Philip Barker

This week 40 years ago, Carl Lewis, Ed Moses, Ulrike Meyfarth, Jarmila Kratochvílová, Steve Ovett and Seb Coe were amongst the winners at the 1981 Athletics World Cup in Rome’s Olympic stadium.

Yet perhaps the biggest victor that week was the Italian athletics official Primo Nebiolo, who had been President of the Organising Committee for the event.

At the Opening Ceremony, when he greeted Italy’s President Sandro Pertini, Nebiolo had just succeeded Dutchman Adriaan Paulen as the head of World Athletics, then known as the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF).

An official IAAF history described how "it was at the end of summer when the man who first as an excellent athlete and later as an official handed over the Presidential chair of the most prestigious sports federation in the world to his successor.

"At 79 I can no longer climb the barricades," Paulen was reported as saying. The reality was rather different. 

Seb Coe was one of the victors on the track in Rome in 1981, while others were victors off it ©Getty Images
Seb Coe was one of the victors on the track in Rome in 1981, while others were victors off it ©Getty Images

A plot was hatched by Adidas supremo Horst Dassler to ensure that Nebiolo won the race to lead World Athletics. Dassler’s influence had already grown beyond the world of sportswear. He had thrown his weight behind FIFA President Joao Havelange, enabling world football’s governing body to develop a highly successful commercial plan thanks largely to the efforts of Patrick Nally, a pioneer in sports marketing, and gave his tacit backing to Juan Antonio Samaranch, who served as International Olympic Committee President for 21 years after being elected in 1980.

Dassler viewed Nebiolo as "someone he could manipulate". He had been an IAAF council member since 1972 and was known to be fiercely ambitious and there were many who already regarded him with suspicion.

"There’s no question that Nebiolo and Horst planned this together," Nally said. "Primo knew he would not win an election so it had to be structured in a way that there was nobody else running for it."

Paulen had only become IAAF president in 1976 when he was already 74, but he had impressed many with his willingness to innovate. He had been older than his immediate predecessor, the Marquess of Exeter, yet had sensed the wind of change in sport and laid the ground for athletes to receive open payment.

"Despite his age, he was a wonderful person, he didn’t have any ambitions of a big hotel suite, Adriaan was a really great down to earth individual," Nally said. "Of all the men I met throughout my long career, I had greater admiration and respect for him."

Adriaan Paulen served as IAAF President from 1976 to 1981, before being succeeded by Primo Nebiolo ©Getty Images
Adriaan Paulen served as IAAF President from 1976 to 1981, before being succeeded by Primo Nebiolo ©Getty Images

In 1977, Paulen was behind the launch of the World Cup, a competition in which select teams from each continent met in a match format. In keeping with its amateur tradition, the sport had previously regarded the Olympic Games as the de facto world championships. However, the inaugural competition was held in Dusseldorf and proved to be a success. It was then scheduled to take place every two years. This was to be followed by an official World Athletics Championships, which were to be held quadrennially, on which Paulen had worked with IAAF Treasurer Fred Holder to make the arrangements.

Paulen had not pleased everyone. At the 1972 Munich Games, he crossed swords with the American pole vaulter Bob Seagren, who had not been permitted to use a newly designed fibreglass pole. He also caused controversy when he revoked the suspensions of athletes for professionalism. On his watch, three Romanian and two Bulgarian athletes were reinstated after doping offences.

Even so, Paulen was expected to run for a second term as President of the Federation and, such was the esteem in which he was held, no other members were willing to run against him.

The election was originally scheduled to take place in Moscow at the time of the Olympics. However, by the time the IAAF council met in March 1980 during the World Cross Country Championships in Paris, there were already calls for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The IAAF bulletin reported "considerable controversy hung over the Moscow Olympics and the participation of a large number of IAAF members in our world championships (the Olympic Games) appeared to be in jeopardy."

The council issued a statement supporting the Moscow Games and sent letters to each country to establish the "likely attendance strength" for the Congress in Moscow. When the council met in Rome that June, they heard that only 60 of 161 members were likely to be present in Moscow. The council, which included both Paulen and Nebiolo, resolved to "make decisions in urgent matters".

These included the postponement of the Presidential election, which was subsequently rescheduled to take place at an Extraordinary Congress in Rome at the time of the 1981 IAAF World Cup.

Nebiolo's IAAF Presidency was described as
Nebiolo's IAAF Presidency was described as "a litany of murky manipulations", following his controversial 1981 election ©Getty Images

This left Dassler free to concentrate on Olympic business in Moscow and handed home advantage to Nebiolo for the IAAF election. After applications had closed, it emerged that Paulen and Nebiolo were the only candidates. Paulen was the overwhelming favourite - until Nebiolo's machine got to work.

"The whole thing was a complete plan for Primo to be elected unopposed and the only way to do that was to get Adriaan to step down after the closure date," Nally recalled. "That’s when Horst started working on getting Adriaan to be doubting." 

Dassler convinced Paulen that he would be "at risk personally and image-wise if he didn’t step down," Nally said. Nally enjoyed a good relationship with Paulen and was enlisted to help. "It is one of my great regrets in life, that I was actively encouraged, bullied also by both Primo and Horst to convince Adriaan that he should step down," he admitted. 

In June 1981, Paulen sent a letter to all the National Federation Presidents. "I have decided to withdraw my candidacy for the Presidency," he wrote. "As I am nearing my 80th birthday, the question of choosing my successor has become acute. I therefore believe that it is essential, in order to preserve unity in the IAAF, that only one candidate should be proposed. This is even more important as it has become clear that a majority of our Federations consider Dr Primo Nebiolo to be a suitable successor to your present President."

There was no election and Nebiolo duly became President.

"Paulen bought the bluff," wrote veteran athletics writer John Rodda. He described Nebiolo’s leadership as "a litany of murky manipulations," the first of which came in 1981.

But from that time on, Nebiolo never faced an electoral challenge and died in office 18 years later.