Chess and the Olympics, by Jim Perry

Last year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that it had recognized FIDE as the official international federation (IF) governing chess. This does not yet make chess an Olympic sport with the right to participate in the Olympic Games themselves.

Let me say right off that I am opposed to chess being accepted as an Olympic sport or to any association of chess with the IOC. This has nothing to do with any belief on my part that chess is not a sport, or does not merit inclusion in the Olympics generally.

Instead, my opposition is based on several factors, mostly having to do with the negative effects of the changes which would be required of chess were it to become an Olympic sport. These include the licensing of chessplayers by national federations, the doping policies of the IOC, required changes in USCF By-Laws in order to bring them into conformity with federal legislation, and the hollowness of the promise of big money flowing to chessplayers from Olympic and IOC association. Here I will discuss just the first of these factors.

The case of Gao Jun should be instructive and sobering. Gao is a table tennis player, originally from the People's Republic of China. In 1991 she won a World Championship title in the women's doubles event. The next year, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, she won a silver medal in the same event. Soon thereafter, Gao married an American and moved to the United States to take up residence and citizenship.

According to the rules of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) respecting change of nationality, Gao then had to sit out of all international competition for a period of 5 years unless the country of origin (PRC in her case) did not raise any objections to her competing for her new country. In Gao's case, the PRC did object and it is only in the last year or so that Gao once again became eligible to compete internationally in her sport.

It is the norm in Olympic sports that athletes compete _through_ their national federations (NGBs), that is, only with their permission and certification, and not as individuals. Had ITTF rules been in effect in chess in 1976 when Victor Korchnoi defected, or later in the 1980s when players such as Lev Alburt left the Soviet Union, the Soviet Chess Federation could have legally excluded them from international competition for many years after they left the USSR.

Note that I am not talking here of membership requirements, but of a period of indentured service to the NGB which a player "represents". Nor should one assume that actions such as the above in the case of Gao Jun are the province only of "bad" countries such as the PRC. The case of the cycle racer, Lucy Tyler-Sharman, who recently left Australia for the United States, where she held dual citizenship, demonstrates that so-called "free world" countries also accept the concept of indentured service for Olympic athletes (see below).

Nominally, the rules governing change of nationality and its effect on competition outside the Olympic Games themselves are under the control of the IFs, which are supposedly autonomous in this respect (Olympic Charter, rule 29). IOC rules only specify a 3 year waiting period before such players would be eligible for participation in the Olympic Games themselves as a representative of their new country (Olympic Charter, rule 46 and Bye-Law to rule 46).

However, the written statutes of any organization, including the IOC, form only a part of the picture. Of equal or even more importance is the fact that the Olympic Movement is structured as an economic monopsony, which Black's Law Dictionary (6th edition) defines as "a condition of the market in which there is but one buyer for a given commodity".

The Olympic Games are a multi-billion dollar business enterprise based ultimately on the labor and work of the athletes. By restricting athlete movement between countries, the Olympic monopsony forces the athletes to deal with a single "employer" (their home country's NGB) and, in this fashion, effectively undermines their bargaining power which in turn deprives them of their fair share of the Olympic wealth.

The division into national groupings, combined with very strong barriers against athlete movement from one country to another is the basis of the Olympic monopsony. The various statutes (whether of the IOC or the IFs) restricting athlete movement between countries by means of indentured service for various lengths of time are the Olympic equivalent of major league baseball's reserve clause which for so many years restricted player movement in that sport and thereby depressed player salaries.

Since this is the basic economic structure of the Olympics, one cannot expect that there will be no requirements on FIDE to conform to the rest of the Olympic community by instituting barriers to athlete movement similar to those in effect in nearly all other Olympic sports.

In fact, in the "Memorandum on the Commercialisation of Chess", FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov states:

"FIDE has just been appointed by the IOC as the sole body responsible for the game of chess and its championships. ... I can tell you from our experience in dealing with the IOC that they expect total order and discipline in our organisation." (FIDE Memorandum)

So indeed there are requirements which have not (yet) been overtly acknowledged. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (or his deputy) may have held the pen when that document was composed, but there should be no doubt that the IOC was guiding its movements. For their part, though the FIDE officials were mere cat's paws in the process, they could hardly be described as unwilling confederates.

There is no doubt in my mind that, among other things, athlete licensing and its accompanying period of indentured service will be a requirement for further "progress" by chess towards full Olympic status. The entire thrust of the Olympic Movement, its basic economic structure as a monopsony, the practice of other IFs, as well as the FIDE Memorandum, point very clearly in this direction.

Jim Perry


(1) List of International Federations recognized by the IOC:

(2) Olympic Charter:

(3) Unfortunately, the ITTF does not keep their By-Laws on line. There is an interview with Gao Jun in which she talks of her life in China and her decision to leave the PRC at the following URL:

(4) For information on Lucy Tyler-Sharman, I quote form the latest issue of VeloNews (April 3, 2000). Note the incredible demand raised by Cycling Australia for blood money as a condition for their non-objection:

"International Olympic guidelines prevent dual citizens from switching nationality unless they have not competed under the first country's flag for a minimum of three years. To get around that, the athlete needs to pursue a lengthy process of application and review that would, in Tyler-Sharman's case, begin with securing the permission of the Australian federation.

"To grant the release, Cycling Australia president Ray Godkin said that the organization would first demand compensation for the $80,000 (US) it paid in support of her training program.

"Following that release, the application would then go to both the UCI and the IOC for review."

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