David Owen

It has been interesting to see how wholeheartedly the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has embraced the World Games currently taking place at Wrocław in Poland.

IOC President Thomas Bach has been in attendance and the Games, which feature sports and disciplines not on the Olympic programme, have been heavily promoted and featured on the Olympic Channel.

This is all perfectly sensible: the Games should - and do - provide a worthwhile opportunity for sports and specific events to underline their appeal and stake a claim for inclusion on some future Olympic programme.

But it has not always been this way.

It is fascinating to compare the current collaborative spirit with the Olympic Movement's reaction to the inaugural World Games, which took place 36 years ago in 1981, the year of Bette Davis Eyes, Adam and the Ants and, oh yes, the Cold War.

These could have been the coolest Games ever.

They took place in Santa Clara in the heart of Silicon Valley, home town of Intel, chipmaker to the world and a company which seems to have come around to the idea of multi-sports events as a marketing vehicle in a big way in recent times.

Existing facilities in Santa Clara, Berkeley and San Jose were used as venues, with athletes from the 16 sports, including tug of war, softball and taekwondo, housed in dormitories at the local university.

Thomas Bach has visited the ongoing World Games in Wrocław ©IWGA
Thomas Bach has visited the ongoing World Games in Wrocław ©IWGA

All very Agenda 2020.

President Ronald Reagan even sent a message.

Yet the Olympic Movement never really got behind them, marketing was poor and the event produced a considerable operational deficit.

Then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, still settling into his role, was invited along with IOC director Monique Berlioux, but both were unable to attend due to a meeting of the Association of National Olympic Committees in Italy.

As indicated by the medals table, the eastern bloc stayed away - hardly surprising given the large-scale boycott that had affected the previous year's Moscow Olympics. Chinese athletes did, however, compete in the badminton, which was not yet an Olympic sport. 

So why was the Olympic Movement not more helpful to this new start-up?

There were, I think, two main problems.

The first was personal: the tussle between Samaranch and Thomas Keller, the international sports federation (IF) leader, who declared the Games open, was about to come to a head.

There was also the matter of the World Games' programme, which for a time looked set to include Olympic sports or disciplines. Boxing, indeed, pulled out so late that it was included in promotional material for the event.

The IOC was in a much weaker position then than it is today, even allowing for the many problems that have plagued Bach over the past three years.

Cold War politics posed a grave threat to a Movement that prided itself on its universality and, while TV rights fees were getting bigger, Samaranch had yet to construct the money-making apparatus which would underpin Lausanne's independence.

Concerns were expressed that the World Games might chip away at the IOC's own television income.

Even so, the Spaniard stated that the IOC was in favour of the World Games as long as there was no duplication with the Olympics.

Remarkably, the World Games did manage the considerable feat of getting Olympic authorities from the United States and the USSR to agree about something in the midst of the Cold War.

The World Games in Wrocław are a far cry from the first edition which was met with opposition on both sides of the Cold War divide ©Getty Images
The World Games in Wrocław are a far cry from the first edition which was met with opposition on both sides of the Cold War divide ©Getty Images

The only problem was what they agreed about was their mutual disenchantment with the new venture.

Vitaly Smirnov, then IOC vice-president and a member of the Tripartite Commission containing leaders of the IOC, IFs and National Olympic Committees, is on the record as saying, on June 3, 1981, that he was "of the firm opinion that the concept of the World Games was in opposition to the Olympic Movement".

He acknowledged, however, that organisers could not be prevented from holding them.

Philip Krumm, an Executive Board member and former President of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), then spoke out to say that, although the World Games were being staged on US soil, the USOC was not in favour.

"The Olympic Movement should exercise caution not to support them," he concluded.

In a document drawn up the following month, Krumm is even more outspoken, arguing there was "no reason why such Games should be organised".

It was, he wrote, "recognised that the IOC has not given patronage to the World Games.

"This is as it should be.

"It is important for the IOC to take a strong stand against world competitions which tend to encroach on the worldwide Olympic Movement."

What a contrast with the attitude today.

Sometimes it pays to revisit the past to remind ourselves how far we have come.