Perhaps the most frequent criticism of the Olympic Movement as an entity is that it lacks independence.

There are almost constant calls for sports bodies to become more independent, and you do not need to delve too far into the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Movement in general to find reasons why.

Conflicts of interest are everywhere. Numerous officials wear different hats and often have more than one horse in the race when it comes to crucial and contentious debates and decisions.

One such example among the many highlighted when the IOC Session convened in Tokyo before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was the fact the membership is responsible for electing the chair of the organisation’s secretive and opaque Ethics Commission - the very same body which may end up investigating them.

An IOC member with particular expertise in this area is Canadian lawyer Richard Pound, who led the probe into the infamous Salt Lake City 2002 corruption scandal.

The investigation chaired by Pound, the IOC’s doyen, resulted in 10 IOC members being either expelled or forced to resign after they were found to have accepted gifts from the Bidding Committee in exchange for their vote in the race for the 2002 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

A further 10 were sanctioned in what remains one of the Movement’s darkest episodes.
Pound, probably the most honest and direct member of the IOC cohort, admits this came at a personal cost. "When I chaired the Ad Hoc Commission that investigated the conduct of IOC members in relation to the Salt Lake City bid for the 2002 Winter Games, I was investigating IOC members who would be voting in the upcoming Presidential election," he told insidethegames.

"It was, in my view, more important to save the IOC than to try to curry favour with the members under investigation and I knew that rigorous independent investigation finished any realistic possibility that I could become President."

Should it be this way? In this case, the investigation led to positive outcomes for the IOC, including much-needed reforms, but some will suggest this is just how politics works.

More generally, the Olympic world often struggles to strike a balance between electing or appointing people with little or no connection to sport and ensuring there is sufficient expertise in the right areas.

Those who have lambasted the IOC and sports bodies for not being independent have also failed to define exactly what it is.

"Independence can be quite an elastic concept, when applied by others - often quite different from those who are, in fact independent," Pound said.

"Most often, the context of external evaluation is connected with material advantage of some sort or the prospect (or suspicion) of a limitation - or perceived limitation - on the exercise of judgment or decision-making.

"It is often not unlike the difference between something that is in the public interest, as opposed to something that may be of interest to members of the public.

"The Olympic Movement and the IOC in particular are regularly castigated as lacking independence, principally because they are not subject to review by organisations outside the Olympic Movement or the IOC.

"The claims have become all but mantra, with very little analysis of the nature of judgments to be exercised nor, indeed, to the requisite knowledge and experience required in any particular circumstance, not to mention internal disciplinary codes and sanctions in respect of bias or incompetence.

"Organisations should have the right to determine their own policies. Naysayers would have decisions made by people having no connection whatsoever with the organisation, even where competence is crucial."

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has been having this struggle for what feels like an eternity, seemingly since founding President Pound took the reins in 1999.

While WADA’s ongoing, protracted governance review has resulted in the addition of two independent members to its Executive Committee, critics claim that does not go far enough in addressing alleged conflicts of interest within the watchdog.

There is a view that WADA is completely controlled by the IOC, even if the other half of its decision-making roles are held by public authority officials who are separate from the Olympic Movement.

It is a dynamic that Pound, who led WADA until being succeeded by the late John Fahey in 2007, is all too familiar with.

"As President of WADA, my role was to keep both the Olympic stakeholders and the public authorities focused on the challenges facing the prospect of doping-free sport and to deal with each stakeholder group even-handedly, noting both good and unsatisfactory efforts," Pound, who chaired the first independent investigation into state-sponsored doping in Russia, recalled.

"Even though many of the stakeholders were less than enthusiastic about having independent review of their anti-doping activities and commitment.

"There were few willing to raise their heads above the parapet, but they did not hesitate to try indirect attacks against WADA as an organisation and its governance.

"Athletes were encouraged to portray themselves as victims of WADA rules that were designed to provide the kinds of initiatives for doping-free sport for which they had clamoured."

While Pound disputes questions surrounding the IOC’s independence, he admits the organisation has work to do when it comes to tackling Federations whose governance standards fall well short of the standards the IOC itself claims to adhere to.

"There are clearly ongoing issues with IFs (International Federations), NFs (National Federations) and NOCs (National Olympic Committees) regarding matters such as safe sport, harassment, corruption, manipulation of sporting outcomes and other failings," Pound said.

"The IOC has been, arguably, less than forceful in dealing with IFs whose conduct and governance is damaging to the Olympic Movement and the financial reliance of many of them on funding from the IOC provides leverage for conduct change that can be used to greater advantage."

There is arguably nobody better to offer an opinion on independence and governance than Pound, a man who has quite literally seen it all.

"Internal independence is a frame of mind and can be exercised regardless of other sport relationships," he said.

"When I was WADA President, there was never any question of hesitating to apply the World Anti-Doping Code to all stakeholders. The Russian investigation in 2015 was the first occasion on which the stakeholders had given WADA the power to conduct its own investigations.

"Similarly, there was not the slightest hesitation in finding what appeared to be criminal conduct on the part of an IOC member and preparing a detailed report for submission to Interpol, notwithstanding that an IOC colleague was involved and that I was an IOC member.

"Independence can have its price, as was the case with the Salt Lake City investigation. I disagreed with the manner in which the Russian investigation in 2016 and the following years played out, basically the first time in 40 years as an IOC member in which I have had a major disagreement with the official IOC position.

"I was free to express that disagreement and equally free to have been disciplined for having done so. That goes with the notion of independence."