Canadian Connection: It all started with a change in IAAF leadership at the meetings held during the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal

By Dr. Linda Blade, President, Athletics Alberta

[Sharing the story as told by Mr. Luciano Barra of Italy]

July 1, 2019

This year (Sept. 27-Oct. 6, 2019) we will all be watching with great interest as the very best Track and Field athletes from around the globe come together, once again, to compete at the IAAF World Championships in Doha.  To many young athletes in the sport it might seem unthinkable that there was a time when the IAAF Worlds did not exist.  Back in the 1970s the IAAF – based in a small office in London, England at that time – ran on a shoestring budget and did not consider it as their mandate to host big events.  Throughout history up until that decade, the main purpose of the IAAF was simply to govern the sport through rules development.  It was always assumed that the Amateur Athletic Association responsible for athletics in England and Wales (AAA) would serve as the “World Championships” for Track & Field and that the Olympic Games would always be the one event that the entire world would be able to attend.

In 2005, while on a two-year sabbatical in Africa and through a very strange set of circumstances, I struck up a pen-pal relationship with the legendary Luciano Barra of Italy.  This man had been a long-time leader of Track & Field in Europe and a walking encyclopedia regarding the history of the sport.  In 2011, Mr. Barra sent me this letter, explaining the backroom politics that led to the very first IAAF World Championships.  I have kept this letter in my private collection for all these years, but it is too good to not share.

Without further ado, I hereby allow the story to be told in Mr. Barra’s own words [NOTE: Keep in mind that Luciano Barra is Italian and has a quaint way of putting things in English]:

“Why had the IAAF never had a World Championships before 1983?  Because at that time, with Lord Burghley, alias the Marquis of Exeter, the President of the IAAF for 34 years and with the an important political and athletics domination by the Anglo-Saxon World, the AAA Championships were considered the actual World Championship in Athletics.  Lord Exeter was at the same time the President of the AAA (the Amateur Athletic Association responsible for athletics in England and Wales) and not by chance his Rolls Royce had the number plate AAA 1.

            The IAAF at that time was surviving, like most other International Federations, on the yearly subscription paid by their affiliated National Federations.  The attitude of the IAAF was somewhat different from other International Federations, being very conservative.  One of the important areas of income the IAAF had was the fee the European Committee (which eventually became the EAA) was paying to the IAAF for each European Championship organised.  We are talking about some thousands of pounds, but for that time it was a considerable amount of money.

            Another aspect that allowed the IAAF to not follow the trend of the other International Federations was the agreement reached by Lord Exeter with Avery Brundage, who he thought he would succeed, to recognize the athletics competition of the Olympic Games, “de facto” the World Championships in Athletics, in exchange for 20% of the Olympic TV income.  We are talking of some hundred thousand dollars, a lot of money for that time.  If such an agreement was in place today it would have meant something like 200/300 million dollars for the IAAF!

            But in mid-seventies things started to change.  Lord Exeter had decided to retire from the IAAF Presidency and so in Montreal in 1976 during the Olympic Games, the IAAF elected to the position somebody who was already two years older than the outgoing President – Adriaan Paulen from The Netherlands.  If anybody considered that this would not have been the right move for the IAAF, they would be wrong.  Paulen had been in pole position to become President for many years before and he was well prepared with many new ideas.  He was also lucky to have as his electoral campaign companion Artur Takac who, after useful IOC experience, particularly at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, was again elected to the IAAF Council, and also as a newly elected member, Ollan Cassel, the Executive Director of the Amateur Athletic Union of the USA.  They were, in different ways, the driving force behind Paulen’s wishes to change athletics.

            It cannot be forgotten that the main supporter Adriaan Paulen had was Horst Dassler, the owner of ADIDAS.  Paulen had probably met him at the time of the 1968 Olympic Games when Paulen had been the IAAF Technical Delegate and he had to resolve the issue connected with the PUMA “brush spikes”, which finally were not allowed.  From then on a positive alliance was born.  New events were introduced such as the IAAF World Cup and the IAAF Golden Series.  The next step was then the World Championships.  Dassler and his team had the foresight to educate Samaranch, Havelange and Nebiolo in understanding that a World Governing Body in sport could not just restrict itself purely to governance and technical legislation.

            And so in record time, only two years after his election, Paulen was able to bring to the 1978 IAAF Congress two very important achievements; the addition of China to the IAAF membership and the approval of the first World Championships to be held in 1983.  Knowing the bureaucracy of Sports bodies, the decision to introduce the first World Championships in such a short space of time was surely a World record in itself!  But those who had met Adriaan Paulen can testify to his great attitude and his efficiency in having new ideas – and delivering it.  One story helps to explain who Paulen was.  He was going to London, where the IAAF had its headquarters led by John Holt, almost every two weeks, which in itself was more than Lord Exeter would have done in one year.  But in order to save money Paulen would drive with his Alfa Romeo to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in the evening, sleep in the car during the night, take the first flight in the morning and then return in the evening of the same day, having spent ten hours in the IAAF’s three-roomed office in Putney!  Can you imagine that today?

            Of course the decision to include the World Championships in the IAAF programme was not enough.  Now it was necessary to establish the framework, to set the financial rules and to find organizers, and then the necessary partners.  The organisation of the World Cup had already rippled the waters in the commercial area, both with television and sponsors, but this was now a totally different operation.  Those eager to organise the Championships had many ambitions and not by chance the two countries who decided to bid were among the most important countries for athletics in Europe :  Germany and FinlandNot only that the two bidding cities were, and still are, the Cathedrals of athletics in Europe – Stuttgart and Helsinki.  Helsinki still is, whilst crazy Stuttgart has now decided to remove their athletics track to please their football club Vf Stuttgart which, at this moment in time, is fighting relegation to their second division!

            The decision was to be taken at the IAAF Council meeting in Paris on the eve of the World Cross Country Championships in 1980, only 16 months after the decision of the Congress to have the World Championships!  Helsinki defeated Stuttgart with the voting 11 to 6.   The decision was obviously a surprise at least for the Germans, who had a big TV group in place to report the decision to the German spectators.  Helsinki’s arguments to the IAAF Council were: Both candidates are obviously competent and have good facilities and experience to arrange great Championships. Therefore the IAAF should give preference this first time to a small country, because in the future it was more likely the Championships will be given mostly to larger countries.  Helsinki also emphasized that because Finland is a politically neutral country, there is no risk of boycotts – those days the boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow was on everyone’s lips.

            Adriaan Paulen was not able to be in the Chair when the Championships took place because in 1981 Primo Nebiolo was elected IAAF President.  However, he was the Organising Delegate of the Championships.  Many people have thought that Paulen did not like Nebiolo.  Surely Paulen was very much afraid of the rising ambitions of Nebiolo.  But with time and age – he was almost 80 when he retired – Paulen understood that Nebiolo could be the only person in the IAAF who could put in place, properly, his dream of the World Championships.  Reluctantly and understandably, but with honesty, he decided to withdraw his candidature in 1981 and pass the baton to Nebiolo.  Needless to say, Horst Dassler and Juan Antonio Samaranch helped that decision.

            That was for Nebiolo a gift that allowed him to fulfill his great capacity as organiser and negotiator.  The IAAF now lives with this heritage but their work is now only a bad photocopy of the period of his groundbreaking Presidency.

            So Helsinki was ready and the motivation of the Finns was unbelievable. The Organizing Committee was chaired by Carl-Olaf Homen, one of the finest leaders of athletics in the world.  It was not by chance that his leadership and the success of the Championships helped him, after the 1983 World Championships, to become President of the Finnish Olympic Committee.”  (Luciano Barra, 2011)