Wolfgang Willam: “The Europeans are the real losers of these elections”

Introduction and translation by Nora Schuler

The dust has settled after the FIG elections at the Congress in Cancun. Bruno Grandi was elected for a fifth term. A good election for him. Not a bad one for Japan and Russia – they wound up with six representatives each, more than any other federation. A great election for the Asian Gymnastics Union – four out of the seven members elected to the Executive Committee represent this continental union. While the FIG president and two of the three vice presidents are from Europe, the continent with the largest number of gymnasts at the Olympics clearly lost out overall in Cancun.

It was not such a good election for Wolfgang Willam. The German has served on the FIG Executive Committee for the last two cycles and ran for a spot as vice president this time. He did not make it. The 56-year-old was, however, re-elected to the Executive Committee. Ironically, it was a very successful election for Willam’s own federation (DTB). All four candidates were elected, and Holger Albrecht (MTC) and Frank Böhm (Sports Acro TC) are new members of those bodies. Both Albrecht and Böhm ran for their respective positions four years ago at the Congress in Helsinki but failed to make the cut then.

Willam, whose day job is that of DTB Sports Director, discusses the elections and their impact in this unusually candid interview with German freelance journalist Sandra Schmidt.

How did the Congress go?

If I may start with myself. I ran for a position as vice president and also as a member of the EC. Unfortunately, my wish to become vice president did not materialise. The idea was a different one, of course. The result was that I couldn’t make it and I was then elected to one of the remaining seven spots in the EC as the only European. That was also pretty close. So, overall there was quite a shift.

Were you surprised that Bruno Grandi was re-elected by such a large majority?

I wasn’t surprised he was re-elected. But it was surprising that it was such a large majority since it was the first time he had two opponents. In this respect it was an impressive result for him personally.

The Russian delegation hosted a large function on the evening before the Congress officially opened…

Yes, they hosted a function. But there is nothing unusual about that. When you’re bidding for something, a world championship or have a candidate [for a position] the candidate then issues an invitation. This function was on a grand scale but not unusual.

Considering the disappointing numbers for Vasily Titov [24 votes to Grandi’s 68] – did this function maybe prove counterproductive?

Counterproductive – I personally wouldn’t see it that way for him. I’d say it was about a fifty percent chance of [Titov] becoming president after one cycle [on the EC]. Considering that, he may have achieved the currently possible maximum [result] by becoming vice president.

The Arab world now has two new representatives in the EC in Saif Abouedel (KUW) and Ali Al-Hitmi (QAT). The EC decides where the sport is going, and here we have two representatives of countries that barely take part in the sport. Is that difficult or not difficult at all?

Based on what I said prior to the elections [translator’s note – he is referring to a radio interview he gave shortly before the elections] that we, of course, need to include these countries. I still stand by what I said. I am, however, a little bit sceptical that they made it to the top right away. Not because representatives from these countries made it but because they basically pushed out other positions. I’m talking about my colleagues from Switzerland or Great Britain. Great Britain, for example, gave the world great Olympic Games and has surely made its mark in gymnastics. If that is the thanks you get… That you are kicked out of the EC, well,.. then surely there are question marks regarding those countries.

But that is obviously the political balance of power that was quite openly demonstrated at this Congress. Looking at the representative from Qatar or from Kuwait plus the one from China and Japan… Then, they managed to go four for four in the EC elections. From their point of view that is total political success.

South America and Europe had their own candidates. One would assume that not all countries within the Asian Gymnastics Union are buddies. The President is Alshathri (QAT), the traditional power houses are China and Japan. How does the Asian Gymnastics Union manage to be so unified, an area where the other continental unions are clearly lacking?

Yes, that is what they managed to do. Though, as you said, they also have their differences, between the Arab and the Asian countries. There are definitely conflicts there. But, in the end, when it’s about the elections they understand their power. After all, they have over 40 votes and you see looking at those guys’ votes … they all received more than 40, the Japanese even got more than 60 votes at times. So, they obviously received votes from other continental unions. And that is exactly what the Europeans failed to do, and repeatedly fail to do. If you look at the fact that Europe alone felt it necessary to nominate eight candidates for the seven remaining EC positions, and that they can’t unite the massive forty European votes… It’s pretty obvious to everybody, and the Europeans are the real losers of these elections.

Looking towards the future and considering the fact that Europe is among those setting the agenda in nearly all of the FIG disciplines – could we be looking at increased co-ordination in Europe, perhaps through some sort of preliminary election? Surely, Europe does not want to completely disappear from the FIG decision making bodies. Wouldn’t it be better to come to an agreement [about the candidates] before the elections?

Absolutely. Whether it needs to be a preliminary election, remains to be seen. There definitely needs to be a more unified approach, After the – shambles in quotes of Cancun – there were some first deliberations in Europe as well. Without doubt, we need to be more united. That probably will need to be achieved at the preparatory congresses or perhaps attempted at a colloquium focussing on this topic. If not… The others demonstrated how to go about this professionally. The Europeans were amateurs in this respect.

Going back to the Arab countries – has any thought been given to a ‘no representation without participation’ rule?

That is definitely worth thinking about. The question is, of course, who is going to go about it, politically… Because whoever starts it also wants to be elected sometime and needs those votes. So, well, this wish is treading on really thin ice from a sports politics point of view. So… well.. at least I wouldn’t want to be the one to spearhead this movement. I’m more into conversation and including people. I’m very curious what working with these representatives will be like, and what ideas regarding the development of world gymnastics they will propose over the next four years.

Peter Vidmar had to step down as Chef de Mission of the US Olympic team this past spring when it became known that he had supported a campaign against same-sex marriage, taking part in demonstrations and donating money to the cause. Was this discussed in Cancun?

This wasn’t discussed at all in Cancun, and since he received a pretty big chunk of votes he went into the elections unscathed. The Americans threw a pretty generous banquet after the elections which was also supported by their National Olympic Committee. I would assume they are paving the way for maybe shooting for a big goal in four years.