In a world of disruption, the Olympics confronts the World Friendship Games

March 16, 2024

The No. 1 complaint athletes have about the Olympic movement is that they can’t make money.

Meet the International Olympic Committee-disapproved Friendship Games, coming this September in Russia: 36 sports, 21 venues, 17 in Moscow, four in Ekaterinburg (including track and field Sept. 18-22).

Total prize money, across all sports: $100 million. Winners get $40,000. Second place, $25,000. Third, $17,000. No ‘Olympic village.’ Instead, you’ll be welcome in three- or four-star hotels.

Push, meet shove – brought to the world in some significant measure by Umar Kremlev, arguably one of the most provocative and interesting figures in world sport in 2024. 

These details and more about the World Friendship Games 2024 and the creation of the ‘International Friendship Association’ have been widely circulating in recent days – confirmation of what some see as a ploy by an isolated Russia or, more likely, an existential threat to the IOC, now in its third century, and what the IOC stands for. 

Since 1896, the Olympic world has operated on the notion of an aspirational ideal – the promotion of world peace by bringing the athletes of the world together in the hope that one-to-one exchange can reveal that we are all, in the end, more alike than different.

That’s not what the IFA – to be based in Abu Dhabi – is about. 

“The World Friendship Games is an international commercial multisport tournament held under the auspices of the International Friendship Association,” the details proclaim.

“The purpose of the Games is to create an effective platform for high-performance sports, to ensure the non-discriminatory access of athletes from all countries and sports organizations to international sports activities, and to develop new formats for international sporting cooperation.

“The World Friendship Games honors the human right to participate in sport without political interference. The only criterion for participation in the Games is the athletes’ sporting achievements, and they will be invited individually based on the recommendations of national sports federations and international athletic ratings.”

Quarrel, if you will, with all of this, especially the part about “without political interference.”

The workaround is “invited individually.” And the part about getting paid—that’s very real. If you’re on a team, getting paid—that’s real, too.

We are, ladies and gentlemen, at an inflection point.

As International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has said repeatedly over his 10-plus years in office, sport and politics very much do find each other. 

To start, U.S. intelligence agencies, for instance, on Monday described an “increasingly fragile world order.” 

As a distinct corollary, this space has pointed out numerous times in the past 12 to 18 months that Western hegemony over international sport is fraying.

Start with a powerful one-two in what those American intelligence agencies called a “confrontational” Russia and “ambitious but anxious” China. Now consider the emerging Global South; too, the economic power of the Gulf states, and their increasing reach in world sport; the South American and African voices who not unreasonably can feel subordinate in international sport; what the intelligence directors called “more capable non-state actors … challenging longstanding rule of the international system”; finally, add in the desire of athletes everywhere to get paid.

This is a combustible mix. 

Also, this: the war in Ukraine is indefensible. All the same, the many nations of the world are not lined up behind Ukraine.

Heading toward the Paris Olympics, another war in the Middle East has suddenly captured enormous attention.

One person in particular has tapped into these threads, steadfastly promising — and, so far, delivering — to put the athletes in his sport first, and this is why the much-bigger Friendship Games represents such a dangerous threat to the IOC: Kremlev, the Russian head of the International Boxing Association.

The IOC is so miffed at Kremlev it booted the IBA from the Olympic space. That dispute now plays itself out at the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport. 

It’s foreseeable that the IOC will prevail there. 

Boxing will still be on the Olympic program in Paris this summer and in Los Angeles in 2028. 

If the IOC wins that battle – what about the long-term war?

Kremlev, as any number of documents readily available have made plain, is one of those who proposed the idea of arranging the Friendship Games and has unequivocally emerged as a driving force to and through implementation.

Within the IBA, Kremlev is the one who tapped into a new way to richly pay winning boxers—$200,000 to the 2023 IBA world championship men’s gold medalists in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and $100,000 to the women’s winners in New Delhi. By 2027, the plan is that the men’s winners will get $1 million.

Money talks.

We live in age of disruption – in our global order, politics, media, world sport. Money is a proven disruptor in soccer (Doha 2022, Saudi Arabia 2034) and golf (LIV). 

For decades, activists in the United States have been wrangling to see college athletes get paid for playing sports. Now they can – via name, image and likeness, or NIL, deals.

What is the difference between NIL money in the bank account for high-jumping at, say, an NCAA meet in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and prize money for an Olympic-style event in Ekaterinburg, Russia?

Either way, dollars are dollars.

This is the crux of the matter.

Ask: is this the change, perhaps long overdue, on the Olympic horizon?

This is the question facing not just the IOC but the several dozen Olympic federations. 

The immediate institutional response seems all too predictable. On the one hand, all federations pay enormous lip service to the concept that athletes are at the core, the heart, of everything they do. Then this innovative way to pay athletes appears—and what?

If this were not Russia, would it be different?

If this were Saudi Arabia, would the response be the same? China?

If the Friendship Games were being put on in Eugene, Oregon, or London or Lausanne, Switzerland, would this be the response from World Athletics?

In a March 8 letter, it advised its more than 200 member federations that the Friendship Games would not be part of its global calendar, and therefore, any world records that might be set there wouldn’t count. Similarly, any performance wouldn’t count for world ranking purposes.

Can World Athletics stop anyone from going? The letter says participation is a “personal choice.” 

The World Anti-Doping Agency issued a communique Monday expressing “concerns” about “Russia’s plans to stage the Friendship Games, an unsanctioned event,” declaring “health and fairness for athletes may be compromised” and urging all “not [to] legitimize this event” as WADA “cannot vouch” for the anti-doping program that may or not be in place.

More: the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, WADA pointed out, is currently non-compliant; there’s currently no WADA-accredited lab in the country, and “overall trust in the anti-doping system in Russia remains low.”

Asking for a friend: isn’t this last assertion kinda on WADA and certain Western nations because they’re the ones charged with rebuilding the Russian system? 

At any rate, please read closely from the Friendship Games bulletin: “Doping control at the World Friendship Games 2024 will be performed by a specialist anti-doping organization in accordance with the international standards and requirements of the World Anti-Doping Code.”

Note: it does not say the Russian anti-doping agency. It says an anti-doping agency. 

The Friendship Games expects “over 6,000 athletes from more than 70 countries.”

Compare: Paris 2024 will see roughly 11,000 athletes from over 200 national Olympic committees.

With respect to WADA and the several dozen Summer Games federations, let’s say over 6,000 athletes do indeed show up. What would motivate those many thousands?

Bach is keenly aware of the danger of a Friendship Games-style competition, saying last year at the IOC session at which the IBA was banished:

“We will have Games of political bloc A, Games of political bloc B and separate Games for countries who don’t want to align themselves. Universal Olympic Games will no longer be possible. World Championships in the true sense will no longer be possible.”

This raises another logical series of questions: should they be? 

The Olympic Games, like everything, need to be relevant. 

What happened to Blockbuster? The printed version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica? Howard Johnson’s restaurants?

Woolworth’s lunch counters? AM radio? Disco?

Just because the modern Olympics have been around for 130 years is no assurance of anything. What do those TV ads say? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

To his credit, Bach has sought to drag the IOC, a tradition-minded, Eurocentric institution, into the 21st century. He has directed a series of governance and program reforms.

For all that, though, the IOC is struggling mightily to attract and maintain interest among its key demographic, 18- to 34-year-olds. This is why it has added sports such as surfing, skateboarding and breakdancing, or in IOC jargon, breaking, in a Paris 2024 one-and-done, to the program.

On the Friendship Games program: “acrobatic rock ‘n roll,” Sept. 19, in Moscow. And mixed martial arts, Sept. 15-17, in Ekaterinburg. 

In all, 36 sports, 208 disciplines, 283 medal sets.

Olympic television numbers are down dramatically. 

Globally, from 3.6 billion in London in 2012 to 3.05 billion in Tokyo 2020/1, 15%. 

In the United States, roughly 50% from London to Tokyo, roughly 31.1 million average in primetime to 15.6 million across TV and digital platforms. 

The IOC’s big hope is that, after the so-called Asian triple – PyeongChang 2018 and the two Covid Games in Tokyo and Beijing – Paris will jumpstart renewed interest in the Olympics, revving things up even more for LA in 2028. 

What, though, if the opening ceremony – the plan calls for a flotilla of boats down the Seine – is beset by a security flaw?

Or something else during the Paris Games goes askew?

Or even if everything goes right, the TV numbers don’t rock?

Or – the athletes of the world go, the Olympics are everything the IOC hopes for (speaking generally, the Games have survived and thrived this long for good reason), but some significant number still decide:

World peace is all good, and the together thing can be fun, but … when it comes to higher, faster, stronger, I want to (try to) get paid.

Isn’t that entirely – reasonable?