Marius Vizer is making some important people in international sports very angry. ASOIF, the international federation representing Summer Olympic sports, recently pulled out of SportAccord, the gigantic umbrella organization representing the federations of all kinds of sports, from FIFA and FIBA to the WFDF— the World Flying Disc Federation. Vizer is SportAccord's leader, and he finally pushed too hard against the Olympic establishment in a speech in Sochi, Russia. With IOC President Thomas Bach in attendance, Vizer tore into the Olympic establishment, describing the Olympic system as "expired, outdated, wrong, unfair, and not at all transparent."
Vizer, a former Judo competitor and coach and president of the International Judo Federation, could be the biggest threat to the Olympics' domination of the international sports world since Baron De Coubertin kicked off the Olympic movement in the late 1800s. Since his election to the post of SportAccord president in 2013, Vizer has been pushing for a competition he describes as the "United World Championships"—an all-in-one World Championship event for all 91 SportAccord federation sports.
Vizer claims his United World Championships is a commercial venture for the sport federations and is not meant to compete with the Olympics. In an e-mail response to questions from VICE Sports, Vizer said, "My intention was not to compete with the Olympic Games which I am convinced of and which I support, but to create a commercial event to generate benefits at all levels for IFs [international federations], as well as the majority of sports." He added, "I am fully convinced of Olympism and the undeniable value of the Olympic Games, realities that I have never contested and I never will."
Former IOC President Jacques Rogge was immediately skeptical when Vizer first announced his plans after the 2013 SportAccord election. "ASOIF… came up with a declaration that the international program is already too congested and that there are too many events," Rogge told the AP, "So this is something that has to be discussed not only between the IOC and SportAccord, but also within SportAccord itself." Current IOC president Thomas Bach was even more blunt: "From the IOC, the point of view, the IOC will not agree to any kind of idea which would dilute the uniqueness and image of the Olympic Games."
Two years later, Vizer continues to push for his United World Championships and against the opaque IOC establishment. ASOIF's decision to pull out of SportAccord sets the stage for a battle between some of the oldest money in sport and some of the most powerful new players around over the future of international sports.
So who is Marius Vizer, and what has made him the biggest thorn in the IOC's side in years?
Vizer attended military academy as a child and competed in judo until he was 24 years old, when he made the switch to coaching. His premier pupil was MMA fighter Sandu Lungu, who described growing up with Vizer as coach in an article on the Romanian website Cancan.ro. Lungu recalls workouts beginning at 7 a.m. and breakfasts of raw eggs as prescribed by Vizer. Lungu won gold at the judo Junior World Championships in 1994, Vizer's crowning achievement as a coach. In 1995, Vizer became Honorary President of the Romanian Judo Federation and was elected President of the same federation in 1998. In 2000, he became President of the European Judo Union, a post he held until taking the presidency of the IJF in 2007.
The full story of Vizer's past is a bit hazier, however. He is now described as a "Romanian-born Hungarian" and no longer lives in his home country. There is a mysterious website titled VizerNews.com that contains Vizer's picture and title with a sole line of text: "Sport is the Biggest Treasure of Humanity."
Vizer filed suit against the owner of the domain, claiming the name was registered "with the bad faith intent to profit or otherwise trade on Plaintiff's rights in his name." According to Bloomberg, the website contained news stories suggesting Vizer was involved in bribery and corruption and was a "suspicious businessman." A trip to VizerNews.com through the Wayback Machine reveals links to multiple translated news reports detailing how the Romanian anti-corruption office was investigating Vizer and another man for extortion. One story includes a report from the Romanian Information Service that reads as follows:
"The target, Vizer Marius Ladislau, can be described as a galley-slave to money. He has no brakes at all in making money. He is paranoiac about being pursued and is always escorted by four body-guards. He is used to violence and unhesitatingly resorts to violence for compelling his adversaries and for intimidating his own people."
When Vizer was informed he was under investigation, he told reporters he "could care less" and that "those who give the bullshit will get their cut." Since he rose to the IJF Presidency in 2007, Vizer's name has been out of legal headlines and VizerNews.com has been effectively dismantled.
I asked Vizer what he knew about the website. His response, over e-mail:
"Regarding this website, until now, I have been reserved and I did not want to make publicity for myself, not to launch political strategies and I have concentrated my entire attention to extend and give more consistency to the SportAccord activity, but at the same time I noticed that all efforts, at all levels, although for the best interest of sport, did nothing but disturbed an existing tendency of monopole in sport practiced by other organizations."
I don't know what that means either.
Vizer has accumulated some incredibly powerful friends in his time in the judo world, including perhaps the world's most prominent judoka in Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin is the Honorary President of Vizer's International Judo Federation, and Vizer directly credited Putin following his election to the SportAccord presidency. "I have to thank Mr. Putin much," Vizer told Der Spiegel. Vizer was also supported in his election bid by Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait. The Sheikh has been involved in Olympic administration in some role since 1991, when he became president of the Olympic Council of Asia. Vizer's success or failure will likely depend on how he can rally his powerful friends in what 3 Wire Sports writer Alan Abrahamson has described as an upcoming "Olympic cold war."
Even if Vizer is the money-grubbing thug the Romanian Information Services suggests, it wouldn't make him much different than the rest of the International Olympic Committee, a group that siphons money away from cities and countries and leaves their citizens to pay off gigantic debts for stadiums and facilities they don't need and can't use. Former IOC vice president Mario Pescante of Italy identified the main difference between Vizer and the typical IOC member. He told the Associated Press, regarding Vizer's attacks on the IOC, "It showed a lack of respect for the manners that have always been present in the Olympic movement."
"It was an unappreciated lack of style," Pescante said. "I believe, together with these IOC members, that Vizer does not possess the titles, the professional know-how or background to make criticisms of that sort."
But whatever you think of Vizer's style, or his past, his dissection of the IOC's lavish spending on events and stadia and its lack of support for the lives of athletes is difficult to argue with. Here's what Vizer told the audience in Sochi, the words that supposedly lacked the manners Pescante values so much:
"In over 100 countries of the world, sport is in misery. Athletes are lacking the necessary basic elements—food, medication, equipment, preparation facilities and possibility to participate to competitions. One of the great questions of sport today is how much should we continue to invest in buildings and infrastructure and how much in people?! Furthermore: why invest hundreds of millions of dollars in opening and closing ceremonies, while millions of athletes live in hunger and they don't stand a chance in sport due to the lack of proper conditions? If indeed the 'IOC distributes 3.25 million dollars a day, every day of the year, for the development of sport worldwide,' why do millions of athletes suffer and cannot enjoy or reach performances in sport?"
In the world of international sports, where corruption and dirty money reign, Vizer may be the best hope to stand up for athletes. Few who have risen to a post with Vizer's power have spoken out in the way he did. As such, he represents a significant challenge to the Olympic movement and its hegemonic control over international sport. Vizer's platform is based on moving Olympic money away from frivolities like Sochi's multi-billion dollar opening ceremony and towards funding athletic federations and, most importantly, their athletes.
"For every sport - Olympic and non-Olympic - we have to express our solidarity," said Vizer in 2012 as he was running for SportAccord President. "Everyone has a responsibility to modernize and to adapt." In the United World Championships, Vizer has a model to compete with the Olympics for the international sports dollar. Even if the United World Championships don't unseat the Olympics, the pressure of competition may force the kind of adaptation Vizer is demanding. At the very least, Vizer has the attention of the IOC, and you can bet he isn't going down without a fight.