Has Umar Kremlev won?

Baron Pierre de Coubertin conceived the Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century as a revival of the competition that had brought glory to ancient Greece, with an increasingly forgotten double motive: to defend sport against political interests and to celebrate amateurism.

The Olympic movement has had too many controversial moments in its history, such as when it was the mouthpiece of Nazism at the 1936 Berlin Games, with Adolf Hitler in the stands, although the image of the American Jesse Owens raising his fist in front of the Nazi leader after winning the 100m has gone down in history.

Boycotts and the politicisation of sport

The US-led bloc boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games and the US and Commonwealth-led reaction to the 1984 Los Angeles Games remain anecdotal in the face of the new situation in which the Olympic body itself vetoes countries over non-sporting issues such as Russia and Belarus.

The very rapid reaction of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to the war between Russia and Ukraine contrasts with the Thomas Bach-led organisation’s lukewarm attitude to the armed conflict between Israel and Palestine, Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of embassies, Iran’s response with two dozen missiles and drones, or the bombing between the United States and the Houthis in Yemen.

The International Olympic Committee has become another actor on the political scene, like the UN, NATO, the European Union or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan). Wouldn’t Baron Pierre de Coubertin have dreamed of an embrace between a Ukrainian and a Russian athlete? Or between an Israeli and a Palestinian? In this objective of depoliticising sport, the International Olympic Committee has failed miserably, especially during the ‘pranked’ «Bach era».

Umar Kremlev, a pioneer

The other major problem is economic. In a context where fewer and fewer countries and cities want to organise the Olympic Games, the question of amateurism has been left behind since the basketball ‘Dream Team’ of the United States, with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Larry Bird or John Stockton, marvelled at the Barcelona Games. It was the triumph of professionalism at the Olympic Games.

The question that has been asked for some time is this. If the Olympic Games are no longer professional, why is all the money going to the Olympic committees, with the IOC at the top, of course? Huge advertising contracts exploiting the image of the real protagonists, hundreds of executives living like royalty for almost three weeks in five-star hotels with four-figure daily allowances and television revenues that could feed entire countries. Well, those who see the money least are the athletes themselves, in a situation reminiscent of the gladiators in the Colosseum in ancient Rome.

In this scenario, Umar Kremlev, president of the International Boxing Federation (IBA), is very clear that the athlete must be at the centre of attention, which is why he has decided to professionalise amateur boxing, which has caused a storm in some institutions. The Olympic Games, which, strangely enough, already allow professional boxers to take part.

«We must be able to feed our families and make money from boxing. I can state categorically that the IBA should invest in boxing and not make money from it. We must continue to prove through our actions that boxing is not only a sport to be practised for health and fitness, but that it is also a means of advancement for many, it can even be a career,» he stressed, outlining the organisation’s new goals.

And… what about the athletes? Former world boxing champion Roy Jones Jr., for example, has a clear opinion. «I am really pleased to see the great work the IBA is doing. The athletes feel safe and secure in the IBA. With more prize money, they will be able to achieve more, train harder and deliver more spectacular fights,» said the American.

Coe announces economic awards for Paris 2024

This war against the IBA is even threatening the continuity of one of the most emblematic sports of an Olympic Games in the programme, by a IOC led by septagenarians who have curiously adopted the ‘Millennium’ T-shirt featuring breakdancing in the Paris 2024 programme as their latest contribution, while some members of the IOC are in favour of including e-sports in the Olympic movement. The biggest, fastest and strongest of Coubertain… but let a puppet do it all on screen.

The decision by Kremlev and the IOC to reward athletes financially tasted like burning horns to Thomas Bach and company, but the new order now comes not from a Russian but from a British lord who dreams of succeeding the German at the helm of the IOC: Sebastian Coe.

The President of World Athletics was as skilful as he was individualistic. Overnight, and without consulting anyone, the two-time Olympic champion announced that in Paris in 2024 the Olympic champions in each athletics event will receive $50,000 (€46.647), a prize that will be retained in Los Angeles in 2028, with an additional $30,000 (€27,988) for the runners-up and $20,000 for the bronze medallists, a total of $2.4 million (€2.24 million).

Many athletes back Coe’s decision

Instead, athletes backed Seb Coe’s idea. Norway’s Karlsten Warholm, the reigning Olympic champion and world record holder in the 400m hurdles, was quoted by AFP as saying: «To be honest, anything that’s offered in terms of a prize is good for the athletes, it’s motivation, so it’s very important that it recognises this changing landscape».

Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barhim, high jump gold medallist at Tokyo 2020, agrees with the Scandinavian. «Anything that’s offered in terms of a prize is good for the athletes, it’s motivation. These athletes work really hard and make sacrifices and this kind of prize is very important. The prize money in athletics can’t be compared to football or basketball, for example,» he said.

Was Kremlev right? Will the IOC take action against Coe and his World Athletics as it did against the IBA? Absolutely not, and this is where the first premise of the politicisation of the Olympics becomes important. Kremlev is Russian and Coe is British. A gentleman who, if he succeeds in his balancing act, could preside over the IOC itself. There he would have confirmation of his good management of the London 2012 Olympics, where he was president of the organising committee.

If the Games are the great economic business on which the entire Olympic movement lives (and does very well) on a global scale, and if they have almost completely lost the amateur character that made them magical, including Neymar, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, why not give their success to the athletes whose image pays for the whole party?

Criticised by international federations

Sebastian Coe’s decision has come as a blow to most international sports federations. The ANOCA (Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa) has described his manoeuvre as «repugnant» and this balance to reach the top of the IOC could be damaged by these hate attacks.

The Association of International Olympic Federations (ASOIF), chaired by Francesco Ricci Bitti, also commented on the controversial issue. «In recent days, ASOIF members have expressed several concerns regarding the announcement made by World Athletics. This move undermines the values of Olympism and the uniqueness of the Games. You cannot and should not put a price on an Olympic gold medallist and in many cases, Olympic medallists benefit indirectly from commercial sponsorship. This ignores the less privileged athletes,» said the Italian.

What are these federations afraid of? That the snowball will get bigger and they will be forced to pay the athletes? Will Coe be right in the end? If so, Kremlev will not be the devil the IOC thinks he is, but a visionary who understood better than anyone else that if you want to squeeze the athletes, you have to pay them for what they do.

Footballers with contracts worth over €10 million give up almost three weeks of their career to the IOC and live in an English bed and breakfast in the Olympic Village. Doesn’t anyone understand that this is nonsense? How much money did the IOC make, directly or indirectly, from Neymar’s presence at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games with ticket sales, television rights and image rights? How much money did the Brazilian player receive?

Inequalities between athletes

Another important detail is a profound inequality, as the IOC does not reward Olympic champions financially, thus preserving the original spirit of the ancient Games. It is the various national organisations that do this, creating significant differences between countries. Far from promoting equality, an American Olympic champion can receive many times more for a gold medal than one from a developing country. Or some may receive nothing at all

For example, Spain’s three Olympic gold medals at Tokyo 2020 were distributed as follows: karate fighter Sandra Sánchez (kata) and rock climber Alberto Ginés (combined) received a total of 94,000 euros, while the shooting team of Fátima Gálvez and Alberto Fernández (mixed team trap) took home €75,000 each. Had a team won gold, each member would have received €50,000.

The coaches of the champions will also be rewarded. They will receive 10% of each medal won by their athletes, i.e. €9,400 euros for gold, €4,800 euros for silver and €3,000 euros for bronze, from which the taxes applicable in their country of residence will be deducted, as these are non-tax-exempt economic amounts.

Spain is in the lower middle of the world rankings in terms of prize money, ahead of countries such as the United States (€31,600 for each gold medal, €19,000 for silver and €12,650 for bronze), but far behind the €622,400 that Singapore receives for its gold medals alone, followed by Taiwan (€603,000 euros) and Indonesia (€291,807 euros), as reported by Expansion in an article published after the last Olympic Games.