I pick a fine time to interview Svein Arne Hansen, the veteran athletics administrator from Norway who was elected president of European Athletics, the sport’s continental governing body, in 2015 for, he insists, just a single four-year term.
Two years into that term, the jovial 71-year-old might be wishing he had opted for a peaceful retirement instead. The day before our meeting in a Lausanne hotel some sensational allegations about Hansen have been made by Patrik Sjöberg, the Swedish former high jump star whose European record of 2.42 metres set in Stockholm in 1987 still stands (but is under threat – more of that later).
The allegations which, made headlines across Scandinavia, have, however, quickly been withdrawn after Hansen threatened legal action.
Sjöberg had accused Hansen, the former meeting director of Oslo’s Bislett Games, now part of the annual top-tier IAAF Diamond League one-day meetings, of paying ‘clean’ athletes to take doping tests during the 1980s to preserve the meeting’s record of unblemished test results and avoid having to test athletes who were known to be doping.
But a bemused Hansen tells me: “This is insane, this accusation that I had paid him and other athletes to take doping tests because I knew he was clean. I spoke to my lawyer and said I would sue him, and he withdrew.”
Asked how such an allegation could have been concocted if untrue, Hansen suggests that Sjöberg “heard it was done around Europe and [thought] I must know about it. But these are wild accusations. It’s difficult when lies come up like that. I never heard of that kind of thing. In Norway [at that time] all doping tests were done by the anti-doping department of the Norwegian Sports Federation. They picked the athletes to be tested.”
The irony in all this is that Sjöberg’s accusations are a direct reaction to attempts by Hansen, regarded as one of athletics’ most outspoken anti-doping campaigners, to clean up the sport. Sjöberg is one of a group of athletes around the world outraged by a recent, highly controversial proposal by European Athletics to rewrite European and even world records dating from before 2005, the year when athletes’ samples routinely began to be stored for later re-testing. Before this, European Athletics has inferred, it cannot be known with certainty whether or not records have been tainted by doping.
The pressure for such a move has come from today’s athletes, Hansen says, adding: “We have to give a good possibility to today’s athletes. They can go to the Olympics and win European Championships but some are saying they can never make a world record. The report [on rewriting records] is only a part of big reforms, but it’s painful; athletes that got former records, of course they are not so happy. But we have the good support of today’s athletes.”
Later that day, nevertheless, apparently shaken by the ferocity of some of the responses to the plan, European Athletics issues a statement in which Hansen acknowledges that “reactions have been mixed” and adds: “The most controversy comes from some of the current record-holders who, of course, would be personally affected by the proposed reassignment of record recognition. We must be aware of and sympathetic to their concerns.”
“We need more consultation, more work on this,” Hansen tells me. “We have our recommendations, three main principles on which everyone agrees - but they don’t like their own records to be taken away. We’re proposing consultations with the IAAF and then hopefully we’ll be ready to take a decision in our council meeting in London in August [at this summer’s IAAF World Championships].”
We have to give a good possibility to today’s athletes. They can go to the Olympics and win European Championships but some are saying they can never make a world record
It’s difficult in all this to avoid the conclusion that Hansen has simply heaved a giant boulder into a pond and sat back to watch the waves it creates, with perhaps no genuine expectation of his plan being fulfilled (especially as he might not be around to see it through to its conclusion). Sebastian Coe, the IAAF president, seemed to have reached a similar conclusion a few days earlier when he told the BBC: “I welcome the debate, there has to be a debate, and these proposals will come back to the council and I look forward to, maybe, counter-proposals. I do think we have to start somewhere.”
But Hansen insists: “To be quite honest it’s on the table, it’s for discussion. But we believe in it, that’s why we’re doing it. Seb said to the athletes, ‘come up with counter-proposals’, but we’re not going to do nothing.
“Many records will completely fulfil the criteria: everything from the Olympics, for example. We will have debate and consultation in the next month. I am quite confident this will go through in council. We wanted to do something to make it better in sport. I’m glad there has been a lot of discussion about athletes who would lose records. If there are tainted records, that means there are other [clean] athletes who didn’t get a record; no one is speaking for them now.
“So many athletes cheated that we can’t be sure that it is a world best performance. We won’t say the record will go to number two or three on the list. It has to be a new record; we have to start with a clean sheet. Everybody has self-interest, but our thinking is: no individual is bigger than the sport.”
One way or another, doping has dominated Hansen’s presidency so far, led by the huge scandal in Russian athletics of the last two years. ARAF, the Russian athletics federation suspended by the IAAF in late 2015 because of its part in the scandal, is also, of course, a member of European Athletics. Asked how he would characterise the damage done to the sport, Hansen says: “It’s very serious when one of the biggest federations is involved on that level. We knew there was doping going on, we heard especially that the [race]walkers [were doping] during the last decade. I even got information from Sydney [the 2000 Olympics] that I sent to the IAAF, but I don’t know what happened to it. But I had no idea that it was on this level in every other discipline. We could speculate but we could not prove it. It was also in a lot of other countries, especially in countries where medals bring higher salaries.”
Those implicated in the scandal include not only ARAF and individual Russian athletes, but also members of the IAAF hierarchy including former president Lamine Diack, who is now under investigation in France on money-laundering and corruption charges. “More shocking was the betrayal of the president and the people around him for selling out for a fistful of dollars,” says Hansen. “I heard later that Lamine didn’t want me in council because he was afraid I was asking too many questions.”
As for Coe, as an IAAF vice-president during the years of the doping conspiracy, critics have claimed that either he knew what was going on, or else he should have known, if he was doing his job properly. Hansen has counted Coe a friend ever since he competed as an athlete at the Bislett Games, breaking the 800-metres word record there in 1979, and thus helping confirm the status of the famously fast track in Oslo - so I realise Hansen is unlikely to be one of those critics.
Sure enough, he tells me: “For me and for Europe today, Seb is absolutely the right person [to lead the IAAF]. We elected him and he has done a formidable job in the last one and a half years, in spite of all the firefighting. We have got some very strong reforms and the president’s role is much weaker than before.”
Diack is alleged to have been able to exploit his role to blackmail athletes that were caught doping because the position of president was all-powerful, and he was subject to little scrutiny or oversight. However, under reforms approved in December last year, the IAAF president’s powers have been reduced, with Coe having acknowledged, “We should have known more. We did ask questions, and received answers, but without formal checks and balances the accuracy of the answers could never be verified.”
Hansen describes as “true leadership” Coe’s success in pushing these and other reforms through by 182 votes to just 10, adding: “Today I don’t hear anyone asking for his resignation. But of course I’m a friend, a true believer.” But, I persist, what about the charge that Coe either knew, or should have known, about the Russian doping scandal and the part IAAF officials, including the president, were playing in it? “It’s difficult,” Hansen replies, “I was not there.” Hansjörg Wirz, Hansen’s predecessor as president of European Athletics, was a member of the IAAF’s ruling Council at the time, but, says Hansen, “he asked questions but never got any answers.”
If there are tainted records, that means there are other [clean] athletes who didn’t get a record; no one is speaking for them now
Asked what he thinks will be the eventual outcome of his proposal to rewrite the record books, in view of his expected departure in two years, Hansen says: “I think it’s likely to be adopted, but probably with a couple of changes. We have to listen; if there are no changes, then there will not have been a debate. This is not a one-man show, being president. It’s teamwork. We have the full support of the executive board in everything we do, there’s no disagreement. That’s unusual when what we’re coming up with involves creativity. When I was vice-president I was quite frustrated because I didn’t see the progress I wanted.”
Hansen was born in 1946 and brought up in Bygdøy,a peninsula on the western side of Oslo. Growing up, he says, he was “doing a lot of sports like everyone else,” but his own career as an athlete was “not good.” If the results from the city championships at the time he was competing were to be turned on their head, he says modestly, then “I am on top.”
However, at the age of just 17 he was responsible for forming an ice hockey club, becoming its first chairman, and entering the team into a league. Meanwhile, having taken a degree in mathematics, he became a track and field referee while presenting a sports programme at a local radio station, which he continued for six years from 1968.
In 1972, the day before that year’s edition of the Bislett Games, the organiser was injured by a stray javelin and, having made his mark as a referee, Hansen was asked to stand in. From 1973 until 1979, he was assistant to the organiser and in 1985 he was appointed the meeting director, with the primary role of persuading athletes to compete at the games. Meanwhile, in 1975 he had applied to join the sports department of NRK, the Norwegian public-service broadcaster, but was turned down and so turned to his other main interest, stamp collecting, and started a stamp shop.
This set the pattern for the majority of his career: running the Bislett Games in the summer, while working as a stamp dealer for the rest of the year. “It gave me freedom, I always had time,” he says. “I didn’t have to ask my boss if I wanted time off to go to a championships. I was able to build up friendships with athletes - special relationships that don’t exist with [athletes’] managers nowadays.” Some managers are good, he concedes, but others are “just there to rip off athletes.”
Making a living from combining his two passions - athletics and stamp-collecting - is “very unusual,” Hansen says, but for him the combination worked well. The stamp business was small, albeit some clients were prepared to spend between £1 million and £2 million a year on their hobby. He sold the shop in the early 1990s but continued to work with “a couple of companies - whatever I bought, they sold,” and retained an office in a stamp shop until five years ago. Now, he says, “my turnover is small because I don’t have the time. I still follow the catalogues, but there are no bargains because of the internet.”
In 2001, the Norwegian athletics federation asked Hansen to become a vice president, and he went on to become president in 2003, being re-elected unopposed six times, he tells me proudly. Between 2007 and 2011 he was a vice-president of European Athletics before being elected president in 2015 with a manifesto which argued, among other things: “We need to grow the commercial value of our competition programme.”
Hansen has already told me that, in taking on the European Athletics presidency against the background of the Russian doping crisis, “I took on a lot. For the moment I’m putting a little bit of a stop on new projects because I’m afraid I’m overworking people too much.” Nevertheless, he’s in Lausanne for a workshop with other European athletics leaders about strategies for improving the popularity of athletics, which has been on the wane since its heyday in Europe of the 1970s and 1980s.
European Athletics is also working to “create a new event match between Europe and USA, a ‘Ryder Cup for athletics’. We’re negotiating with USA Track and Field and aiming for 2019.”
“We’re also carrying out a detailed review of all of our events, their strengths and weaknesses and commercial value and also the resources required, both time and money, so we have a clearer picture: do we invest more, or less, on an event?”
Faster, higher and longer: these three words are still valid – but it must always be a fair competition, with everyone in the same playing ground
Meanwhile, new formats are also being considered. “We’re not doing a Nitro, but it’s the same impulse” Hansen says, referring to the new Nitro athletics team event pioneered by Usain Bolt in Australia in February, which involves six teams of 24 athletes participating in non-traditional events such as middle-distance and hurdles relays. Citing format experiments in other sports such as beach volleyball, soccer, rugby and cricket, he asks: “Is there something [different] we can do, based on research with the public?”
Hansen claims that European Athletics’ involvement in the planned new combined European Championships in 2018, together with six other sports, has “created additional value for us.” Glasgow will host events in aquatics, cycling, golf, gymnastics, rowing and triathlon, with Berlin staging the athletics competition, as the sports’ European championships are amalgamated. Hansen says: “We’re in the process of negotiating a new [TV rights] contract with the EBU [European Broadcasting Union]. If successful, it will create more marketing value.”
The future of the European Athletics Championships is now firmly tied to the combined event, Hansen tells me, and European Athletics is heavily involved in negotiations for a host city for the second edition in 2022. However, hosting the athletics in Berlin in 2018 while the other six sports are in Glasgow could potentially dissipate the effect of combining the sports into a single event.
“What we have to do is be more clear on the marketing of this event,” Hansen says. “In future it has to be co-ordinated better. But I can only see value because I come from a winter sport nation [where sports are regularly combined to create a single event]. What we have been promised is that people will watch Glasgow for a week, and then they’ll be more interested to watch [the athletics from Berlin on TV]. There will be some overlap of events from Glasgow; it’s a 10-day programme.”
However, the European Athletics Championships are biennial, whereas the combined European Championships are quadrennial, meaning that only alternate editions of European Athletics’ flagship competition will be part of the larger event (Paris will stage the standalone athletics championships in 2020, European Athletics recently announced). Could this be confusing for audiences?
Hansen demurs, pointing out that, “The EBU, we hope, will be a partner throughout. The European [Athletics] Championships is a fantastic event; the other events should be happy we joined forces with them! Amsterdam [which hosted the athletics championships last year] was a big success, from a spectators, and also a TV, point of view. There was speculation whether we can make it work in an Olympic year [until recently the European Athletics Championship was also quadrennial and thus avoided Olympic years], but Amsterdam dispelled the doubts. The case has been proven, and it’s up to us to keep making it happen.”
Omega, the Swiss watchmaker, recently declined to renew its deal to act as timing sponsor of European Athletics, and I’ve heard that it cited the Russian doping scandal in making the decision. Hansen says: “It has been a problem, we cannot deny it. We lost one sponsor because of all the problems in the world [of athletics]. But they cannot show there is anything problematic in European Athletics. I haven’t heard any accusations about corruption or anything bad. The measures we are taking, I hope, can put us on a better footing with sponsors.”
So can the long-term decline of athletics in Europe be halted, or is it just finding its natural level? After all, athletics is just one of many sports that is struggling to compete with the juggernaut that is soccer.
“We’re starting at this afternoon’s workshop to find new ways to make the sport more popular,” Hansen replies. “Today is the starting point to see what we can do to improve athletics, and improve our competitions. It will be interesting to follow up the ideas we have. We have people from the IAAF, from UK Athletics, but also some entertainment, business and production people. It’s about making athletics more of an entertainment product than today.”
Why does it matter? What is the purpose of sport, I ask? What is the purpose of athletics? “It’s fair play,” Hansen replies. “It’s the way humans can strive to improve their qualities and performances, competing against equals. Faster, higher and longer: these three words are still valid – but it must always be a fair competition, with everyone in the same playing ground.”
The accusations from Sjöberg have capped a difficult first half of his presidency for Hansen. Was he expecting so much aggravation? “I got more than I asked for,” he admits ruefully, but adds: “I enjoy it. I have people around me who are very hard workers. This is not a one-man show. It’s been a very active two years but I am met everywhere with optimism. By the end of the year I will have visited all but about five or six of the 51 countries [that make up European Athletics’ membership].”
“Many places don’t even have a stadium, for example Warsaw doesn’t have a proper athletics stadium, but everywhere people are optimistic. In the modern world we’re fighting with all other sports. But more young people are coming to athletics. I have a feeling that is everywhere the trend, but they need facilities.”