Neven Ilic: “ANOC deserve a president who is dedicated full time”

In an interview with Around the Rings in Crete, the president of Panam Sports talks about his possible candidacy for the ANOC presidency. And he sharply criticized Gianni Infantino’s plan.

Panam Sports president Neven Ilic (ATR)
Panam Sports president Neven Ilic (ATR)

The Chilean Neven Ilic attended the XXV General Assembly that the organization held on October 24 and 25th on the Greek island of Crete amid growing expectation about what he will do in the future: will he run for the ANOC presidency in 2022?

The president of Panam Sports keeps the unknown, but, in an interview with Around the Rings at the Crete Maris Beach Resort in Crete, after the conclusion of the assembly, he made one thing clear: “I believe that organizations deserve a president dedicated full time.”

So, it does not seem that there could be duplicity of positions for an Ilic, who, with his briefcase next to him and without avoiding any question, spoke about the challenges of Panam Sports and ANOC, the role of women in these organizations, sustainable sport and even of the controversy generated by Gianni Infantino with his idea of holding men’s World Cups every two years.

- Let’s start with the question everyone is asking these days: are you going to run for the ANOC presidency?

- ANOC is a tremendously important organization for all of us, for all the Olympic committees it represents, and obviously one must be available for whatever ANOC needs. That doesn’t mean that I am a candidate or not, but, as vice-president, I have to be concerned about what we want in the future for this organization. Now we have learned that Robin Mitchell is available to run again and I think it is an idea that we have to study, that we have to take a good look at, because he is also president of the Oceania Association. What we have to rescue from this is that ANOC is an important organization, the Olympic committees are fundamental artists in the Olympic movement, ANOC brings them together, so you have to be available for whatever is needed.

- Are you if they need you for the presidency?

- I am in Panam Sports, I am very happy and I have many things to do there. I believe that organizations deserve a president who is dedicated full time.

- Wouldn’t the two positions be compatible, then?

- Historically, yes. Sheikh [Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah] was president of Asia and ANOC; Mario Vázquez Raña, my predecessor, was president of ODEPA and ANOC as well. But I, personally, think that one has to dedicate oneself very well to one thing and I am trying to do my best in Panam Sports.

- Do you set a date to say whether you will run or not?

- I privilege, above all, Panam Sports. It is my project; we have just been working for four years; there are many plans for the future; I believe that the Olympic Committees of America still need a lot of help and that we are going to live years in which they are going to need even more help and a much more present organization; and that is what I am focused on. I have the Junior Pan American Games in Cali coming up, then the Pan American Games in Santiago and we are on our way. So, when the time comes to sit at the table to talk about ANOC, I will be there, but without any special interest.

- Several Olympic committees point to you as a good candidate.

- I have very good friends in this world. But decisions, in the end, are personal and I am the one who is measuring my time. I have my work and my family in Chile, I dedicate a lot of time to Panam Sports and that means a lot of traveling, also because I am a member of the IOC. I think we have to do our part so that ANOC has the best president, the best management and I will be part of that team that looks for the best alternative.

- How does the work you do in Panam differ from the work you or another candidate would have to do as ANOC President?

- ANOC must collect the voice of the Olympic Committees, just as ASOIF collects the voice of the international federations. This is a triangle between the IOC, the Olympic committees and the federations and, between all of them, they must build the Olympic world. The Olympic committees need to be heard. The IOC does so, but they also need to be heard by the organization that brings them together. We have to find out what the particular situations of each one are, because we have a tremendously diverse world, some with many problems, others more successful, etc. We have to channel those needs in such a way that the decisions that are made help to improve those problems. That was our starting point at Panam Sports: when I started, the first thing I did was to meet with everyone in Miami, three hours with each one, to listen to the realities. We have to support the committees in their projects, but for that we have to know where we are. And that is how we have been defining each of the programs we have. The committees in my region have extremely limited budgets. And why are they so limited? One does not know if it is the chicken or the egg. We are happy because, after four years, we have seen progress, but there is still a lot to do. Solving the problems of sports in America is a never-ending task. The important thing is to move forward.

- What are the immediate challenges for Panam Sports?

- To consolidate a very high level for the Pan American Games, which are our main product. The financing we receive has to do with the success or not of the Pan American Games, and Lima was like the first step where we showed a high level Pan American Games, with a lot of interest. Things were done well and we have to continue promoting them. We are very interested in the Olympic Games, which are an incredible event, where everyone wants to be. We are far away from that, we have a very long way to go to get there. The IOC has been building its product for many years, it does it very well and that is a goal for us.

Dancers perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Pan American Games at the National stadium in Lima, Peru, Friday, July 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Dancers perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Pan American Games at the National stadium in Lima, Peru, Friday, July 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

- Other goals?

- The new generations. We have realized that many countries are very lacking in investing in the new generations. If you check, the athletes who were in Tokyo, in some countries, are the same ones who were in Rio, in London, in Beijing. That tells us that we have to do something because the countries that do not invest in the new generations are, in my opinion, countries that have a very limited future.

- To what extent has the pandemic affected the committees in your area and Panam itself?

- The pandemic has been a disaster for countries, for families and for sport in general. We are beginning to forget, but during these two years, we had athletes locked up in their homes, unable to train, living a life they had never led before, and not all of them have had a good time during this process, which is still not over. Financially, it was also difficult. We were very fortunate to have the Pan American Games in 2019 and the next ones in 2023, in other words, we got through the pandemic quite well, but it had a tremendous impact and, economically, it will continue to be so for the next four or five years.

- Do you see alternatives to generate resources?

- It is a big challenge. This problem also affects private companies, which are our natural sponsors, and it affects television, which is our natural ally to broadcast sports. We are going to live through some very difficult years, in which we will have to be, in my opinion, very flexible. The great secret, thanks to which we are going to have Junior Pan American Games now in Cali, is that we all opened ourselves to be tremendously flexible, to accept all proposals, to look for more economical formulas. If we had not done so, it would not have been possible doing anything. That is what the IOC did with Tokyo: to be open to solve the problems in whatever way was necessary. And that’s what will happen with Beijing. The keys: to be completely flexible, to reduce expenses to a minimum so that the athletes have a great event and the rest of the things that at some point seemed important are no longer important. This is going to be the new way, for a long time, of looking at the world of events.

- So, the pandemic leaves us with flexibility and austerity.

One hundred percent. And the challenge of reaching the same goal by seeing things in a different way, with austere and flexible ways. And I think it will be positive.

- That also requires more creativity.

- Yes, but things can be done. I hope that after the Junior Pan American Games we will all leave with a very good image. And we will have done them with maybe half of what we once thought was necessary.

- Back to ANOC: what are the organization’s challenges until Paris 2024?

- ANOC’s challenges cannot be set for three years, but in the much longer term. The reality of each committee must be gathered and, through the IOC and the continentals, ANOC should process formulas to help the growth of the committees. The continentals have a lot of interaction with the countries. We know perfectly well in which situation each one is, what kind of help they have, and what else we should help them to continue growing. That information, connected from ANOC with the IOC and us, should begin to give ANOC a clear long-term path in the role that I believe it should have: to be a collector of the problems and to look for a solution through the organizations that are around.

- Do you think that having had an interim president for so long has been a handicap for ANOC?

- First thing we have to do is to thank Robin for having taken this post. When he started this path, theoretically, it was for a small period of time, but it ended up being a full term. He has thousands of functions and this must have exhausted him a lot, so we have to thank him for that.

- In these two days in the Crete Assembly, you, the members, talked about gender equality. But the majority of the speakers were men, many of them very old and with multiple positions. Don’t you think that this damages ANOC’s image in the eyes of today’s society and young people?

- I am very proud to say that it does not touch me. I work fantastically with women, who make up the majority of my team at Panam Sports. There are 12 women and eight men, and they are there because of their ability and their extraordinary dedication. However, my daughter Valentina always reminds me that this is my reality, but not that of the rest of the organizations. And it is true. We have to keep working, but I think the steps that are being taken are good.

- In what direction should you work?

- I think we have to create spaces for them, invite them to get to know this world. Once you invite them, they become enthusiastic, they get into it on their own through their ability and show that they are more capable than anyone who stands in front of them. But this world is still a bit distant for women. If you start inviting them, as I did when I was in the Chilean Olympic Committee, they turn out to be incredible in the development of their work. So, we need to invite them a little more and they need to accept. But, as I said, in my organizations, we are looking for a formula to give more space to men (laughs).

- In this General Assembly, a minimum quota of 30% of women in the executive committee has been approved. Do you agree with that?

- I do not agree with quotas. I believe that women who have the enthusiasm come on their own, and that women have exactly the same abilities as men and some other virtues as well. But it seems that the way to start is through certain quotas, which becomes like an invitation for me. Come, get to know, fall in love with this world and, then, go on alone. In the executive committee of Panam, we have 44% of women. And several Olympic committees also have percentages in their statutes. This approval legalizes it, gives it a foundation and I think it is good.

- Thomas Bach identified sustainability as the great challenge for the IOC and the Olympic Games in the coming years and called on the National Committees to do the same in their area. To what extent is this feasible for the committees in your area?

- We often talk a lot about caring for the planet, but take little action. The IOC is years ahead of us in its vision of how to do it. We, in the Pan American Games, made some timid efforts in Lima that we are going to multiply by a lot in Santiago and we hope to continue multiplying them afterwards. But what I would like to emphasize is that organizations like ours that generate an impact on the environment have to start setting an example and make people realize that we are concerned, that when we pass by somewhere, we pass by sowing and, apart from leaving a sporting legacy, we leave a message of taking care of the environment. The images of the planet we are seeing are shocking and what we see in the future does not look good.

- Do you have the resources to go down this route, which seems more expensive?

- It is not necessarily more expensive. Today, in construction, my job, making things sustainable is not as prohibitive as it was ten years ago. And, at the end of the day, you can take small steps that show that you are on the right path. Beyond the costs, when you conceptualize green from the beginning, it makes no difference. When you did not think green for a Pan American Games, it is much more complicated to go green afterwards. That is why for Santiago 2023 we are starting from a greener concept and that is how it is being done.

- How will this greener concept be translated into?

- By taking into account the type of lighting, electricity, water, toilets, whether we recycle or not... In Chile 2023, we are seeing if we are going to work with solar light, with generators or if we are going to use conventional light. Those decisions, if taken at the beginning, are super simple and are not more expensive. And that is our idea in Santiago.

- You are from a soccer country, how you see the FIFA project to hold World Cups every two years. Will there be consensus with the IOC, are we heading for a war?

- The IOC is not interested in entering into wars with FIFA, but, if one analyzes it personally, I prefer a championship every four years, and give space to the rest of the competitions in our continent that are just as important. There is so much calendar in soccer itself that, for me, it is no fun to have a World Cup every two years.

- Gianni Infantino does not seem to share your opinion.

- But, if the qualifiers now last almost three years, how do you keep the leagues of the world going, how do you keep the athletes playing the qualifiers, the Copa America, the Libertadores, the Champions League, the UEFA? The truth is that I don’t see any sense in it. What I find difficult to describe, moreover, is that it seems to be a project that has not been consulted with the very foundations of soccer. UEFA and CONMEBOL, two fundamental players in the orchestra of world soccer, are completely opposed to this individual project of a president. I don’t understand how soccer works when a president comes with a solitary idea that nobody likes, but goes ahead and when the two most important players in soccer, who should be involved, had no idea and, besides, they don’t like it. Besides, if you ask the great soccer players one by one, there is not one, not one, who has said ‘yes, I think this idea is fantastic’. So it seems to me a strange idea, which I don’t think will go ahead, at least in the concept we have of the World Cup. But we’ll see what happens, it’s a FIFA’s problem.

- Do you think it may have been a big trial balloon?

- Maybe. Probably, there are smaller countries, which do not have so many competitions, which are not part of the world concert, who like the idea. But, if you look at it coldly, from the point of view of elite and quality soccer, the idea seems very bad to me.

- As a member of the IOC and the Olympic family, are you surprised that another member of the same family would launch such an idea without consulting the organization of which he is also a member?

- I heard it at one point, then it died down and, suddenly, I heard that Infantino was going around South America, projecting the idea. The least one could expect when launching an idea that could have such an impact on so many people is to have a conversation. First, with your colleagues, and then, with the rest as well. Let’s make something that is a contribution to the world of sports and not a particular idea rejected even by their own peers. But each one with his own problems.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks with FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the Miraflores Palace during his visit in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2021. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks with FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the Miraflores Palace during his visit in Caracas, Venezuela October 15, 2021. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria

- What did you highlight in red in your notebook from the General Assembly?

- Two things: first, the tremendous effort made by Thomas Bach and the IOC to bring forward the Tokyo and Beijing Games in the most complicated moments of humanity. Today [Monday], I was with him and I told him that. Many people will have told him as well, but we have to say it up front. It’s enormous the merit of having made the right decisions, although sometimes they were criticized; of trying to be flexible with Japan and with the vision that the Japanese government had about the event, which is not necessarily the same as ours; of being able to reach a consensus; that the athletes competed and did not realize whether they were in a pandemic or not; of taking the Olympic Games forward in the face of skepticism from all over the world. Beijing will be just as difficult, although the Winter Games are less popular than the Summer Games. The capacity they had to face the problem, to look for solutions, to move forward is something we have to acknowledge and congratulate them on our part.

- And the second?

- The possibility of seeing people. This world has that, seeing each other, exchanging ideas, how did you do, how did you solve this, sitting down, talking, eating, dancing, singing... These are things that are good for us. When we get together, it is a special moment. I traveled about 25 hours to get here for two days, but I am happy because they have been nice days. And I also believe that the next five years are going to be complicated for everybody and that is when organizations like mine have to be proactive, be aware that we have to be part of the solution to the problem and be available, listen and listen. One of the things I’ve always refused to do is an equal pie for everybody. That doesn’t work. Here, the cakes are individual, the problems are individual and the help is tailored to each committee’s reality.

- You speak with admiration of Bach. Is he a reference for you as a leader?

- Yes, because you have to be in his shoes. When times are good, they are good for everyone. But when times are difficult, that’s when you see the quality of a leader and a person. He has lived through two tremendously difficult years, with very delicate decisions to make and, in the end, time has shown that all the decisions he made were the right ones. A person who has the capacity and the temperance at times like this to assume the problem, to see how to face it, to take his time and decide, being open, reaching agreements because his objective is to carry out two great events that are beneficial for everybody, is a person to admire.

- So you think that Bach is setting the bar high for whoever succeeds him in 2025.

- I think so, and that’s a good thing. Bach has made the organization grow, he has brought forward new resources, he has faced this pandemic situation and I hope that whoever comes after him will be able to do an even better job, to continue growing because that is the only way to keep these organizations alive, to adapt to the times.

- Do you think it is feasible that whoever comes next will be a woman?

- Yes, I do see it feasible. Within the IOC, we have incredible women, who have been great athletes, or great leaders or great people, with tremendous abilities. So it could be a man or a woman the one who comes. I believe that, for these positions, it has to be the best one who is available, man or woman. I don’t care about gender.

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