In a world of disruption, the Olympics confronts the World Friendship Games 3WIRESPORTS

Now set for September in Russia. At the Olympics: win a medal. Friendship Games: win, get paid. The number one complaint athletes have about the Olympic movement is that they can't make money.

Meet the International Olympic Committee-disapproved Friendship Games taking place in Russia this September: 36 sports, 21 venues, 17 in Moscow, four in Ekaterinburg (including athletics from 18-22 September). 

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 a 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 2024 World Friendship Games and the creation of the 'International Friendship Association' have been widely circulating in recent days – confirming 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 multi-sport 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 to international sports activities for athletes from all countries and sports organisations, and to develop new formats for international sports cooperation," it continues. 

"The World Friendship Games honours the human right to participate in sport without political interference. The only criterion for participation in the Games is the sporting merit of the athletes, who will be invited individually on the basis of the recommendations of national sports federations and international athletic ratings," it concluded. 

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

The workaround is "individually invited ." And the part about getting paid - that's very real. If you're on a team, you get paid - that's real too.

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

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

To begin with, the US intelligence agencies, for instance, on Monday described an "ncreasingly fragile world order." 

As a clear 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 call a "confrontational" Russia and "ambitious but anxious" China. Now consider the emerging Global South; too, the economic power of the Gulf States, and their growing reach in world sport; the voices of South American and Africa, which can rightly feel subordinated in international sport; what the intelligence directors called "more capable non-state actors … challenging the longstanding rule of the international system"; and finally, the desire of athletes everywhere to get paid. 

It is a combustible mix. 

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

On the eve of the Paris Olympics, another war in the Middle East has suddenly attracted enormous attention. 

One person in particular has tapped into these threads, steadfastly promising - and, so far, delivering - to put the athletes of 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 that it has booted the IBA out of the Olympic space. The dispute is now being played 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 programme in Paris this summer and in Los Angeles in 2028. 

If the IOC wins this 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 clearly emerged as the driving force to and through its implementation. 

Within the IBA, Kremlev is the one who found a new way to richly pay winning boxers - $200,000 to the men's gold medallists at the 2023 IBA World Championships 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 Yekaterinburg, Russia? 

Either way, dollars are dollars.

This is the crux of the matter. 

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

This is the question facing not only the IOC, but also the several dozen of Olympic federations. 

The immediate institutional response seems all too predictable. On the one hand, all the 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 it were Saudi Arabia or China, would the reaction be the same? 

If the Friendship Games were being held in Eugene, Oregon, or London or Lausanne, Switzerland, would this be the reaction of World Athletics? 

In a letter dated 8 March, 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 performances wouldn't count for world ranking purposes. 

Can World Athletics stop anyone from going? The letter states that participation is a "personal choice."

The World Anti-Doping Agency issued a communique on Monday expressing "concern" about "Russia's plans to host the Friendship Games, an unsanctioned event," stating that "the health and fairness of athletes may be compromised" and urging all "not [to] legitimise this event" as WADA "cannot vouch" for the anti-doping programme that may or may not be in place. 

More: the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, WADA pointed out, is currently non-compliant; there is currently no WADA-accredited laboratory 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? 

In any case, please read closely from the Friendship Games bulletin: "Doping control at the 2024 World Friendship Games will be conducted by a specialised anti-doping organisation in accordance with the international standards and requirements of the World Anti-Doping Code." 

Note: it does not say the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA). It says an anti-doping agency. 

The Friendship Games are expected to attract "over 6,000 athletes from more than 70 countries." 

Compare: Paris 2024 will see around 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 these many thousands?

Bach is keenly aware of the danger of a Friendship Games-style competition, saying at the IOC meeting last year where the IBA was banned: 

"We will have Games of political bloc A, Games of political bloc B and separate Games for countries that 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 else, 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 guarantee of anything. What do those TV commercials 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 presided over a series of governance and programme reforms. 

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

On the Friendship Games program: "acrobatic rock 'n' roll," on 19 September in Moscow. And mixed martial arts, 15-17 September in Yekaterinburg. 

In all, 36 sports, 208 disciplines, 283 medals. 

Olympic television numbers are down dramatically. 

Worldwide, 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 Paris, 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 (generally speaking, the Games have survived and thrived this long for good reason), but a 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?

Original article published at 3WireSports. Published at with permission of the author, Alan Abrahamson.