Cancel the Olympiad? No(r) way!

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 18, 2014 in Chess, Politics |

It’s hard to know what to make of the latest Olympiad drama. There are so many conflicting reports, rumours, innocent victims and different parties with skin in the game, that it reminds one of an election campaign. Oh hang on; there IS an election campaign. Go figure.

Back it up a little. For those of you without your finger on the pulse of chess gossip, here’s the state of play. The Olympiad in Tromsø, Norway starts in two weeks. Ten teams (including, most significantly, the Russian women’s team) missed the deadline for registration. The organisers have said they’re not accepting the late entry of these teams. FIDE says they MUST accept these teams, citing a statute that gives the FIDE President overriding powers. The organisers say that power doesn’t apply. Drama ensues.

That’s where we stand, at least from a fact perspective. The rumour mill is well and truly in production, as you might expect, with my favourites being that (1) Gary Kasparov’s team has orchestrated the organisers’ behaviour in order to embarrass FIDE before the upcoming FIDE election; (2) FIDE may cancel the whole Olympiad, and (3) FIDE, with the help of Vladimir Putin (!), is considering moving the whole Olympiad to Sochi, Russia, within the next two weeks.

There are a lot of parties at fault in all of this. The Russian chess federation should have registered its team on time, but delayed until after Kateryna Lahno, one of the strongest female players in the world, could officially change chess federations from the Ukraine to Russia. The addition to the Russian team was especially important, given the huge rifts within the team between two of its star players, the Kosintseva sisters, and the coach, Sergei Rublevsky, after the last Olympiad. It should be noted that the Russian team could have registered a team anyway and simply added an extra name later, for a nominal fee of 100 euros. But they didn’t, and here we are.

FIDE is hardly guilt-free in this, either. I doubt FIDE would have gotten involved at all if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s Russia who is affected. Meanwhile, the animosity between FIDE and the Norwegian organisers has been heated for some time, I suspect largely underpinned by the fact that Norway is a vocal supporter of the Kasparov campaign. The Tromsø organisers must also accept blame in all this; it’s clear that the budget for the Olympiad has been completely blown out of the water (although the organisers could not have known so many more teams would want to play than in previous years), and they have cited budgetary reasons for why they won’t allow exceptions to the late deadline rule. In fact, because of budgetary uncertainty, the Olympiad was only confirmed on June 5 – notably, after the deadline for registration. I have a lot of sympathy for the organisers: this will surely be one of the most expensive Olympiads ever, with the most teams, in a country where costs are high, and just after Norway has hosted a rather expensive World Championship match and a World Cup to boot. But a budget is a budget.

The innocent victims I mentioned are, of course, the players. And not just the Russians, either. Other teams affected include the Afghani women’s team, which has itself overcome its own internal problems in the past just to be able to play, and several African teams that have had to jump over many well-publicised visa hurdles to secure their place.  And, of course, if the whole Olympiad is moved or cancelled, literally thousands of chess players and fans will be affected.

I really have no idea what’s going on, and it’s even possible that the ‘facts’ I’ve re-quoted above have been massaged somehow by their sources. But what I can do is apply some basic game theory to the situation to make a prediction about what’s going to happen.  For example, it’s highly unlikely that the Olympiad will be cancelled or moved. There’s just no way that FIDE would accept the negative publicity in the run-up to what will be one of the closest-fought FIDE elections in recent history. Secondly, I find it very hard to believe that these teams will ultimately not be allowed to play, for similar reasons. If the Tromsø organisers just wanted to make a point, it’s been made: this story has been widely publicised in all major media outlets in the chess world. If it’s a budgetary issue, either the money will be found somehow, or the Norwegian organisers will cave in; after all, they would have had to have budgeted for these teams a couple of months ago, when they thought that these teams would register. The unfortunate reality is that perhaps without the Russian team being affected, the organisers might have gotten away with denying the other countries a place; as it stands, although ‘no exceptions should be made’, the might of Russia is a tough beast to fight against.

So, my prediction is that the Olympiad will go ahead, and the teams will play. The real question to me is, how are we going to get there? Who is going to cave first? And which side of the election is going to come out of this looking better than the other?

I, a lowly chess blogger, have no idea. But it’s all very exciting!

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