and comes across as "fully-Brazilian"”, has worked virtually full-time in Paralympic sport since the turn of the century. 

The 40-year-old has also served as secretary general and President of the Americas Paralympic Committee He also has IOC experience on the Radio and Television Commission, as well as on both Evaluation and Coordination Commissions for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympics awarded to Tokyo. 

Andrew Parsons is the early frontrunner to replace Sir Philip Craven ©Getty Images
Andrew Parsons is the early frontrunner to replace Sir Philip Craven ©Getty Images

He is seen as a good politician adept at working the room. Crucially, Sir Philip is already thought to be working behind the scenes to solicit support in his favour.

At present, therefore, the race seems Parsons' to lose. Yet it does seem that "politics" is slightly less crucial in the Paralympic than the Olympic Movements and that people will be more inclined to vote on merit. A key point here relates to the voting structure. 

While a hotchpotch of 100 or so appointed individuals vote in IOC elections, the IPC President will be chosen by representatives from National Paralympic Committees, International Federations, International Organisations of Sport for the Disabled and Regional Organisations. 

Is this not a more accountable system which the IOC, faced with more cash-for-votes corruption allegations surrounding specific members, could eventually move towards?

Parsons faces two nagging concerns, though. 

The first relates to Rio 2016. "We still haven’t quite worked if he was a hero or a villain before Rio," one official told me. 

"The last thing sport needs is another high-profile Brazilian President," said another in blunter fashion. 

Parsons was certainly a key presence in all the meetings and press conferences when the problems were addressed, but seemed to have done little over the previous two years, despite being head of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Integration Committee.

Should he have acted earlier to improve relations with the various levels of Brazilian Government? And does this suggest a lack of aptitude for hard work and "walking the walk" as well as talking the talk?

The second issue relates to how he is not an athlete and has never competed as a Paralympian. This may seem petty but is thought to be putting some people off. 

All of his likely rivals are former athletes.

Former swimmer John Petersson is another likely contender for the IPC Presidency ©Getty Images
Former swimmer John Petersson is another likely contender for the IPC Presidency ©Getty Images

Former Canadian Paralympic Committee President Patrick Jarvis has served three-terms on the IPC Governing Body, so is only eligible to run for the top job this year. The former athletics competitor and Barcelona 1992 Paralympian has been involved in sport since 1987. The 58-year-old also has Olympic experience, having served on the Evaluation and Coordination Commissions for the 2012 Games staged in London. 

Denmark’s John Petersson, 47, has been President of the European Paralympic Committee since 2009. A 15-time Paralympic medallist and six-time champion, the former swimmer is also an active accountant and former executive director at Ernst & Young in Copenhagen. He has sat on the IPC Finance Committee since 2006 and is expected to run only for the Presidency.

The final potential contender is another sporting legend, New Zealand swimmer Duane Kale. The 49-year-old won four gold medals at Atlanta 1996 and was elected onto the IPC Governing Board in 2013. A relative newcomer to sports administration, it is thought possible that Kale could ultimately team-up with one of the others and run for the vice-presidential position. He could then potentially have a Presidential tilt in four, eight or 12 years’ time.

It is possible that others may emerge or some of these figures may fall through. But it will be fascinating to see if the likes of Jarvis and Petersson can gain support over coming months and ultimately challenge early favourite Parsons.

It is a contest which will shape the long-term future of the Paralympic movement heading into the 2020s and beyond.