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Thursday, February 17, 2011
Updated: February 24, 9:48 PM ET
Meet Mr. IOC

By Melissa Larsen
ESPN Action Sports

Get to know Gerhard Heiberg, snowboarders. He has keys to the Olympic kingdom.

The Air & Style event in Beijing that kicked off the snowboarding competition season this past December brought together a diverse group of people who maybe wouldn't normally spend a week eating breakfast together in the same hotel. China's new interest in winter sports drew a lot of folks from across the winter sport spectrum.

For heaven's sake -- sit down, talk. Have a dialogue around this. Be civilized. Don't shout at each other. FIS people are ordinary people like the rest of us. You can talk to them.

--Gerhard Heiberg

Among them was the Norwegian member of the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee, Mr. Gerhard Heiberg. There are roughly 25 people in the IOC who are involved in deciding what new sports should get added to the Olympics, and which sports are outdated and have to go. Mr. Heiberg is one of them. His expertise lies in the Winter Games -- he ran them in 1994.

In Beijing, the IOC had just announced that it was considering adding slopestyle to the Olympics, so I reached out to Heiberg to see if he'd be willing to talk about it. After 14 years of unanswered complaints in the snowboard world about how the Olympics handles the sport, I didn't expect a response. Heiberg surprised me by suggesting we meet for coffee, but I wasn't sure who to expect. Someone in a Vader mask, draped in a black cape, breathing fire, perhaps.

Instead the man I met was funny, candid and kind. Talking with him helped me understand two things: First, the IOC deals with so many sports, they don't have time to focus on the internal battles of every single one of them. The dialog that needs to happen in snowboarding has to take place with the FIS. Second, snowboarders can affect change if they decide to stand together for what's important to them. That's why Terje Haakonsen's newly announced Snowboarding 180 Olympic Charter is worth paying attention to. So is Mr. Heiberg.

Could you describe your duties as a member of the International Olympic Committee?
I was chairman, president and CEO of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Today I am on the Executive Board of the IOC. I am also responsible for all the revenues of the IOC.

This is all voluntary work. The reason I'm involved in this is my belief in the charters, ideals and values of the Olympics and I see what sports can do for the world. I see that we have a mission: getting people together through sports.

So does your role at the IOC extend to helping countries like China build winter sports outside of the Olympics?
Absolutely. We are very much aware that the young people today sit in front of their PCs most days. Why not try to get them interested in physical exercise? Snowboard is a perfect sport for the young generation. It has a good appeal for people 15, 16 years old. That is what we need. Get the young people out.

For snowboarders, the history of snowboarding in the Olympics is somewhat controversial.
I know. I was involved in that.

You said on NRK [Norwegian public broadcasting] that you would look at different types of snowboard contests to determine if slopestyle was ready to be in the Olympics. Could you explain?
We made a decision, the IOC, at the last executive board meeting, where we'd like to include more events like Slopestyle in the Games in Sochi in 2014, but we would like to see first ... how many could participate in this, how many countries are involved, ... to see that it's a real tough competition -- so that we could call it an Olympic event.

Then we will have people present to look at several competitions in slopestyle this winter. For instance the Arctic Challenge, and there will be competitions in the United States. The IOC, we deal with sport so we think we have an idea what a good sport looks like. So we will have a look, and of course talk to the snowboarders, and then hopefully make a decision about whether to include it in the games in Sochi.

But basically we have said yes, if the competitions we are going to see seem to have the quality. They all say it has.

But the Arctic Challenge and the events in the United States -- none of these are FIS events. If you're looking at non-FIS events to judge the quality of slopestyle competition, does that mean that there is a possibility that the people who run those competitions can have a greater voice in how they're run in the Olympics?
Of course, we are very much aware of the controversy over snowboarders reporting through FIS, but we are not going to try to change that at this stage. We believe still that FIS can represent them well. When it comes to this winter, whether it's a FIS event or a contest organized outside of FIS I wouldn't say we would care. But we will work through FIS. There is no question about it.

Sebastien Toutant and his peers missed the first Olympic battle. Are they ready for the second one?

You seem to be the voice of reason in the IOC. Do you think that there's a way to help facilitate more communication between organizations like the TTR and the people in charge of the FIS?
I hope so. I think so. The more events you have with snowboarding, the greater the interest. And of course snowboard speaks with a louder voice. I think it's a good thing if TTR speaks to FIS and vice versa and see how you can organize things for the future. But for the time being, we have decided to work through FIS.

Do you think that will ever change in the future? Or is it just a losing battle that these guys are fighting?
It could change. I'm not saying that it will change. It could. It depends on the two parties. But the stronger the snowboarders get, the louder they have a voice as I said. So communication -- the dialogue has to take place, and then we'll see what comes. I will not predict anything at this stage.

Do you think that the people who run the FIS are open to this communication?
Yes. I think so. I know the people who run the FIS and I think it's possible to talk to them.

Will there need to be a third party negotiator?
[Laughs] I hope not. I hope the two parties can talk without a third party involved.

The FIS getting into slopestyle is difficult for snowboarders because, in order for them to run qualifiers for Olympic seeding, they have to add competitions to the calendar that conflict with competitions, like the Air & Style, that have been important in snowboarding for many years. And this dream of having a title of "World Champion" mean something is what the TTR has been working towards with their tour for so long, and now it seems like this is all about to get so much more complicated.
I understand this, fully. I do. That's why I say, for heaven's sake -- sit down, talk. Have a dialogue around this. Be civilized. Don't shout at each other. FIS people are ordinary people like the rest of us. You can talk to them. Do it in a proper way and little by little you may ... Again, I don't want to predict anything, but at least you should start talking and see what comes out of it.

Are there other sports that have this same kind of internal controversy in the Olympics?
Yes, for instance there is Tae Kwan Do, which has two international federations. We always say to them: try to be one. That's much easier for us to handle. So it was easy when snowboard came that the FIS said we will take care of snowboard. We said fine, great, you do that. Now we can see that things have changed a bit since Nagano when you first started. It's about time to talk more together.