Monday, January 16, 2017

Sandor Talas: “I'm not leaving the sport, just my official role”

After four years as MTBO Commission's Chairman, Sandor Talas announced last 21st December his resignation. It was an irrevocable decision, based on a “serious gap between the Council's and my view on the role of the MTBO Commission, the optimal path to develop this discipline, and our responsibility regarding the use of the limited time and enthusiasm of our volunteers”. To the Portuguese Orienteering Blog, Sandor explained the reasons that led him to take such an unexpected position.

Four weeks ago, you resigned from your place as MTBO Commission's Chairman. Was such outcome inevitable?

Sandor Talas (S. T.) - This was the final stage of a long process. During my four years as Chairman of the MTBO Commission I considered resignation multiple times. Only the plea and support of my friends in the Commission kept me going. I kept making compromises in order to be able to push ahead the cause of MTBO, but it was getting more and more difficult with each compromise.

In many ways the last drop was both a typical and interesting experience that recalled feelings from my youth in Communist Hungary. The Council introduced new, Olympics related tasks in the remit of the Commission: do annual evaluation of MTBO against the Olympic evaluation criteria (when even FootO is light-years away from the Olympic Games) and seek inclusion in the Youth Olympic Games (an event only for Olympic sports).

I tried to discuss with the Vice President responsible for the commission remits that it would be a waste of resources for the MTBO Commission to spend scarce volunteer time on this, and we should rather focus on the numerous development challenges of MTBO. The Vice President decided that it was a waste of time and resources to have a discussion, because these tasks should be the same for all commissions. He also wrote me, and let me quote this verbatim, because I would hate to twist his words: “All IOF Commission should be committed to the vision of the IOF, hence those Olympic Games related tasks can not be deleted in remits. If, however, MTBO Commission is not committed to our vision to be included in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, I can raise this for discussion in our next Council meeting, and we'll see how to proceed.”

That reminded me of the style of low level Communist Party officials I met in the 80's in high school and at university. Maybe that is the reason why I am a bit more sensitive to this approach, especially in an amateur sports organization.

How hard was to take the decision of your resignation?

S. T. - As I mentioned, this wasn't a new idea. Passing the decision was a relief. Far less pressure when you don't have to bang your head against the wall or constantly thinking about how to get around artificial road blocks. Also, now I can speak my mind without the constraints of the position. In the meantime I have all the confidence that my friends in the MTBO Commission will continue the work without my formal membership. Of course, I will help them whenever it is required.

Did you have the support of all members in the Commission?

S. T. - Well, they didn't support my resignation. Some of them were quite disappointed when they heard that I did. I had long discussions to ensure them that I'm not leaving the sport, just my official role. But there was no disagreement between us that the approach of the Council made little sense. The only question was whether to stand up and debate it, or just nod quietly and forget about it. It's a viable alternative practiced by most commissions within the IOF structure. Say yes to the Council and forget about pointless tasks. After all, what can the Council do, if we don't do annual Olympic evaluation? Voice their demands louder? Fire all the volunteers? It was simply me, who just had enough of this comedy.

How do you evaluate your work in the Commission?

S. T. - I have always mixed feelings about my own work. We achieved a lot, but could have done more. The most important for me is that, now, we have a broad based international MTBO community. The MTBO elite was always closely knit with great friendships across teams. Now we have also a youth and junior community, not to talk about the vibrant masters group. Four years ago there were few in the MTBO Group on facebook whom I didn't know personally, while now I know probably less than half of the 1300 members. Numerous friendships formed across borders based on friendly rivalries and the shared joy of MTBO. For me that is the greatest achievement of an amateur sport like ours.

We have also achieved a lot in more tangible areas: the quality of major international events have improved; we have an official Youth and Junior European Championships; there is a new major event program with a full week competition for the World Championships. We also got the Masters World Series going, the unofficial Masters World Cup (the name the Council did not let us use). We also kept the rules evolving with the times. For example, we were the first orienteering discipline to allow the use of most GPS based devices. We have an accident an injury database for fact based analysis of athletes’ safety, and we were the first discipline to introduce regular event evaluation, four years ago.

Unfortunately, as an illustration of the weird situation within the IOF, the major achievement list would not be complete without the things where success came from stopping something happening. Escaping the threat of alternating World Championships or a World Championships every second year; avoiding mandatory 50% late fees on World Cups and World Championships; or fending off the “Olympic style” only top 3 on podium (instead of 6) prize givings have to be mentioned as achievements, no matter how sad it is.

There were major developments where we played little direct role, but I would like to believe that helped to catalyze events. MTBO has exploded in Sweden, we saw great activity in Latvia and Turkey, increasing interest in Spain and in the United States, just to name a few of the developments I was happy to see. Regrettably, activity in some countries has declined, Slovakia being the most painful loss, and some high potential countries like Norway could not get started. The list of my ideas that I could not get moving due to lack of energy or volunteers is too long to present here. Probably the idea of a handbook on organizing the first MTBO event in a new area is the one that comes back more often to my dreams.

How difficult can be the leading role in the MTBO Commission?

S. T. - There are many elements that come together in a role like that and all of them have their difficulty. Working with the commission members, organisers and event advisers is like herding cats: trying to get volunteers with limited time and many other professional and family priorities to accomplish tasks on time and deliver quality events. Trying to explain coaches and competitors that every solution is a compromise, no matter how strong they feel about their view, some others feel just as strong about different views.

I have to admit that the most tiring was just standing in the finish areas of major events, feeling responsibility for the outcome, hoping that everything works out fine, but having no way to influence it. On many occasions I had my entry to ride in the public competition, but by the time of my start I was so tired that could not complete my course.

The most frustrating was the lack of dialogue with the Council. Except for a single question of urgency (WMTBOC Long qualification rule in 2014) the MTBO Commission was never invited to discuss issues related to MTBO, or even asked questions to help the Council to make an informed decision.

How do you see the present moment of MTBO?

S. T. - I think that MTBO is riding to the right direction. That’s why I could afford to resign and stop making compromises. MTBO is a developing sport at a fairly early stage of development. The first World Championship was organized only 15 years ago. Compare that with 50 years for FootO. There are many development challenges and some growing pains. The elite sport is going through a transformation where there is a small but growing group of more professional riders, while the “tourists” disappeared from the World Championships and World Cups. The important thing is that the base is increasing. There are more youth and more masters involved. The latter is important also for the youth because of the logistical challenges of getting to events. I believe that the hearts and minds of masters is key to a faster development of this sport.

The biggest challenge is to break through the initial resistance of national federations dominated by FootO people who resist broadening the base of orienteering, often due to myopia or a concern that resources may need to be shared. There is a similar resistance that young orienteers experienced 50 years ago, when aging tourists resisted the idea that forests can be enjoyed while solving navigational problems running. Now aging orienteers resist the idea that forests can be enjoyed while solving navigational problems biking. Sweden is a great example that shows the latent demand for various forms of orienteering living side by side and broadening our community.

MTBO has the potential not only to attract bike oriented young people and keep masters in the sport who find running increasingly difficult. It can also spread orienteering into areas that are not suitable for traditional FootO for lack of forested areas or access issues. There is quite a bit of development potential in this area to be exploited.

Are the Olympics part of the problem or part of the solution for our sport?

S. T. - Olympics is a nice dream. The problem is that tremendous resources being spent on this dream, instead of development that would really benefit the sport. First, I am not sure whether the changes that would come with it would benefit our sport. The IOF leadership is fully focused on the money and fame that they expect from the Olympic Games, but it would bring substantial changes to our sport that I don't think most people would appreciate. Just have a look at the maps and courses of the World Games in Cali 2013 that was closest to a possible Olympic event. Is that type of low-quality park race what we want to call the pinnacle of orienteering?

The good thing is that we have practically zero chance to get into the Olympics. We could not even get on the shortlist of 8 candidate summer sports, neither in 2013, nor in 2015. In his in depth introductory interview, in September, Leho Haldna stated that “Foot Orienteering and Ski Orienteering both have a realistic chance of inclusion in the Olympic Games. […] Foot Orienteering was also evaluated by the IOC for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Even though we didn’t make it this time, being considered is a really important step.” He forgot to mention that this time all the recognised International Federations were invited. 26 applied, including the IOF. It took the Programme Panel exactly 2 weeks from the application deadline to evaluate 26 sports and publish the list of the 8 they asked to make a presentation. One can imagine the depth of consideration orienteering received.

Was the invitation to apply an important step? Yes, but that was the result of 1977, when the International Olympic Committee recognised the IOF. Not much Olympic progress in the past 40 years since that achievement. Lets face it: we are in one group with billiard, bridge, korfball, sumo, and tug of war – to name a few sports that were also “considered” for Tokyo 2020, applied like the IOF, but did not make the shortlist. If you consider that billiard, sumo and many others are much more TV friendly (and thus Olympic) friendly sports, you can deduce our chances.

The bad thing is that the Council is not willing to face realities, and – as described above – just trying to intensify the Olympic effort. They claim that they have no choice, because the strategic direction and vision of the Olympics is set by the General Assembly. As usual, it is not mentioned that the strategic direction with the Olympic vision was proposed by the Council. Should they once honestly present how much effort and money was spent on the Olympic dream and associated activities with no meaningful result, and suggest a change of strategic direction, the General Assembly would approve the new direction just as well.

The fascinating thing is that when I talked to Council members individually, most of them gave the impression that they don't really believe that the Olympic dream would become a reality in their lifetime. Still, in public and especially as a Council, they support the official line. Did I mention that the situation reminded me of the Communist system I grew up in?

In what way are you going to stay close to MTBO?

S. T. - In what way am I going to stay away from MTBO would be a better question (laughs). I was already requested to keep presenting Event Adviser and Organizer clinics. Various organisers of upcoming major events asked for my help and advice “now that you are free”. I also got a call from an “MTBO missionary” to discuss development in a new country. All that in the past 10 days.

I plan to attend major events and meet people to discuss ideas. I will also advise the MTBO Commission whenever they ask for my views and insights. I would also like to work on some pet ideas like a guide on organizing the first MTBO event, and a guide on course setting. An interesting idea of doing online presentations for athletes on rules and jury cases just popped up. I hope that now, with less official obligations, I can find more time and channel more energies into meaningful tasks to help the MTBO community.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add?

S. T. - Not really, I think this is long and rich enough (laughs).

Joaquim Margarido

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