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  • OpEd: Olympic Movement Democracy


    10/18/08

    A palm-fringed resort in Mexico, speeches by the dozen, lots of shiny awards and elections without opposition. It's sports democracy in action: it's a meeting of the Pan American Sports Organization.

    This annual lovefest is an important date on the Olympic calendar, but more for networking and business than weighty decisions or trenchant debate. The absence of those latter points make the formal PASO Assembly seem -- well, pointless.

    Legendary for their seeming disarray, the agenda of last week’s meeting in Acapulco did not disappoint. About all that is ever certain among two dozen agenda items is that the opening ceremony is the only one that will take place in agenda order.

    While some of the agenda hop-scotching results from people not being available, much also seems to be at the whim of the chair, PASO President Mario Vazquez Rana. Some say Vazquez Rana juggles agenda items to make sure delegates and presenters stick around the three-day meeting.


    The uncertainty was an issue for the 2016 Olympic bid cities whose representatives waited for definite word as to when they would be allowed to make their much-anticipated presentations to the PASO delegates. In the end, the four cities made their presentations as planned -- sort of -- on the final day of the meeting.

    When they will present is a mystery the cities do not face when attending other continental association meetings, such as the Olympic Council of Asia next week. Privately the cities may grumble about the uncertainty of PASO, but they know better than to ruffle any feathers.

    A series of presentations by international sports federations held on day two of the meeting were a typical jumble. First, in what seemed to be an impromptu intervention, the leader of the Pan American Roller Sports Confederation raised his hand to make a pitch for his sport to join the Olympics and the 2011 Pan Am Games. Stunningly, he received permission to play a two and a half minute video promoting roller sport.

    Vazquez Rana kept things rolling, using the roller sport pitch as a deft transition to launch into the agenda item planned for other international sports federations. But it was a shaky transition.

    International Baseball Federation president Harvey Schiller, unaware of Vazquez Rana’s sudden switcheroo, was not in the room when his named was called. So softball was called to the stage. The team led by Don Porter was ready, but their video wasn’t. Then Schiller took his turn. His video was ready too soon, starting up as soon as he started talking and forcing a re-cue.

    Rugby’s presentation by IRB president Bernard Lapasset went more smoothly, the French sports leader making his talk in fluent Spanish. While the pitches from rugby, baseball and softball made sense, irrelevance is never far away at a PASO meeting.

    International Handball Federation president Hasan Moustapha’s five minutes was a meaningless appearance. The spirit of non sequitur was continued by polo and its hopes to return to the Olympics. The speaker likely scored no points by mispronouncing the name of Mario Vazquez Rana each time he was mentioned. The parade of Olympic sport no-hopers continued with bowling and pelota basque.

    Karate, one of the seven sports aiming for 2016, got a spot by itself on the last day of the PASO assembly when federation president Antonio Espinos not able to get to Acapulco from Spain in time to present with the rest of the sports. Golf and squash, the other two sports on the 2016 list, apparently took a pass on PASO.

    Always it seems an award ceremony is available to break up the drudgery of the meeting or to prolong it. Why the awards are given never seems to be clear: most of the IOC members who attended were decked out with plaques on the closing day, including Yanulka Ruiz, the Cuban volleyball star whose now two-month service as an IOC member (elected in Beijing) was recognized along with members with years as members. Mexico still may be recovering from the brass shortage created by PASO.

    Like a wedding or some other big family affair, there’s always a place for the disowned family members at the PASO table. In Acapulco that would apply to three members of the Executive Committee who sat at the dais. All of them are former presidents of their NOCs in Bahamas, Costa Rica and Panama. All were voted out of office in the past year or so, their sagas documented by Around the Rings.

    Amity and unity are the accepted behavior at PASO meetings. Troublingly, dissent seems to be no longer welcome. Across nearly 15 hours of meetings in Acapulco scarcely any hands were raised to seek the floor, whether to ask a piercing question – or where dinner would be served.

    “You don’t want to talk” was the frequent complaint from PASO President Mario Vazquez Rana. At times he chided delegates as “cowards” (meant to be a joke but maybe poorly translated?) for not speaking out.

    But maybe they are fearful. Rumors abound of NOC leaders who have done so at other PASO meetings, only to lose out on funding when they did voice opinions.

    To no surprise, Mario Vazquez Rana was elected without opposition to another term as president of PASO. First elected in 1975, he adds new meaning to the idea of a president for life. No other currently serving sports leader can boast of such a tenure.

    While he may delight in adulation and believe that he has an unassailable mandate, Vazquez Rana might do well to listen to the silence from the room when he calls for questions, or wonder about the absence of electoral challenges.

    In a true democracy, there is no reason for people to be afraid of speaking out. And certainly no call to insult them as cowards, even in jest.

    Op Ed is a weekly column of opinion and ideas from Around the Rings. Comments, as well as guest columns are welcomed: comment@aroundtherings.com