Christer Ahl: Fundamental IHF problems cannot be resolved without new leadership

Christer Ahl, the current IHF chair for the Playing Rules and Referees (PRC) Commission, has decided to endorse Jean Kaiser of Luxembourg in the upcoming IHF election. Ahl, has been involved with the IHF/PRC for 32 years, serving as the PATHF representative from 1992 – 2004. Since 2004 he has been the PRC chair and a member of the IHF Council.

In the first of a two part interview, Ahl explains why he is supporting Jean Kaiser and describes the current fundamental problems with IHF management/leadership.

John Ryan (JR): I understand you now want to go on record in regards to the upcoming IHF election. Who are you supporting for President?

Christer Ahl (CA): There are so many things that urgently need to be changed: an unacceptable leadership style; a lack of democracy and open debate; a treatment of the Council as a ‘necessary evil’ rather than an important body in the ongoing decision-making; a lack of strategic planning and collective determination of goals and methods; a corresponding lack of participation and transparency in the budget process, with a real accountability at all levels. These are fundamental aspects of the work of any organization and it really means that I find the IHF to be ‘dysfunctional’ as it operates today. There are many other aspects requiring change, but I will stop there for the moment. I think the fundamental and important nature of these problems should make it obvious that they cannot be resolved without new leadership. In other words, I must support a change at the top, so Jean Kaiser gets my support.

JR: Why are you coming out now, instead of months ago?

CA: As long as I had some hope of being re-elected, I preferred to influence things from within. Our team in the PRC had also agreed that I would be the best leader for the next period. We have many recently started initiatives that we need to follow through on, so continuity is vital. This is also the case at a time when there has been so much concern with bribery in the area of refereeing. In other words, I did not want to negatively affect my chances by speaking out openly. In today’s climate in the IHF there is regrettably (and incorrectly) no tolerance for that.

JR: You say "influence from within". I guess I should say as full disclosure at this point that we're both Americans, we've known each other for quite awhile and I was pretty critical of you and others for not speaking out. I understand the rationale of trying to influence from within, but have always felt that it is a compromise that has allowed fundamental problems to fester. Were you ever conflicted with this compromise? Also, what would you say to those that might think that this sudden change of conscience is simply sour grapes from someone who is no longer part of the "inside crowd"?

CA: When you take on a higher position, you have the hope that you will be able to influence things so that the situation can go from ‘bad’ to ‘better’. I had a good sense of the major problem areas and I had known the President for a long time. But, instead of going from ‘bad to better’ it gradually went from ‘bad to worse’. The dwindling of the Executive Committee was one reason, but the fact that the Council was willing to put up with a lack of sufficient insight and the lack of an appropriate role in the decision-making made it impossible for things to improve. One does not get very far by being the ‘lone voice’; I was three times threatened with suspensions and the treatment of Peter Muehlematter was far worse. A ‘critical mass’ is needed to achieve change, but most people do not want to ‘rock the boat’ because in an autocracy this means running the risk of being out of favor and losing some benefits for your continent. So I am disappointed with both myself and my colleagues.

JR: Fair enough; and I have to admit that I'm not privy to the inner workings of IHF politics. As an outside observer, it sure doesn't look pretty. How did you (and others) see your roles and responsibilities on the Council?

CA: I suspect I take a more ambitious view, which might not be so logical given the heavy workload I have had as a Commission President, with lots of operational work and people management. I see the Council as the key group for developing strategies, goals and policies, leaving the 'execution' and ongoing follow-up to the Executive Committee. In reality, though there is not much strategic work undertaken by anyone, and then the agenda of the Council is often loaded up with administrative decisions and other rather mundane questions. Added to this is the fact that we do not meet very often in the first place. Then, apart from the Executive members and the five Commission Presidents, we have a rather one-dimensional group of nine continental representatives. They are already heavily involved in key positions in both their continents and sometimes also their countries, so they are typically more likely to have a parochial interest in thinking about the tangible benefits for their continents. It is more rare to see them think of themselves as part of the management of the IHF as an organization. This lack of planning and goal setting, in my opinion, results in problems with budget accountability and overall transparency in the decision-making.

JR: How so?

CA: Frankly, there is not much participation in the budget process and there is certainly no personal accountability on the part of Council members individually or collectively. The budget proposal for the next year emerges from the Treasurer and the Executive Committee, largely on the basis of the current year's trends and the previous year’s results. There is not much discussion about the underlying assumptions or about how the amounts tie into specific strategies or goals. Some items may be rather self-evident, recurring or small, but other items may be huge, seemingly amorphous or linked to clusters of projects lumped together. This makes it difficult to follow up and see how money is actually used. The result is that without a consensus-based goal setting and a clear budget accountability, there is far too much room for a President and an Executive Committee who are so inclined to ‘hi-jack’ the entire decision-making and spending processes.

JR: Do you see any obvious ways of achieving improvements in the overall management structure?

CA: Mostly it depends on moving towards democracy and participation in general terms. Then it is clear that the rights, the obligations, and the tasks of the Executive Committee and the Council must be defined differently. And then the Council needs an infusion from other stakeholders, especially the athletes, but also representatives of media, sponsors and those who pay to watch handball. Also, a much strengthened headquarters staffing with more technical experts and specialists, who can serve as the necessary support structure for the elected and appointed people, is necessary and long overdue.

JR: Are you still a candidate for PRC Chair?

CA: I am at the point where I intend to withdraw my own candidature, and support my close colleague, Manfred Prause. He has the experience and competence to provide the continuity and leadership that is needed. I am not stepping down because it was what I had planned. It is rather because it had become clear that political manipulations will leave me without any chance in the elections. While I regret that it is not quality and results that count, I have to accept the reality that politics and power games are part of high-level sports these days. I have enjoyed the many years that I have been able to work for the sport I love, so I will think back on many wonderful experiences and the fantastic people I have met.

In part two of the interview, Christer Ahl, provides his firsthand account of many of the alleged manipulations that have occurred with Dr Moustafa’s direct involvement.