Ask Jose Damiani what he considers to be the crowning achievement of his 16-year tenure as former president of the World Bridge Federation, and you’re likely to be hear that it was his role in forging a relationship between world bridge and the International Olympic Committee, one that indelibly marked the card game as a sport. In recent years, however, sharp criticism of this decision has begun to emerge as a series of frustrating incidents have caused some players to ask if the relationship between bridge and the IOC should be reexamined.
Although Damiani is careful to note that his opinion in this interview with the Daily Bulletin is solely as president emeritus of the WBF – and is not necessarily representative of the current Executive Committee of the body – he remains unwavering in his support for the idea of classifying bridge as a sport. He is determined to defend his legacy on this issue, less as a matter of personal pride, and more as a decision that he believes is necessary to the survival of the game.
“Some believe that making bridge a sport was bad, but I want to first explain why we did this,” said Damiani, who began by noting that the word “sport” means different things to different audiences.
“There are some who feel that ‘sport’ should be used for just physical activities, but the IOC actually recognizes five different areas as sport: physical sports, mind sports, mechanical (motor) sports, equestrian sports and coordination sports (such as billiards or shooting).
“I created the International Mind Sports Association to show that bridge belonged to the broader category of sports. Without accepting this premise, however, how would you go about promoting the game? I have asked this question many times before to those who challenged this idea, but they could never really answer the question,” he said.
Challenges with doping policy
“But if you accept the idea of bridge belonging to the family of sports, then we should also say that bridge has its own specifics (as do other sports) that make it special. For example, we had conversations with the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) to insist that bridge can’t have out-of-competition drug tests, unlike physical sports where players may be tested any time. Mind sports are the only ones that have this distinction.”
Damiani raised this point in response to the recent, well-publicized suspension of Norwegian player Geir Helgemo – the top-rated player in the world who has represented Monaco for the past several years – following a failed drug test in which he tested positive for the presence of synthetic testosterone and Clomifene, a medication typically used to treat infertility in women that can also increase testosterone levels in men. Helgemo will not be allowed to participate in a bridge competition until November, and he has been stripped of titles earned in the past year.
Even though the WBF concedes that the substances found in the test were not meant to enhance Helgemo’s performance, but were instead used as a method of weight control, the organization was compelled to honor its agreements with WADA.
“Unfortunately, our top player took something that is on the prohibited list of medications, one that includes anabolic steroids, hormone modulators and diuretics. It had nothing to do with his performance as a player. But we have a mechanism that allows players taking prescription medication to apply for a waiver in these cases, and we have had players who have successfully used this exemption process in the past. But Helgemo simply didn’t do that. If he had, it would have been OK. Helgemo even admitted his fault in this matter and apologized for causing the furor,” Damiani said.
“Still, I would have preferred that a warning would have been given by the WBF in this case, and if WADA complained about it, we could have put the burden on them to pursue the case, or use it as an opportunity to further explain our desire for distinctiveness in doping policy. But if we want to be part of a federation with other games in the world of sports, we can’t have one foot inside the IOC where we reap the benefits of association with them, and one foot outside where we demand the right to completely ignore WADA.”
Damiani says that the WBF’s interest in doping policy extends beyond preventing players from possibly gaining competitive advantage through the use of banned substances.
“We want to protect the health of our participants while respecting their freedom, their liberty. The Helgemo situation was an unfortunate thing, and I hope that the WBF will at least consider reinstating his titles.”
Challenges with cheating and arbitration
From the point of view of many top event players, perhaps the most vexing issue in the world of top-level bridge is the problem of European arbitration courts reinstating players who have been convicted of the worst offense in the game, collusive cheating.
“Bridge has to call for a specific exception to rules regarding arbitration of players convicted of serious ethical violations. Our game can’t be judged as other sports. The Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS) is staffed by arbitrators who aren’t qualified to judge our special sport. And although CAS has already ruled that some players must be readmitted, I wish the European Bridge League had appealed the ruling anyway. I know that the attorneys for the case felt it was hopeless, and that the EBL was concerned about the considerable expense of pursuing this case, but it would have been a good opportunity to make our position clear,” Damiani said.
“I know this makes players very unhappy, but we must stand together to demand that this aspect changes.”
Why align with the IOC at all?
The answer to this is brutally simple: money. Many countries have “Ministries of Sport” that supply funding not only to top-level competition, but also to Junior programs. The bridge programs of many smaller countries are entirely dependent on stipends from their respective governments, but only officially recognized sports are eligible for these funds, therefore making IOC recognition critical.
And in large countries such as China, the budget available for bridge programs and events can be huge.
“The Ministry of Sport in China provides lots of funding from which the WBF directly benefits. For example, the latest World Mind Sports games held in China had a budget of $17 million dollars. This could only happen from IOC association,” said Damiani.
“I want all players to know that we want bridge to be a fair sport, and we recognize that bridge organizations can make mistakes, but our purpose is to promote bridge and keep it alive for the future.”