Athletics: Nebiolo driven by a lust for power

Athletics' potentate dies, aged 76, leaving legacy of change and whiff of scandal. By Mike Rowbottom
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PRIMO NEBIOLO, who died aged 76 of a heart attack yesterday, transformed the world of athletics in the course of transforming himself, with ruthless egotism, into one of the most powerful figures in world sport. It is not surprising, therefore, that tributes to him yesterday were mixed.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee, was fulsome in his praise, saying: "Primo Nebiolo was one of the greatest leaders of world sport. It is with great sadness that I learnt of his death."

Livio Berruti, Italy's 1960 200 metres Olympic champion, though, described Nebiolo as someone "who trampled over and polluted the sporting ideals that I believed in and which young people today believe in as well. Unfortunately, it is death that has removed Nebiolo from sport and not a movement from within the sporting world itself to defend certain basic rules such as respect, justice, impartiality and love. These are values which were amply forgotten by Primo Nebiolo."

As president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, a post Nebiolo assumed in 1981, this Italian lawyer and businessman pursued an aggressive policy of expansion and commercialisation which changed the landscape of his chosen sport. By the time he died in Rome's Mater Dei Clinic, after being taken ill on Saturday night, he had established a lucrative grand prix circuit and a biennial world championship which aspired to match the Olympic Games themselves in terms of public impact. But Nebiolo's rise to power has been dogged by scandal and allegations of corruption.

The most notorious charge related to the 1987 World Championships in Rome, when he was implicated in the rigging of the long jump measurement by home officials in order to award the bronze medal to Italy's Giovanni Evangelisti.

The Italian was subsequently stripped of his medal, and disciplinary measures were taken against some track officials - but Nebiolo, the great survivor, maintained his position.

He also survived one of Italy's biggest post-war corruption scandals when, as chairman of a number of construction companies and a member of the Italian Olympic Committee's sub-committee, he was alleged to have awarded the tender for Rome's 1990 World Cup football stadium to a contractor who was not the lowest bidder.

Over the years, many bad things were said and written about this portly, balding figure. Two years ago, a Sunday newspaper magazine had a picture of him on their front cover with the word "Cheat" emblazoned across it.

But somehow the questions and charges and allegations and critical articles never managed to shake his grip on power - for power, and all its trappings, was what he loved.

Last August, Nebiolo's role as IAAF president was re-affirmed for another four years. As with that other ageing sports leader, the International Olympic Committee's president Juan-Antonio Samaranch, he was unopposed. For many years, Nebiolo's desire to become a member of that most privileged sporting club, the IOC, was resisted by conservative members within the organisation - and perhaps by Samaranch himself. They were fearful of the changes that might be wrought by this ruthlessly effective outsider.

It was alleged that, in 1985, Nebiolo unsuccessfully offered an IOC life member, Giorgio de Stefani, 50 million lire to resign and thereby create an opening for himself.

The realpolitik of his eventual acceptance by the IOC in 1992 lay in his threats, veiled and on occasions blatant, to bring athletics' participation at the Olympic Games in line with that of football by allowing only those under 23 to compete. With the key element to their summer Games in jeopardy, the IOC was forced to admit Nebiolo into its club.

The Italian was, unquestionably, a hugely skilled politician. He maintained his pre-eminence within the IAAF over the years by enlarging the membership to nations traditionally uninvolved with the sport, and wooing their support with timely coaching missions and financial grants from the IAAF Foundation, a charitable institution he set up which garnered millions of dollars generated from the hugely successful marketing of the world athletics championships.

Instituted in 1983 as a quadrennial event, the championships have taken place every two years since 1991, a switch which led many athletes to complain that their schedule was becoming over-demanding, and others to speculate on whether Nebiolo was risking killing the golden goose by over- exposure.

That charge has been laid more recently against the Golden League series which forms the main structure of annual competition, offering big money - they share in a million-pound jackpot - to athletes who go through all seven meetings unbeaten. Last season, many leading performers dropped out, claiming that the demands were unrealistic and unfair.

Despite the incongruous retention of the word "Amateur" in the world body's title, athletes have been able to receive payment for performance since Nebiolo took over nearly 20 years ago, and the huge financial incentives now in place have led, inevitably in the eyes of many observers, to huge temptations to improve performance through illegal substances or practices such as blood doping.

Nebiolo has overseen the establishment of IAAF laboratories which test urine samples, and has paid lip service to the need to root out those who cheat in this way. But his exasperated references to the issue, which he would refer to contemptuously as the "pee-pee", caused many to question how high a priority it really formed for him.

What he loved best, it seemed, was to be able to stand at the microphone as he opened yet another world championship and announce that a record number of nations were taking part.

Obituary, Review, page 6