Mike Rowbottom @ITG

I once came face to face with Shaquille O’Neal. Or should I say, face to kneecap.

Only today, through the unbidden portal of a pinned tweet, I was invited to admire the $22 million mansion that Shaq built, constructed from the bountiful rewards of being one of the most talented - not to say, at 7ft 1in, the tallest - of National Basketball League players.

Good luck to him. The ball was there and he slam-dunked it.

But as many in world sport, and more particularly Olympic sport, contemplate the rapidly shifting ground under their feet, there are some who feel alarmed, even repulsed, by sporting protagonists - typically footballers or basketball players or American footballers or baseball players - accumulating such profits. This group being made up of sporting administrators.

Meanwhile another group looks on with a gleam in its eye. This group being made up of sporting protagonists.

And here we have a bit of an impasse.

Shaquille O'Neal - a big man who has made big money through sport ©Getty Images
Shaquille O'Neal - a big man who has made big money through sport ©Getty Images

Attending the 40th European Olympic Committees (EOC) Seminar in Vienna last weekend was instructive in terms of gauging the level of concern over the recent uprising by athletes seeking to jump aboard new commercial models of competition and self-promotion.

One session was given over to an International Olympic Committee (IOC) presentation concerning the recent legal challenge to its own Rule 40 - Rule 40.3 to be exact - by a German athletes’ group hailed as a landmark ruling.

The athletes' group was successful in reducing the restrictions on individual advertising during the Games. But the IOC’s legal director, Anne Van Ysendyck, told delegates that the German ruling was specific to German law, and not - repeat, NOT - generally applicable to other National Olympic Committees.

So, stand down everyone. Nothing to see here. Move along please.

But not everyone is convinced that the case is closed. Simon Clegg, currently zeroing in on the successful delivery of the 2019 European Games in Minsk next month as its executive director on behalf of the EOC,  spent 20 years of a varied life at the British Olympic Association, 12 as its first ever chief executive. In total he managed Team GB athletes at 12 Summer and Winter Olympic Games, being Chef de Mission at six of them.

So he knows National Olympic Committees - or NOCs, as we all love to call them. And he knows athletes. And as far as the German Rule 40 decision is concerned, he seems distinctly unreassured by the IOC’s Vienna initiative.

"The IOC's mandate is to set the rules and regulations that govern the Olympic Movement and in particular to create a level playing field for athletes to compete on an equal basis,” he told insidethegames.

"The decision in the German courts is very worrying and creates a dangerous precedent, whatever the IOC claim, and it is too easy to say that this matter is now the responsibility of the individual NOCs.

"The impact of this will be inconsistency of approach between different NOCs which in turn will create tensions, if not further legal cases, between athletes and their respective NOCs. Bearing in mind the responsibilities of the NOCs and recognising the direct relationship between them and their athletes I think this is extremely unhelpful.

"I fear that the decision in the German courts will have far-reaching consequences and that this issue still has a long way to run, particularly with different groups now emerging and all claiming to represent athlete interests."

Former British Olympic Association chief executive Simon Clegg believes the Olympic Movement must cherish and protect its unique assets in the face of inevitable commercial pressures from rival independent organisations ©Getty Images
Former British Olympic Association chief executive Simon Clegg believes the Olympic Movement must cherish and protect its unique assets in the face of inevitable commercial pressures from rival independent organisations ©Getty Images

Another EOC session in Vienna was devoted to a discussion over how best to safeguard the "European Sport Model".

Last November the IOC President, Thomas Bach, defended the traditional role of the International Federations - characterised by the term European Sport Model - and warned against the "threat of commercial enterprises".

But a subsequent report by the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) concluded, among other things: "A protectionist approach is not going to cut it and IFs (International Federations) can ill-afford to rest on their laurels while claiming a historical right to govern a sport."

What sharpened this debate was the attempt by commercial entities to set up new competitions independent of the International Federations, stick in a lot of money, and then ask - selected - athletes a simple question: “Do you want some?”

Exhibit A: the International Swimming Federation’s bête noire - sorry, partner - the International Swimming League (ISL). Backed by Ukrainian energy businessman Konstantin Grigorishin, this new, commercial, big bucks enterprise is due to start splashing in October, featuring eight teams from Europe and the United States.

The League had been due to get underway in Turin last year, but was baulked when the Federation - or FINA, as we love to call it - said the venture was "non-approved".

Hungary’s triple Olympic champion Katinka Hosszú was among a group of top swimmers who supported legal action taken by ISL in December, which resulted in FINA acknowledging in January that athletes were free to compete in events staged by independent organisers.

This week Reuters ran a revealing interview with Hosszú, who told them: "It was very interesting how it unfolded. ISL never wanted to be aggressive with FINA, we don’t want to take FINA’s place, ISL wants to create something new, to be in a parallel universe with FINA and they didn’t allow ISL - they didn’t have the right to do that.

"But at the end of the day, they settled and ISL can start."

Hungary’s triple Olympic champion Katinka Hosszú wants the newly formed International Swimming League to help promote swimmers so they can make a living from the sport @Getty Images
Hungary’s triple Olympic champion Katinka Hosszú wants the newly formed International Swimming League to help promote swimmers so they can make a living from the sport @Getty Images

Hosszú said FINA had failed to develop the sport in a way that allowed swimmers to maximise their earning potential and branding opportunities.

"Before it was simply FINA decided and that was that," she added. "FINA was the one that had all the control and we just did what was available to us,

"We want to change the fact that we are only seen worldwide during the Olympics. We don’t only want to be looked at as swimmers without a personality just with a flag on the cap. Cap and goggles and where you are from – that is all you get. It can’t be that exciting to watch if you don’t know the person.

"The IOC probably wouldn’t like me saying this, but (the aim is) becoming such a professional league and generating so much money and viewership that the Olympics will be one of the swim meets, like for basketball and tennis.

"That’s my vision."

Grinding of gears. Rending of metal. Shuddering of Olympic Ideal.

Those who back the European sports model, or Olympic model if you prefer, do so not necessarily because they are control freaks - although some may be - but because they believe there should always be a movement of money at the top benefiting grass roots at the bottom - roots which will ultimately sustain the top.

It is an argument that has played out in virtually every sport with commercial potential, and the position of necessary replenishment - through mechanisms such as Olympic Solidarity - is a noble and necessary one that is sincerely espoused by many in the Olympic Movement.

The Olympic Movement and commercialism have co-existed with increasing complexity since Los Angeles 1984 ©Getty Images
The Olympic Movement and commercialism have co-existed with increasing complexity since Los Angeles 1984 ©Getty Images

Clegg, a man who has spent many years of his life in the service, either directly or indirectly, of the Olympics, acknowledges the conflict of interests. But he also sees a way forward.

"Since Los Angeles in 1984 the Olympic Movement has wholeheartedly embraced commercialism with stunning results not just at the staging of the Olympic Games but the wider development of global sport through the often under-valued good work of Olympic Solidarity," he said. 

"Sport is now big business and the business world, generally speaking, is highly aggressive and agile in seeking to exploit commercial opportunities. In life, and speaking generally, people follow the money - and we should be neither naive nor highbrow about this.

"The challenge for all the component parts of the Olympic Movement, which tend to be pretty slow-moving and conservative in nature, and in particular for the faster-moving athletes, is how to balance the differing and ever-increasing demands and opportunities presented by the commercial sector.

"We should never forget that the athlete earning-potential window is generally quite narrow and it is not unreasonable to expect them to want to maximise that.

"That said I believe that being crowned an Olympic champion is the ultimate sporting accolade, a title for life and something worth making sacrifices for.

"The challenge for the Olympic Movement against the increasing commercial pressures now coming into play is to ensure that the value of being an Olympic champion continues to be the number one goal of every aspiring Olympian.

"We need to look at new ways to ring fence, reinforce and glorify this achievement rather than solely trying to stave off the further inevitable commercialisation of sport."