General Jul 16, 2014 | 11:33 PMby Colin McGourty

Russian reigning champions may miss 2014 Olympiad

The Russian team prepare to pick up their gold medals at the 2012 Olympiad in Istanbul | photo: Arman Karakhanyan, Istanbul Chess Olympiad 2012 Facebook

Reigning Olympiad Women’s Champions Russia may miss the Tromsø Olympiad after failing to submit their team line-up on schedule. In an open letter to the World Chess Federation (FIDE) the Norwegian organisers explain that no exceptions can be made for a major federation like Russia, who appear to have delayed picking their team until the transfer of Kateryna Lagno from Ukraine to Russia went through. FIDE has hit back, going as far as to threaten cancelling the Olympiad with only 16 days to go, while the Russian Chess Federation are threatening to take the organisers to court.

A Norwegian bombshell

The news broke in a short article on the official Olympiad website that linked to an open letter from the Tromsø Olympiad Organising Committee to FIDE Executive Director Nigel Freeman. Let’s summarise the main points:

When was the deadline?

There were two deadlines for submitting team information before the Tromsø Olympiad. By 1st April teams were required to confirm they would participate, and by 1st June it was necessary to give the exact line-up of players.

Was there no flexibility?

The organisers say that if they were contacted before the deadline by teams who had problems late registration was possible:

We also accepted late registration from those federations that took contact and asked for help in the process and within the deadline.

But Russia didn’t?

Apparently not:

…we have a situation where still some teams did not register and more important, did not contact Tromsø before the deadline.

From the remainder of the letter it appears no-one disputes that Russia missed the deadline.

Were they alone?

No, “up to 10 teams” were involved, although at this stage we don’t know the identities of the other countries and whether, for instance, all those teams still wanted to compete. UPDATE: The Russian news agency ITAR TASS reports the other teams excluded are as follows. Men: Cambodia, Central African Republic, Gabon, Cote d'Ivoire, Oman, Pakistan and Senegal. Women: Afghanistan.

But Russia are a special case?

Of course being the biggest chess federation makes a difference. The organisers say they came under significant pressure to allow the Russian women’s team to participate:

After informing FIDE of our interpretation and position, we have received mails and phone calls from the FIDE Secretariat and Vice President Gelfer asking us to allow the Russian women's team to participate. Of course, we can understand the embarrassment it can create when a significant and powerful federation like RCF does not submit a team within the deadline.

Can FIDE insist?

The organisers say that FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov believes the Olympiad Regulations (OR) give him the right to change the decision, citing Clause 6.1:

The FIDE President represents the interests of FIDE and is empowered to take the final decision on all questions relating to the Olympiad as a whole.

The organisers dispute that:

If the Fide President is of the opinion that the OR point 6.1 gives him the general power to change regulations singlehandedly three weeks before the Olympiad takes place, we strongly object. Even more, we object to such an interpretation when the purpose is to secure participation from a team coming from his own federation.

What other reasons do the organisers give for not changing their mind?

1. Fairness – “We as Organizers have a duty to treat all federations alike”

2. Money – the organisers note that the addition of a single team costs them €10,500 and 10 teams would add up to €105,000. They  argue no clause in the contract can give FIDE the right to impose additional financial burdens:

It is obvious that one part of the Agreement cannot impose upon the other part a financial cost of this kind. The entire idea that the highest representative of FIDE can overrule and change obligations “with the stroke of a pen” is unacceptable. If FIDE thinks otherwise, we are looking forward to their legal presentation in the Swiss Court System.

3. An unfair competitive advantage – the organisers, no doubt with the Ukraine/Russia situation in mind, comment:

In addition to the pure legal reasoning, it will not be fair to all the federations and teams that actually did comply with the current OR. Any attempt to create special favors to some important teams will go against justice and fair play.

4. Setting a bad precedent – the organisers claim a failure to stand up for themselves now would hurt future organisers:

We feel we have to draw a line to establish a limit to what is acceptable and what is not. This is not only to defend our rights as Organizer of the Olympiad, but also to help future Organizers from being subject to random decisions by FIDE Presidents.

FIDE responds

The open letter understandably whipped up enormous discussion on social media, but it also drew a rapid response from the World Chess Federation itself. FIDE Vice President Israel Gelfer was in Bergamo for the ACP Golden Classic, where he gave the following video interview. We've skipped to the point at which the topic switches to the Olympiad:

As you can see, he didn’t hold back, even threatening to cancel the Olympiad with just over two weeks remaining before 2000 players descend on Norway:

The organisers of Tromsø are very disappointing. They are causing a lot of problems to FIDE and to the whole world of chess. Unfortunately the organising committee is influenced by people who are working for Garry Kasparov. They’re using it for their election purposes. They’re denying visas from our people, they’re denying invitations from federations, they are not respecting the FIDE President’s decisions – which is very clear according to the regulations – and FIDE now have to consider very, very strict and strong measures against them. We are still considering what to do. We are very disappointed [for] their behaviour and the way they are handling all the preparations.

So what matters are you talking about?

We don’t know yet, because just now we were informed that they refused several federations which are late in registration in spite of the President accepting them according to the Olympiad regulations, article 6.1. It lies on the hands of the FIDE President. They ignored his letters and FIDE is now considering very strong legal methods. I would have even recommended to cancel the Olympiad if it is necessary because their behaviour is unacceptable.

His comments confirm that FIDE is relying on the get-out clause that gives the President carte blanche when it comes to the Olympiad, although Morten Sand, one of the signatories of the open letter, later posted an e-mail exchange between himself and Gelfer. There the FIDE VP appeared to accept that a team that had made no attempt to contact the organisers by the deadline would not be accepted. 

Unless a compromise is reached it looks like we're in for a battle of high-powered lawyers, but another question remains – why did Russia engage in such an act of brinkmanship?

The Kateryna Lagno transfer

The Kosintseva sisters - on the far left and far right - seem unwilling to share in Sergei Rublevsky's joy as he lifts the Olympiad trophy in 2012 | photo: David Llada, Istanbul Olympiad 2012 Facebook

To answer that we perhaps first have to go back to the 2012 Olympiad. Although the Russian team overcame a mid-tournament wobble to pip the Chinese at the post, it was a pyrrhic victory. An argument with their coach, Sergei Rublevsky, saw the top two Russian players, Tatiana and Nadezhda Kosintseva, vow never to play for Russia again while he remained in charge. 

Fast forward to 2014, and Rublevsky is still the coach while Russia suddenly lacks its previous embarrassment of chess riches.

In that context the willingness of Kateryna Lagno to transfer to Russia must have seemed like manna from heaven – it would give the Russian team a ready-made new leader. The only problem was her current federation, Ukraine. 

Kateryna Lagno, second from the right, helped Ukraine to win the World Team Championship in Astana in 2013 | photo:

Even in the best of circumstances no country likes to lose their no. 1, but this year also saw Russia and Ukraine on the brink of open war after Russian forces annexed the Crimea. Add to that the fact that the Russian Chess Federation has grown strangely close to Russian President Vladimir Putin – since February the Board of the RCF has been chaired by Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov and includes Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu among a bewildering who’s who of Russian power – and any compromise was clearly off the table.

The Ukrainian Chess Federation launched a preemptive strike, with an Open Letter protesting at the actions of FIDE and the Russian Chess Federation. The complaint? They were trying to push through a transfer against FIDE's own rules and register Lagno for the Russian team at the Olympiad, while she was apparently already signed up for Ukraine:

Following all FIDE procedures and time schedules Ms. Lagno has been duly included into the Ukrainian national team for participation in the 2014 Chess Olympiad in Tromso. According to rule 6.3.8 of the Chess Olympiad regulations eligibility to participate is covered under the FIDE Eligibility Regulation which as mentioned above does not recognize any possibility for double affiliation.

The open letter failed to alter FIDE procedures, however, and a majority vote of the FIDE Presidential Board saw the transfer go through (with €20,000 compensation for Ukraine and €5,000 for FIDE), so that from 12 July 2014 Lagno could play for her new country. The UCF have threatened legal action, but as of today there's a new Russian no. 1:

 1 Lagno, Kateryna g RUS 2540 0 1989
 2 Kosteniuk, Alexandra g RUS 2533 1 1984
 3 Kosintseva, Nadezhda g RUS 2513 0 1985
 4 Pogonina, Natalija wg RUS 2508 9 1985
 5 Gunina, Valentina g RUS 2501 3 1989
 6 Girya, Olga wg RUS 2493 9 1991
 7 Kosintseva, Tatiana g RUS 2476 0 1986

The only problem? The deadline to register a team for the Olympiad was, of course, June 1st. When choosing such a course of action it’s unlikely the Russian Chess Federation imagined what chaos they might unleash... 

An Olympiad without reigning champions

The Russian Chess Federation didn't waste much time in replying to the Norwegians, titling a hard-hitting response: “The Norwegian organisers are trying to hold the Olympiad without the Olympiad Women’s Champions: The RCF is ready to appeal the decision in court”

In the statement the RCF explain they met the 1 April deadline but then implicitly concede they missed the 1 June deadline, citing uncertainty over whether the Olympiad would take place at all:

In April it became clear that serious financially difficulties holding the Olympiad had arisen for the Norwegians. For a long time the situation remained unclear, FIDE had to get involved, and it was only on 5 June that the organising committee officially declared that the event would take place in Tromsø on the dates declared earlier (1-14 August 2014). In that situation it’s at the very least strange to demand that national chess federations strictly observe point 3.7.1 [of the Olympiad regulations] according to which they’re obliged to give a detailed list of players and delegation members before 1 June.

The RCF then goes on to point out that there are no sanctions specified for missing that deadline, and that point 3.7.2 allows teams to switch players for only 100 euros each up to 20 hours before the start of Round 1. That all begs the question – why, then, did the Russians register their men’s team and not the women’s team by the deadline? And even if, as we can assume, they were waiting for Lagno, why not simply name another player who could later be changed for 100 euros? In a game of chess we’d call it a blunder.

Talking of which, the Russian Chess Federation’s trump card is that they were invoiced – and paid – for 10 players (i.e. 5 men and 5 women) on 7 July 2014:

The RCF end by citing the now infamous clause 6.1 and asking FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to use his powers to allow the Russian women’s team to compete. Otherwise they threaten legal action.

Who will blink first, and what happens now? We won’t have long to find out. The Olympiad starts in only 16 days.

See also:

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