A few days after witnessing the lighting of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Flame, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach is set for more duties in Greece at the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) General Assembly in Crete.

Bach's compatriot Willibald Gebhardt attended the first modern Olympics in Athens 125 years ago, where he suggested the formation in each country of "a strong National Committee, subsidised as much as possible by the Government".

ANOC lists its date of formation as 1979, but in fact a "Permanent General Assembly (PGA) of National Olympic Committees" first took shape in the wake of Tokyo 1964.

It was led by Italian sports official Giulio Onesti, who became an IOC member that year.

Onesti was the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) President and played a pivotal role in the reintegration of Italian sport after the Second World War. 

Italy successfully staged the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo under his watch, and then the 1960 Summer Games in Rome.

There was dialogue between the IOC and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) as far back as 1928, when the IOC met the NOC Presidents in attendance at the Games in Amsterdam.

Since 1952, such meetings had become regular. However, the IOC President then was American multi-millionaire Avery Brundage, who became increasingly dismissive of NOCs as his leadership continued into a second decade.

Historian Allen Guttmann, Brundage's biographer, recalls that American IOC member Douglas Roby told him: "We'd have meetings with the National Olympic Committees and he'd say, 'we'll take it under advisement'.

"He just wouldn't listen. Let them talk and then forget it."

The whole make-up of the Olympic Movement changed during Brundage's Presidency. In 1952, there were only four NOCs in Africa. A decade later, that figure had tripled.

From the late 1950s onwards, IOC members in the Soviet Bloc called for each country to be represented with an IOC member. Brundage, however, had no desire to see the organisation become like the United Nations and many of his fellow members agreed.

To this day, the total number of IOC members is equivalent to just over half of the number of nations which compete at the Olympics.

At the 1963 IOC Session in the German spa town of Baden-Baden, Onesti and CONI secretary Bruno Zauli tabled a list of proposals.

They called for an annual meeting which would "establish better cooperation between the NOCs and the Executive Board of the IOC, which conducts the world's Olympic Movement".

It was suggested that "National Olympic Committees may give their opinion regarding the candidatures of the cities to organise the Olympic Games".

Onesti and Zauli also reiterated a call for the independence of NOCs.

Milan Ercegan of Yugoslavia, later to lead wrestling, Bulgarian member Vladimir Stoytchev and Romanian official Aurel Duma all supported Onesti's call.

There was also backing from Asian officials who felt that they too were being short-changed.

At the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, CONI "asked permission to assemble the representatives of the National Olympic Committees in Rome, in order to coordinate their proposals".

A year later, representatives of 80 NOCs were hosted by Onesti and CONI.

Their meeting had "the precise aim of arriving at mutual assistance and exchange of information amongst the various NOCs and the debating of sports problems", a statement after the event said.

"This meeting was a great success," Onesti told the IOC Session in Madrid a few days later.

"All the delegates had expressed their confidence in the International Olympic Committee and their obedience to the principles preached by the Olympic Movement.

"The organisation of the NOCs forms a solid bulwark for the IOC. The NOCs promised loyal and efficacious cooperation with the IOC."

Onesti headed a Coordination and Study Committee which included experienced officials such as Hugh Weir from Australia, Sandy Duncan, the secretary of the British Olympic Association, and the energetic Jean Claude Ganga of Congo.

When the IOC gathered in Tehran for their 1967 Session, Brundage insisted that the "National Olympic Committees are agents of the International Olympic Committee and the IOC is ever concerned with their well-being".

A share of the burgeoning television rights had now been allocated to them and 109 delegates from 63 NOCs had gathered for their own assembly. Nineteen of the participants were IOC members.

When he addressed the Session, Brundage reported that "many NOCs criticised the IOC and its Executive Board". 

"Especially the younger NOCs which referred to a lack of contact," he said.

His private view of this was much more explicit. "The meeting was loaded with dynamite," he claimed. "They were like a pack of hungry lions."

The IOC restructured its commission for NOCs with Ivar Vind of Denmark as chairman. Like Brundage, Vind was another "hostile witness" who did not see the need for the Assembly. 

Onesti had been at pains to keep Brundage informed of his activities, but the IOC President became increasingly agitated and even primed Mexico 1968 organisers to tell Onesti that there was no space for an NOC meeting.

Soviet member Konstantin Adrianov was supportive. "The NOCs want continuous guidance and like to meet, in order to profit from each other's experience," he said. "They are full grown children and our agents so they also want to be heard."

This was a time when the South African Government insisted on segregation of different ethnic groups under apartheid.

The IOC President's ambivalence towards the expulsion of South Africa saw African and Asian countries raise their voices.

In Mexico, 77 countries met to form the PGA. Onesti, elected as President, informed the IOC that this would meet annually, immediately before the Executive Board meetings with NOC representatives.

Brundage's hostility seems to have been fuelled by a belief that Onesti wanted to replace him as IOC President, although as the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero noted, "Onesti does not have Brundage's money, nor his pride or interest in the office".

The American was unhappy that Onesti made overtures to communist China. In the following decade, Onesti's compatriot Primo Nebiolo would allow them to participate in the Universiade, opening the door at last.

IOC archives contain a letter by Onesti which bemoans the continued criticism from Brundage.

"It is with great respect and bitterness that I observed an entire series of grave accusations against the PGA, its directors and the NOCs," he wrote.

The first formal PGA meeting took place in Dubrovnik in October 1969, and discussed "Olympic aid".

Since the beginning of the decade, French member Jean de Beaumont had called for a programme to be established, to assist new nations which were emerging in Africa and Asia.

Beaumont had run against Brundage for the Presidency in 1968 and was now disparagingly dubbed as "Onesti's second lieutenant" by his rival.

The Frenchman's idea bore fruit and eventually became known as Olympic Solidarity, an organisation headed by Onesti.

The centenary history of the IOC, written in 1994, observed that "in the long run, the IOC was unable to resist growing NOC pressure for a greater say". But the decisive change in relations did not come until Brundage finally stepped down in 1972.

In his place came the Irish peer, Lord Killanin. Under his leadership, the IOC drew closer not only to the NOCs, but also the International Federations.

In a sign of the improved relations, Onesti was soon thanking the IOC for allowing the PGA space in the Olympic Review magazine to document its activities.

In 1977, Australian IOC member David McKenzie drafted a new constitution to re-organise the PGA.

By 1978, when the group met in Mexico, it was resolved that they would become ANOC and the new name was first used at the 1979 Assembly in San Juan.

The Olympic Review noted that "at the centre of the rostrum, IOC President Killanin led the debates". The Executive Board was also present.

Mexican media magnate Mario Vázquez Raña was elected President "by acclamation" but Onesti was not forgotten.

Described as the "prime force behind the unification of the NOCs", he was named Honorary President.

During the Moscow Olympics boycott crisis which followed in 1980, the close association of NOCs proved to be an important factor in limiting the damage to the Olympic Movement.

Onesti died in 1981, but he would surely have been delighted that the Olympic Charter now stipulated that "up to 15 IOC members may also be chosen from Presidents or persons holding an executive or senior leadership position within NOCs, or world or continental associations of NOCs."

Source: https://www.insidethegames.biz