The Olympics, Orienteering and Ireland

This Paper reviews the International Orienteering Federation policy on the inclusion of orienteering in the Olympics. The policy is described in detail. Implications and opportunities for Irish Orienteering are discussed briefly at the end.

The International Orienteering Federation (IOF) has two very clear objectives regarding the Olympics. The inclusion of Ski orienteering (Ski-O) in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy and the inclusion of Foot orienteering (Foot-O) in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. These objectives were formulated at the 1996 IOF Congress. Achievement of Olympic inclusion is based on four components:

to increase the number of members in the IOF;

to devise an Olympic event;

to raise the profile of orienteering; and

to strengthen the member federations and the IOF.

In addition to Foot-O and Ski-O, Trail-orienteering (Trail-O) is a suitable format for the Special Olympics and Mountain-bike-orienteering (MTB-O) has potential as a Summer Olympic Games format. These Olympic possibilities create new opportunities and new responsibilities for orienteering in Ireland.

To increase the number of members in the IOF

To be eligible for inclusion in the Summer Olympics, the sport must be practised by men in at least 75 countries across four continents and by women in at least 40 countries across three continents. The criteria for the Winter Olympics are lower: 25 countries across four continents. The IAAF has over 200 affiliated members which is the highest number of any Association. Given that athletic ability is a key element of orienteering success, it seems reasonable to assume that if a competition-format could be developed that can be easily introduced into non-member countries, the IOF can attain the membership criteria. Such a format would need to incorporate relatively easily and quickly produced maps, conveniently located events and low administration costs given the likely budget available to any new federation.

When the Olympic Project began, the IOF had 48 members. A target of reaching 75 in 2002 was set. Since then membership has increased to 56: India, Moldova and Chinese Taipei joined in 1998; and Uruguay, Venezuela, Greece, Jamaica and Columbia joined in 1999. The full list of 56 members is as follows:

Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belorussia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Columbia, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Spain, Estonia, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Moldova, Macedonia, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Korea, Romania, South Africa, Russia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Slovakia, Sweden, Chinese Taipei, Ukraine, USA, Uruguay, Venezuela and Yugoslavia.

To devise an Olympic event

Classic orienteering events are not suitable for the Olympics. The format is neither TV nor spectator friendly, the venue is often remote and the duration of the event (over 90 minutes for men) is too long. Park-orienteering with winning times of around 15 minutes and outstanding opportunities to use tourism attractions, such as castle grounds and city parks, is being promoted as a suitable Summer Olympic format. The IOF preferred Olympic disciplines are an individual race and a mixed relay. Ski-orienteering is being promoted as the appropriate Winter Olympic format. Classical orienteering will continue to be promoted as at present and possibly even with greater funding arising from income earned from the new formats.

The IOF has set an objective of having the Park-O and short-race Ski-O formats included in major Multi-sport competitions as a precursor to Olympic inclusion. Accordingly orienteering events are being held in the World Games in Japan in August 2001. Around 80 elite international orienteers will be invited to compete alongside around 2,500 participants in other sports. The World Games were first held in 1981 in the USA and they are staged every four years for non-Olympic sports. Closer links with ARISF (the association of international federations representing sports, recognised by the IOC, but which are not on the programme of the Olympic Games) are also being forged by the IOF.

The country hosting the Olympics must be willing to introduce a new sport into the Olympics. Beijing will probably be the host city for the 2008 Olympics the organisers will be selected in 2001. The IOF recently signed an agreement with the Ministry of Education which will secure the inclusion of orienteering as a subject for millions of students in several provinces in China. Over 30 specially commissioned maps have also been made to accelerate the development of the sport in China. The annual Swedish O-Ringen 5-day event attracts over 20,000 participants. The July 2000 event will be visited by a delegation of 500 Chinese orienteers, officials and media representatives.

To raise the profile of orienteering

Technical developments are essential to achieve this aim. The IOF are promoting and monitoring technical methods of tracking orienteers in the forest and broadcasting this information in a live format to both spectators and the media (Web casting over the internet). In late 1999, the IOF entered into a co-operation agreement with WorldSport Networks Limited, the media partner of GAISF (the General Association of International Sports Federations. This should result in more media exposure.

In Foot-O an inaugural European Championship is being held in the Ukraine in June-July 2000 with 31 countries entered including Ireland. This complements similar championships held in other continents. Park-O is being promoted by the Park World Tour Council. They have made a proposal to the IOF that an official World Championships series be held starting in 2001. The proposed format culminates in a 14-day final tour with 5-8 races in 3-5 countries. The new Championships would be seen as strengthening the orienteering movement as a whole. The format would attract new participants, new member nations, raise the profile of the sport and secure a sound financial basis for the sport. Applicants for hosting races in 2001 include Norway, Czech Republic, Greece, South Africa and China. The 2000 Tour events include races in Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, Austria, Norway, Thailand and the two final stages in China. In addition, twelve classical orienteering World Cup races as well as Junior and Masters World Championships and a World Orienteering Marathon Trophy are being held during 2000.

Ski-O is already well established. The 13th World Championships (biennial) were held in Russia in March 2000. As in classical Foot-O, World Cup races (biennial from 2001), Junior World Championships (annual) and Masters World Championships (annual) are regular events. The format is more than 100 years old and competitions are held in four continents. New formats such as mass start races and short and super-short distances will be given more emphasis to make Ski-O more media- and spectator-friendly. Spectators and officials will be allowed to remain in the competition area during events and competitors will be allowed to train on existing tracks at any time before the final preparation of the competition track gets underway. Links with biathlon and cross-country skiing will also be developed. The 2006 Olympic application was presented to the IOC in December 1999.

The first ever World Cup in Trail-O was held in conjunction with the 1999 Foot-O World Championships in Scotland in August 1999. In this format physical mobility is not a restrictive factor. Disabled persons compete on equal terms. The emphasis is on technical map-reading ability at each control. The competitor is given a selection of flags at each control point and he/she has to choose which one corresponds most to the control description. A World Cup Trail-O competition is being held in 2000.

MTB-O is a relatively new orienteering format. Races involve making correct route choice decisions while travelling at very fast speeds. In 2000, eight individual and three relay races constitute the World Cup series. From 2002 a World championships will be held every second year. The format has more environmental issues associated with it than Foot-O and Ski-O but these have been addressed to a large extent by restricting competition routes to tracks and paths.

To strengthen the member federations and the IOF

There are a number of ways the IOF can assist and strengthen the member federations. Clear and consistent IOF policy on the future development of orienteering is a key requirement and this has been achieved to-date. A selection strategy which offers many federations the opportunity to send competitors to restricted entry events such as the World Games will offer better funding and promotion opportunities to smaller federations.

The availability of international training centres for Ski-O together with technical advice on training and equipment would make it possible for non-Winter sports countries like Ireland to become involved at a competitive level. Twinning agreements, aimed at providing technical advice and sharing training opportunities, with federations such as Sweden, Finland and Norway could increase the number of countries involved in Ski-O towards the number involved in Foot-O. A winter clinic similar to the Foot-O clinic at the Swedish O-Ringen would assist in the development of coaching and of juniors.

Opportunities for Ireland

Ireland has no disadvantages in relation to Park orienteering. There are many locations in Ireland suitable for staging a major event and simultaneously attracting significant tourism benefits. Many scenic, historically interesting and suitable locations exist such as castle grounds and urban park areas.

Ireland has a great athletics tradition, the envy of many larger nations. With appropriate Olympic incentives and funding, Ireland can compete in Park-O to the highest international standards. Irish clubs are already very active with four separate Park-O type leagues (around 35 events) being held in the Cork and Dublin regions during 2000. Two Irish orienteers will compete in the Park-O Tour in Austria in August 2000.

The situation is more complex in Ski orienteering. Here we have obvious climatic disadvantages. These can be overcome by forming an Olympic squad and funding international training in Scandinavia. In the short-term, a policy of seeking assistance from experienced ski orienteers (perhaps with Irish passport eligibility) may be required especially in relation to advice on technical aspects of the sport.

The Irish Orienteering Association (IOA) intends to develop an Olympic preparation strategy for both formats in consultation with the Irish Sports Council and the Irish Olympic Council. The strategy will be based on the assumption that both formats will be successful in their applications for inclusion into the 2006 and 2008 Olympic Games. The strategy will be inclusive of the needs of the IOF particularly in relation to securing the support of the Irish Olympic Council for the two IOC applications and in increasing the profile of Park-O by establishing an annual national Park-O championship.

Gerry Brady