The decision of Sergei Bubka, Olympian and six times world pole vault champion to contest the Presidency of the International Olympic, Committee adds a new dimension to a race whose outcome could be critical to the future of the movement.
Bubka joins German Thomas Bach, Ser Miang Ng of Singapore, Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico, boxing’s President CK Wu and Rowing Federation head Denis Oswald in the battle to succeed Jacques Rogge who is considered to have been a safe pair of hands during his time at the head of the organisation.
The election will be held in September, leaving candidates just three months to make a case which distinguishes them from their competitors. Each can claim to have achieved a good deal within their own sports and as members of the IOC, but IOC rules have kept the lid on campaigning to date.
Received wisdom suggests that Bach is he likely winner and there are fears in some circles that Bubka may poll an insignificant number of votes.
But at 49 and with a distinguished athletics career not too far behind him it might be unwise to write off his ability to shape the outcome of the contest.
This is a key election for the IOC which is at something of a crossroads. The fact is that in some, perhaps many, parts of the world, the audience for the Olympic Games is ageing and not being replaced by a younger generation. That is dangerous not only for the Olympics but for sport in general.
The phrase 'engage with youth' in in common use around the Olympic Movement but beyond the Youth Olympic Games, which have been criticised in some quarts for being invisible and ineffective, there is little obvious evidence of a coherent strategy to actually make it happen. Bubka could be the man of the moment, not because he is some 'down with the kids' figure but because in his role as President of the Ukraine Olympic Committee, he has significant experience in this area and has leveraged his stature as a national hero to great effect.
In a changing world the IOC faces many challenges. Many global experts believe that the sponsorship model which has served them so well for so long may be coming to the end of its natural life while the digital technology which has, in so many respects, enhanced the Games experience for viewers, is the same technology which offers young people so many alternatives to actually watching the Games or taking part.
Those issues, together with doping and match fixing are among the challenges which Rogge’s successor will face. Each is critical in its own right and each demands a clear strategy. But it is, perhaps, the issue of youth engagement which holds the key to the future of the Olympics and it is this area in which Bubka can claim a genuine track record.
Announcing his candidacy at the SportAccord convention in St Petersburg this week, he spoke of his passion for sport and for putting something back into the world of sport which, he says, has given him all he has.
He also talked about the youth programmes he has put in place in his years at the Ukraine Olympic Committee which include Olympic education in schools and competitions based around the country’s 27 administrative districts, each of which has its own mini NOC with salaried staff paid for by the national body.
Whether this represents model which the rest of world sport can follow remains to be seen but it is certainly one which deserves further scrutiny and consideration. The fact that the driving force behind the projects has thrown his hat into the ring should ensure that youth is at the top of the agenda in the months ahead and drive the most important debate in sport.
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