IHF suspends Kuwait – who is playing games with whom?

When one is dealing with organizations that do not care much about transparency, and when furthermore political deals and personal friendships might be involved, then it is not always easy to understand the objectives and justifications of what is happening.

On January 1, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that it had suspended Kuwait’s Olympic Committee (KOC). The official letter from the IOC talks about a failure on the part of the Kuwaitis to take action that had been agreed upon, but does not get into details and does not spell out the consequences. In subsequent statements, however, the IOC clarified that Kuwaiti athletes and officials are barred from the Olympic Games, and that Olympic funding will no longer be made available to the KOC. It seems that this does not put a whole lot of pressure on the Kuwaiti authorities, as they can probably manage quite well without a modest IOC funding, and as it is an understatement to say that the upcoming Olympic winter games do not affect Kuwait greatly. In other words, the IOC decision would be rather toothless unless there is more to it.

So not surprisingly, the government entity in charge of sports in Kuwait, the Public Authority for Youth and Sports (PAYS), frantically sought to obtain clarification about the impact on [u]non[/u]-Olympic sports activities nationally and internationally. And this is where the confusion, or dare I say obfuscation, begins. The IOC charter simply states that “the IOC Executive Board determines in each case the consequences for the NOC concerned and its athletes”. If one then asks the IOC about the specific case of Kuwait, the answer is: “it is up to each International Federation to take the measures they deem appropriate vis-à-vis their national federation.” In other words, supposedly, there is then [u]no requirement[/u] that the IHF take action and there is not even any pressure on the IHF to do so.

So why then did the IHF take action? Well, unfortunately there is absolutely no clarity in the IHF letter that was sent on January 6 to the Kuwait Handball Federation and made public in Kuwaiti news media. There is just the most general reference: “following the IOC decision… the IHF decided to suspended handball in Kuwait in all categories (championships, matches, players, trainers, referees etc.)” and then there is an almost gratuitous statement that “the Kuwait authorities did not respect the IOC charter… and therefore obliged the IOC [u]and the IHF[/u] to take this decision”. But, there is nothing in the IOC charter that makes the IHF ‘obliged’, the IOC states that “it is up to each International Federation…”, so what gives here?

The first thing that comes to mind is that given the history of a cozy relationship between the IHF President and Sheikh Ahmad (IOC member, Member of the Olympic Council of Asia, and in a leadership position of the Kuwait Olympic Committee for decades), it would never occur to the IHF to [u]volunteer[/u] to take any action that would go against the interests of the KOC. Either there would be some reason why the IHF cannot refuse to take action [u]and/or[/u] such action might in fact be in the best interests of the KOC and Sheikh Ahmad.

How could this be? Well, it surely must be embarrassing for the Sheikh to find that, despite his dominant position in the Olympic movement, he cannot prevent the PAYS and the Kuwaiti parliament from taking (or failing to take) action that causes the KOC to get into such serious trouble with the IOC. So would it not, in fact, be a good thing, if IHF action were to make the IOC suspension more tangible and threatening? After all, in just a few weeks the Asian Men’s Championships (also a World Championship qualification) will start. The Kuwaiti men’s team is one of the favorites and everyone in Kuwait will surely want them to be able to participate and do well. That seems to amount to real pressure on government bureaucrats and politicians, and might cause them to speed up the necessary action in order to have the IOC suspension lifted.

But what are then the real concerns of the IOC? Well, the problems with Kuwait have persisted for more than two years, so the suspension did not come out of the blue. Some further digging unveils a ‘forewarning’ letter from IOC dated December 9, 2009. Here it is clear that IOC has run out of patience and has given a final December 31 deadline. They note that there has been no implementation of the new sports laws that had been developed jointly by the IOC and the PAYS. Quite to the contrary, the PAYS had instead issued a decision that removed and replaced the Boards of several sports clubs in Kuwait. The IOC views this as a prime example of the type of government interference that it does not tolerate, so the IOC expresses “extreme disappointment”. Moreover (and here comes the interesting part), the IOC stated explicitly that, should a suspension have to come into force, “the IOC would immediately [u]coordinate with the various International Sports Federations[/u] concerned in order to have a [u]joint action[/u] that would result in the suspension of the whole Olympic Movement in Kuwait”.

This suggests that while the official position of the IOC is that federations like the IHF may do whatever they want, behind the scenes, the IOC has long since warned the KOC and the PAYS that the IHF and other federations will be ‘asked’ to cooperate. This begs the question what options the IHF really had but, as I said above, it may not matter much because IHF action may have been just what the KOC would find helpful in any event. Isn’t the world of international sports (politics) just fascinating in its transparency and simple logic…!?

Letter from the IOC President to the KOC, dated January 1, 2010: http://www.sarkha.org/images/KUW%20-%20NOC%20suspension%20-%20IOC%20letter%20-%201.January.2010.pdf

Letter from the IHF to the Kuwait Handball Federation, dated January 6, 2010: http://www.alraimedia.com/Alrai/Resources/ARticlesPictures/2010/01/12/03.52.01.jpg

Letter from the IOC to Kuwait, dated December 9, 2009: