Obituary: Primo Nebiolo

Nebiolo never had to face a contested election - his wheeling and dealing ensured he had no rival candiates
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS perhaps inevitable that Primo Nebiolo, the short, bald Italian with the gravelly voice who rose to become one of the three most influential men in international sport, would become known as "the Godfather of world athletics".

His 18 years as president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) were often controversial, frequently scandal-ridden, but they saw Nebiolo transform a previously moribund sport into a modern multinational, multi-billion dollar business. For Nebiolo, the ends always justified the means. "If you don't want to have critics," he once said, "you must not try to do great things." Of world sports figures, only the Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, and the Swiss Sepp Blatter, who heads the world soccer federation, Fifa, are seen as wielding more influence than Nebiolo.

Nebiolo had been in visibly frail health for more than a year, although he always denied rumours that suggested he was suffering from pancreatic cancer, and he continued to garner official positions right through this year, having been reappointed IAAF president for another four-year term in August, just before the athletics world championships in Seville.

Nebiolo took great pride in the fact that there were more member federations of the IAAF, what he liked to call "the athletics family", than there are countries affiliated to the United Nations. In Seville, Nebiolo's IAAF accepted its 206th member.

Primo Nebiolo was born in Turin, Italy in 1923. During the Second World War, he fought with the Italian partisans against German occupation. After the war, he read law at the University of Turin, where he was a contemporary of Gianni Agnelli, who went on to become head of the Fiat industrial empire. It was an association which would continue throughout their lives.

Both Nebiolo and Agnelli were founder members of the university sports club - Nebiolo was a national standard long jumper and sometime rugby winger - and at the age of 24, Nebiolo was elected to his first sporting high office, president of the club, a position he retained until his death.

Nebiolo moved into his family business in the construction industry, which thrived during the 1950s, but it was through his involvement with his former university that he built an international sporting power base. A year after Rome successfully staged the 1960 Olympic Games, Nebiolo became head of the world student sport organisation FISU, and used the position to develop his contacts assiduously. In July this year, he retained that presidency when the FISU Congress re-elected him.

Indeed, throughout his career with FISU and then the IAAF, where he became president in 1981, Nebiolo never had to face a contested election - his political wheeling and dealing always ensured he had no rival candidates.

His position in athletics also saw him become head of ASOIF, the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations, a position which involved him in negotiations with the International Olympic Committee over the distribution of the vast television revenues from the Games.

Nebiolo was fluent in five languages and his political nous often created friction with other international sports officials, including the IOC's Samaranch. Yet despite Italy already having the maximum permitted two members of the IOC, after some typical behind-the-scenes trading, in 1991 Nebiolo finally got his wish and was co-opted by Samaranch and given cherished membership of the IOC.

International athletics after Nebiolo's 18-year reign at the IAAF is unrecognisable from the sport in the early 1980s. When Nebiolo assumed the presidency, there was no track world championships, and no lucrative annual Grand Prix series or Golden League. Then, the sport was still being run by the "Chariots of Fire" generation - the Marquess of Exeter, a former Olympic hurdler upon whom one of the characters in the Oscar-winning film was based, had been president of the IAAF for 30 years from 1946. Under Exeter, the IAAF's headquarters was an unpretentious house in south London, with three staff: two secretaries, and a part-time clerk to keep account of the little cash that they had in the coffers.

In 1981, typically, Nebiolo did not need an election for him to replace Exeter's successor, Adriaan Paulen. Nebiolo suggested Paulen stand down to avoid the embarrassment of defeat in a ballot, and the urbane Dutchman fell for the bluff. When Nebiolo took charge, the IAAF's bank balance showed less than pounds 100,000. In the decade from 1985, the IAAF struck sponsorship and television deals worth an estimated pounds 7bn. Nebiolo's last major financial coup came in 1996, when he signed a deal with the European Broadcasting Union worth pounds 100m for coverage of the IAAF's World Championship events through until 2001.

If Nebiolo's rule of the IAAF was characterised by wealth, it was also dogged by controversies involving banned performance-enhancing drugs. "I am not the president of the pee-pee," Nebiolo would often complain with disdain whenever another urine analysis showed one of his precious stars to have transgressed. Yet it was in part to avoid the legal consequences of banning top-level athletes such as the American 400m world record-holder Butch Reynolds, and Germany's world-champion sprinter Katrin Krabbe, that Nebiolo in 1993 moved the IAAF headquarters from London to Monte Carlo, a location also far more suited to its president's preferred opulent lifestyle.

Nebiolo himself was implicated in cover-ups of positive drug tests at the 1984 Olympics, and was instrumental in rigging the result of the men's long jump at the 1987 world championships in Rome, where an Italian, Giovanni Evangelisti, took the bronze medal. While Nebiolo never accepted responsibility for the Evangelisti scandal, the affair cost him his seat on the Italian national Olympic committee. When financial scandal struck the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy over construction contracts, Nebiolo was summoned before the courts in Rome, but was never convicted of any crime.

Even in his final months, Nebiolo was exercising his sporting power at the highest levels. Earlier this year, working in association with his old friend Agnelli, Nebiolo helped Turin win the rights to stage the Winter Olympics in 2006. And Nebiolo had spent his last few months overseeing the timetables and ticket distribution for athletics events at next year's Olympics in Sydney. Although the local organisers in Australia had already distributed hundreds of thousands of tickets, Nebiolo insisted that he have the final word on the timetable.

Steven Downes

Primo Nebiolo, athletics administrator: born Turin, Italy 14 July 1923; President, FISU 1961-99; President, International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) 1981-99; married; died Rome 7 November 1999.

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