Philip Barker

The latest International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes' Forum held in Lausanne this past week was claimed to be the biggest ever with some 350 participants drawn from across the world of sport.

IOC President Thomas Bach told the group: "You are the decision makers. You know best what the athletes need. You are in a much more powerful decision than just commenting from the outside."

In common with those in other sports, Olympic competitors had to fight for representation. It was not until the 1981 IOC Congress in Baden Baden that athletes were invited to participate for the first time.

Organising Committee chairman Willi Daume welcomed them to the Congress: "I hope sincerely that our young athletes use the opportunity this Congress has given them and will therefore have a genuine right to express their views in future."

One of those who spoke was Bach who had won fencing gold for West Germany in 1976: "Daume’s clear statement tore down walls for us. Congress participants and journalists were in most cases positively surprised by the athletes’ work and contributions."

The chairman of the working group was Olympic 1500m champion Sebastian Coe. He delivered a final statement with an uncompromising message on doping, described it as "the most shameful abuse of the Olympic idea".

In the wake of the Congress, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch gave the green light to a regular Athletes’ Commission.

"The athletes form a vast hidden reserve which will undoubtedly strengthen the Olympic movement enormously," said Peter Tallberg, a five-time Finnish Olympian in sailing who became the Commission's first chairman.

In May 1982, the Commission met for the first time in Rome. Coe and Bach sat down with Kenya’s double middle-distance gold medallist Kip Keino and Russian ice hockey star Vladislav Tretiak who would eventually win three gold medals, Bulgaria’s 1976 double sculls champion Svleta Otsetova and Norway’s 50 km cross-country champion from 1976 Ivar Formo. The panel was completed by Yugoslavian skier Bojan Krijaj and hurdler Ed Moses of the United States. Both would also speak on behalf of their fellow athletes in 1984 as they took the Olympic oath.

In the early years. members were selected by the IOC President but from 1994, elections were introduced. Reforms suggested by a special Commission set up in the wake of the Salt Lake City scandal signalled another important development.

Sebastian Coe was chairman of the working group ©Getty Images
Sebastian Coe was chairman of the working group ©Getty Images

"The IOC must be more representative of world sport. The Commission proposes the IOC change its rules so that its membership must include active athletes."

It suggested "active athletes chosen from the summer and winter sports in equitable proportions."

By 2019, the Commission was led by Zimbabwean swimmer Kirsty Coventry and numbered 21 including representatives of the World Olympians Association Paralympic Movement.

Even now the system is not perfect. In 2018, former chairwoman Claudia Bokel, a multi lingual fencing medallist, suggested members of the Commission had been intimidated because of support for a ban of Russian athletes at the Rio Games in 2016.

It had taken a long time to for the athletes to have any voice at all. The problem of how to define amateurism had dogged the Olympic Movement throughout much of the first century of its existence. In the 1920s, it was discussed at length, but never with or by the athletes affected.

From the 1930s, the American Avery Brundage, Olympian and self-made millionaire, was a fierce defender of the amateur code at the Olympics. He served as IOC President for 20 years from 1952. His particular anger was directed towards winter sports federations for allowing, as he saw it, permitting the onset of professionalism. 

He pointedly refused to attend the skiing competitions at the 1968 Games in Grenoble. In 1972 he went a step further and slapped a ban on Austrian skier Karl Schranz, who had appeared in a magazine advertisement.

"It was an Austrian journalist who told me about the decision to expel me, not the IOC. I tried to talk to Brundage about the decision but he said we do not talk to individuals,’’ said Schranz, who returned home to a hero's welcome. Effigies of Brundage were displayed in Vienna.

Brundage’s successor Lord Killanin adopted a more conciliatory tone and told Schranz: "This will never happen to any other athlete."

In 1973, the Olympic "family" gathered in the Bulgarian resort of Varna for a Congress, the first such meeting since 1930. Even so, no athlete addressed the Congress even though the Bulgarian Organising Committee had invited a number of competitors.

The IOC membership did include former athletes at that time but the criticism was often levelled that their own competitive days were long in the past. The member in Bulgaria for almost half a century was General Vladimir Stoichev. He competed in equestrian in 1924 and 1928 and joined the IOC in 1952. When he stepped down in 1987, he was 95.

Lord Burghley of Great Britain had won 400m hurdles gold at those 1928 Games. He was only 28 when he became a member of the IOC and later became a popular President of what was then known as the International Amateur Athletic Federation. Yet by the time he stepped down in 1976, he was 71. He had come to represent attitudes that many athletes no longer recognised. His successor as IAAF President was an even older man, Adriaan Paulen from the Netherlands.

By this time, two American sprinters had made their feelings clear without uttering a word at the Mexico 1968 Games. The 200m medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium with heads bowed and gloved arms raised in a Black Power protest. Both wanted to draw attention to racial inequities in the US.

The third man on the medal dais was Australian Peter Norman who wore an "Olympic Project for Human Rights" badge on his tracksuit in solidarity with the two Americans. Smith and Carlos were expelled for their demonstration. It was only much later that those in officialdom saw their protest as heroic.

They proved articulate spokesmen when interviewed and it was becoming clear that athletes from all countries had something to say.

As far back as the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, British athletes were at loggerheads with team official Jack Crump over out-of-pocket expenses.

Olympic 800m silver medallist Derek Johnson complained: "Officials regard athletes as half-witted, performing monkeys."

Zimbabwean former swimmer Kirsty Coventry ©Getty Images
Zimbabwean former swimmer Kirsty Coventry ©Getty Images

In 1958, frustrated by the lack of a voice on official committees, the athletes founded an International Athletes’ Club (IAC) "in order to provide a medium for discussing, representing and promoting the views of contemporary athletes".

"We do not envisage anything as drastic as strike action," said new IAC chairman Peter Hildreth, an international hurdler, later to become a respected writer on the sport.

Shortly before the 1964 Games in Tokyo, another clash with British officials led to team captain Robbie Brightwell talking of the "official bumbledom" of administrators.

It was not lost on the athletes that officials were able to pursue careers writing or broadcasting on the sport, whereas athletes themselves were not permitted to receive payment for doing so.

The IAC began to organise a regular athletics event at Crystal Palace and as moves to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow gathered momentum, it was the IAC who collected the signatures of 79 athletes in opposition.

"We are not prepared to preside over the destruction of the Olympic Movement. We affirm our right to take part in the Moscow Olympic Games. We would like the opportunity of preparing free of government pressure."

This letter was sent to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Copies were sent to the British Olympic Association and the IOC.

The value of articulate protest on behalf of the players was seen to good advantage in professional sport. In 1961, the Professional Footballers' Association in England negotiated the abolition of the maximum wage. Their case was helped in no small measure by the appearance of an articulate spokesman. PFA chairman Jimmy Hill later forged a long career as a television presenter and analyst on the game.

By this time tennis was also undergoing radical change. The four great Grand Slam tournaments were restricted to amateurs until 1968 but it took the defection of many star players to the burgeoning World Championship Tennis (WCT) in the early 1960s to force the point. 

The new open era ushered in influential player organisations. In 1972, the Association of Tennis Professionals or ATP was founded following discussions during the US Open. The American star Billie Jean King had been the first women’s Wimbledon champion of the open era and was one of the ‘’original nine’’ who had started a women’s circuit and then founded the Women’s International Tennis Association, now the WTA.

In 1973, there was a trial of strength when 81 top players stayed away from Wimbledon in support of Yugoslav Niki Pilic at the instigation of the ATP. He had been banned by what was then known as the International Lawn Tennis Federation because he had refused to play in a Davis Cup tie.

In the wake of this, it was significant that they recommended player representation on a reformed council of the International Federation.

Rugby union was probably the last major team sport to hold out against professionalism. When they introduced a World Cup in 1987, the game was still amateur. Players were subject to rules which effectively banned them from the game and even coaching others if they took money for anything connected with the game. This included writing an autobiography.

In 1995, England World Cup captain Will Carling was generally regarded as an eloquent speaker on behalf of his team. Yet he ran into trouble following a television interview. 

In conversation afterwards, he described the Rugby Football Union (RFU) committee as ‘’ 57 old f*****’’. Unbeknown to Carling the remark was picked up on the studio microphones and used in the transmitted interview without his knowledge.

Whatever the ethics of the television company which did so, the administrators were furious and RFU President Denis Easby called for him to be sacked as England captain. Most people sided with the player and the high handed and patrician behaviour seemed to prove his point.