Years of criticism over male-dominated leaders who spent lots of money on themselves culminated Sunday in an uproar at Norway’s large and powerful national athletics federation. Delegates to its annual meeting narrowly elected Berit Kjøll as their new president, ousting both the incumbent and the man nominated by the organization’s own election committee.
“I have worked hard for this because I have had faith that I can bring something new into Norwegian athletics management,” Kjøll told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after she upset the plans of her two male contenders. Each of the three candidates for president of the federation (Norges Idrettsforbund, NIF) had seemed confident they’d win.
She was up against Tom Tvedt, the incumbent president who’d made it clear he wanted to continue for a second term, and Sven Mollekleiv, the former head of Norway’s Red Cross who’d been nominated as the federation’s own alternative to Tvedt. Incumbents normally seem assured of a second term, but all the complaints and criticism over how Tvedt and other top sports bureaucrats had operated over the years, coupled with their high-spending, use of consultants and poor results at the last Summer Olympics, resulted in him losing the confidence of NIF’s elections committee. It didn’t help when Norway’s state auditor general also issued a damning report last fall that branded NIF’s leadership as flawed. More of its funding should have been spent, the auditor stated, on actual athletic activity and the federation’s membership organizations over a wide range of sport.
Mollekleiv had initially emerged as the favoured challenger to Tvedt and both campaigned hard for the president’s post. Then, in December, Kjøll was also formally named a candidate for the post, after being put forward by Norway’s national handball organization. Suddenly there was potential for even more change at a powerful national organization that clearly needed to restore its reputation, not least after it had backed expensive bids to host another Winter Olympics that the public and ultimately the government failed to support.
Knock-out for Tvedt
Tvedt was knocked out in the first round of voting on Sunday, winning only 14 percent compared to 44 percent for Mollekleiv and 40 percent for Kjøll. In the second round, between only Mollekleiv and Kjøll, the voting was as close as it could be, and Kjøll won with just 50.6 percent. Her two extra votes were enough to usher in a woman as NIF president for only the second time in the federation’s history, and one who’s viewed by many as an outsider in the sports world.
That may have been an advantage for a federation in need of distancing itself from what many viewed as having a long history of male leaders with enormous egos and low thresholds for doing what they wanted. Newspaper Aftenposten editorialized over the weekend that NIF’s most important job now is to restore public confidence in its stewardship of amateur athletics, in a country where sports are considered part of the national culture.
“I just feel so strongly that I can deliver, together with all the great people in the athletics movement,” Kjøll told NRK. She’s viewed as having lots of management experience and likely more credibility with government and other political leaders who fund athletics in Norway.
Kjøll, age 63, is best-known as a business executive who’s never had a high sports profile, but she could claim a solid track record as chief executive of Kilroy Travels, the large Norwegian amusement park Tusenfryd, Flytoget (the Airport Express Train) and retail property firm Steen & Strøm. She’s also been a divisional director at Telenor and on the boards of such large companies as Norway’s biggest bank, DNB, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), coastal voyage and shipping line Hurtigruten, the Oslo University Hospital and DNT, the Norwegian oudoors and mountain trekking association. She most recently has been a director of Huawei Norge, the Chinese technology company caught in controversy over alleged ties to the Chinese government.
In the end, NIF’s 166 delegates at the national meeting who were eligible to vote went against the recommendation of the federation’s own election committee, which supported Mollekleiv. He accepted his narrow defeat graciously, congratulating Kjøll who in turn thanked Tvedt for his service the past four years.
Speed-skating star wins election, too
Another fresh but familiar face will join top leaders of the NIF board: Johann Olav Koss, the former speed skating star who made international headlines with his gold medal performance at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994. Now 51, educated as a doctor and living in Oslo after many years in Canada, Koss was elected second-vice president and seemed keen to serve along with Kjøll. Vibecke Sørensen of Bærum, a former figure skater who’s also a doctor, was elected first-vice president, as NIF met in Hamar over the weekend, not far from where Koss won gold 25 years ago.
Aftenposten referred to all the delegates gathering at NIF’s meeting as representng “one of the most important” parts of Norwegian society. Athletics are viewed as boosting public health and providing a source of solidarity while also cultivating competitive instincts. “It’s a cliché that athletics are a part of the national culture, but it’s true,” Aftenposten wrote. It noted how NIF faces challenges ranging from ensuring funding to embracing new technology and inspiring new generations of Norwegians. Now it’s up to Kjøll and her new colleagues to perform as well as the country’s medal winners.