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Italy issues emergency decree to avoid flag and anthem being barred from Tokyo Olympics

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By Associated Press
Italy's Gregorio Paltrinieri celebrates his gold during the medal ceremony for the men's 1500-meter freestyle final during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Rio Olympic.
Italy's Gregorio Paltrinieri celebrates his gold during the medal ceremony for the men's 1500-meter freestyle final during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Rio Olympic.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Michael Sohn   -  

The Italian government pushed through a last-minute decree Tuesday providing more autonomy for the country’s Olympic committee in an effort to prevent the team from being suspended for the Tokyo Games.

The council of ministers approved the decree just before Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte tendered his government's resignation to President Sergio Mattarella amid on ongoing political crisis.

It comes just a day before the International Olympic Committee was due to decide whether to impose a humiliating probation on Italy’s team for the Tokyo Games this week because of a two-year domestic dispute that it says amounts to government interference.

The IOC has taken issue with the Italian government’s formation of a new organisation, “Sport e Salute,” that was created at the start of 2019 to run the country’s sports finances. The money was previously controlled by an arm of the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI).

The decree should give CONI more control over its employees and training centers.

After it was approved, CONI president Giovanni Malagò immediately called IOC president Thomas as Bach and both parties expressed their “satisfaction” over the development.

“The cabinet has approved a decree containing regulations that provide autonomy for the Italian Olympic Committee,” Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said.

“Considering the long and glorious sporting and democratic history of our country it was improbable that Italy would be sanctioned," Spadafora added. "But today’s decision removes every doubt and resolves the issue of CONI’s independence.”

Italy avoids being lumped with Russia

Without the decree, the IOC could have decided the punish the country's Olympic team by preventing athletes in Tokyo from wearing their national team uniforms and from hearing their national anthem being played.

The embarrassing prospect of probation would have lumped Italy together with Russia, which last month was banned from using its name, flag and anthem at the next two Olympics or at any world championships for the next two years in the fallout from a state-backed doping scandal.

International bodies such as the IOC and FIFA typically threaten national affiliates with suspension to protect sports officials’ decision-making power from lawmakers.

Kuwait competed at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics as “Independent Olympic Athletes” under the Olympic flag and anthem during a similar dispute over government interference.

The “Olympic Athletes from Russia” team name was used at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games because of the doping scandal.

In the first of two warning letters that IOC president Thomas Bach wrote to Conte late last year, he noted that “significant legal and structural changes have been imposed on the national Olympic committee of Italy."

“They unfortunately no longer allow CONI to fully perform its role as an IOC-recognised national Olympic committee and to operate in accordance with the Olympic charter,” Bach added.

The IOC president also suggested that the supposed interference could — under extreme circumstances — result in Italy being stripped of hosting rights for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

“CONI, being a signatory of the host city contract for the Olympic Winter Games, may under these circumstances not be able to live up to its responsibilities,” Bach said in the letter to Conte.

Slow reforms

CONI has traditionally run all sports in Italy, deciding how to divide up millions of dollars of state funding to each of the country’s national sports federations. Now, “Sport e Salute” handles that responsibility, with €280 million handed out for 2020.

While CONI said it has no problem with the funding issue, it has taken exception to the government’s meddling with its election procedures, and its ability to control its staff.

Malagò is planning to run for CONI president again in May, but the proposed law could preclude him from serving three consecutive terms.

Italian Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora responded to the IOC in November promising that government reforms would provide CONI “proper functional and organisational autonomy, as dictated by the Olympic Charter.”

But the reforms fell through.