The History of the International Olympic Academy Participants Association

The History of the International Olympic Academy Participants Association

IOAPA Session

The participants of the 1985 General Session, led by the late Hans van Haute (Belgium) and participants of the 1986 session, coordinated by Ingolfur Hannesson (Iceland) and Yiannis Zoumpoulis (Greece), were the key players in the formation of the IOAPA.

An informal newsletter provided the forum for disseminating information regarding a reunion in 1989. This gathering of 61 former participants, under the auspices of the IOA, formed the inaugural session of the IOA Participants Association.

The IOAPA has since grown to over 1 100 members from 128 countries. Organised IOA Participant's Sessions are held every two years at the IOA facilities in Olympia.

The International Olympic Academy Participants’ Association

by Rusty Wilson, Ph.D.

Edited in 2021 by Laurel Brassey Iversen OLY

"I like to believe in the sturdiness of an enterprise that begins modestly". Pierre de Coubertin

From 19-24 July 1989, 61 former International Olympic Academy delegates met in Olympia to renew friendships and share memories. Five days later, we emerged a part of the Olympic Movement – the International Olympic Academy Alumni Association, known today as the International Olympic Academy Participants Association. The IOAPA has grown from those humble beginnings into an organisation, representing countries on every continent in the world, which believes in Olympism and wishes to keep it an active part of its members’ lives.

The seeds of the IOAPA were sewn, innocently enough, at a social evening during the 25th General Session of the IOA. On Monday, 8 July 1985, in the parking lot just outside those doors, four participants were chosen to speak as fast as they could for one minute on a subject of their choice. Hans van Haute, a Belgian delegate, chose as his topic "The New Olympic Movement," which had more to do with the extracurricular activities at the river, cafes and other locales around Olympia, than with Olympism itself.

After that evening, the phrase became the unofficial theme of the session. As groups got together for late night escapades, they would always announce another meeting of "The New Olympic Movement." As time wore on everyone realised that there was more to the phrase than anyone had earlier thought. What the participants were experiencing in "The New Olympic Movement" was Olympism - pure and simple.

At the closing ceremonies of the 25th General Session, Dr. Nikolaos Nissiotis, IOA President, pleased with the creation of "The New Olympic Movement," said, ". . . we shall be separated only by geographical distances but not by the spirit of Olympism which shall keep us all united here, as Olympians, forever."

Inspired by these words, Hans van Haute created a newsletter, which he distributed at his own expense, for four years to ensure everyone stayed in touch.

Unbeknownst to the 1985 group, IOA participants from 1986 headed by Laurel Brassey Iversen (USA), Ingolfur Hannesson (ISL) and Yiannis Zoumpoulis (GRE) met with Dr. Nissiotis about a possible reunion. He encouraged the idea and promised the IOA facilities free of charge for an IOA alumni meeting.

In October 1986, Hannesson began publishing a newsletter for the `86 delegates. After the first two issues, Zoumpoulis informed Hannesson of the activities of Hans van Haute and the 1985 group. Ultimately, van Haute and Hannesson contacted each other and discussed coordinating their efforts. By this time, the 1987 IOA participants also expressed interest in a reunion. Almost immediately Paul Baldacchino, an `87 delegate from Malta, joined forces with the `85 and `86 groups and the efforts for a reunion gained greater impetus.

In March 1988, Hannesson and Zoumpoulis met in Athens with IOC member, Mr. Nikos Filaretos, who was also IOA President following the death of Dr. Nissiotis in an automobile accident. Many topics were discussed, among them the final plans for a reunion in 1989. Invaluable support came when Mr. Filaretos sent a formal letter on 27 March 1989 informing all NOCs and NOAs around the world about the upcoming meeting and value of such an endeavour to the Olympic Movement.

Recognizing Hans van Haute’s dedication to the birth of the IOAPA, there was a strong movement at that first conference to make him the organisation’s president - but Hans refused. Not long after the conference, everyone learned that Hans was suffering from cancer. On 13 June 1991, just weeks before the second alumni conference, news came that Hans had lost his battle with cancer.  IOAPA traditions began at that 2nd session in 1991.  The Hans van Haute memorial tree was planted, and we pay tribute to this fine man every session by laying a wreath at his tree.

In Olympia, the IOAAA faced a proposal by the past Greek IOA participants that the responsibility for the administration of the IOAAA should be handed over to them. Both sides presented proposals, debated issues, and after a few days, a vote was taken. By a wide margin, the IOAAA refused the Greek offer and decided it would continue as it had in the past. When the results were reported, all participants, Greek and non-Greek alike, joined forces behind the new IOAAA.

Almost from our inception we were defended and counseled by our dear friend, the IOA Dean, Kostas Georgiadis.  He has been the single most constant influence in the association.  He first attended our session in 1991.  We thought he was really there to spy on us, as he did not engage us in any conversations (we later learned it was because he didn’t speak much English).  But we quickly saw that he was the best thing that could have ever happened to us.  He remains today the Dean of the IOA and has been supporting us through the many different government and IOA leadership changes.  We can never thank him enough for his support and friendship which continues to this day.

The highlight of the 1995 conference came following the elections when Athanasios Kritsinelis, technical director of the Olympic flame lighting and relay, invited the IOAAA to participate in the Greek leg of the Olympic flame relay for the Games of the XXVI Olympiad, the Centennial Games, in Atlanta in 1996.

Eight months later, 42 IOAAA members traveled to Olympia, at their own expense, to witness one of the most spectacular traditions in the world, the lighting of the Olympic flame. The next day, 31 March 1996, all those in attendance took turns carrying the flame for approximately 12 kilometers over historic Mt. Taigetos in pouring rain. At the end of our relay leg, there was no one waiting to receive the flame and the organisers asked if the IOAPA members wanted to run farther.  They took turns for another 10 kilometers before finally passing the flame to their dear friend, the Dean, Kostas Georgiadis.  It was an experience of a lifetime. Following their leg on the relay, the delegates regrouped in Athens on April 6th, where they were honoured guests of the IOA and the Hellenic Olympic Committee at the Centennial Celebration of the Games of the I Olympiad in the Panathenaic Stadium.

In 1997, the IOAAA conference was honoured with the presence of IOA president Niko Filaretos, the man who had helped the organisation from its inception. The meetings were fruitful and beneficial. The 48 delegates, representing 21 countries, voted to officially change the name of the organisation to the International Olympic Academy Participants’ Association to better reflect the membership. This was also the year that the IOA began inviting the IOAPA President to serve as a coordinator for the Young Participant’s session.  This invitation has continued to present day.

During the summer of 1999, participants met in Olympia to celebrate 10 years of the IOAPA’s relationship with the IOA and our common belief in Olympism. In 10 short years, the association showed an astounding growth rate of over 750%, and the number continues to grow with each IOA session.

The old guard gave way to the new generation in 2005 as technology was enabling us to communicate worldwide in real time.  The new wave of members, many of whom came from the Post Graduate seminar, were very well immersed in every aspect of Olympism, eager to get involved and experienced in all the latest means of social media and technology.  Hector Arguelles (ESP) led this “Newest” Olympic Movement. 

At many of the sessions a large amount of time was spent, re-hashing what the aims of the association should be.  Because there are always many new participants, this had to be explained to bring everyone up to speed.  Just recently, members attending the IOAPA session have begun to understand that its primary function is to provide a network of contacts and support in many different areas of sport to individuals who have attended an official session of the IOA and who choose to join the IOAPA. In 2013, the members present voted to make the initial membership fee a lifetime membership.

Perhaps the most visible expression of the close relationship between the IOA and the IOAPA came in 2007. With Greece ravaged by massive fires, the IOAPA along with other organisations, immediately came to the aid of the IOA and Ancient Olympia. Members gave generously of their time to fight the fires and still more gave financially in order to reforest the region. In November of that year, IOAPA members attended re-dedication ceremonies where a memorial tree was planted to commemorate this special relationship between the IOA and IOAPA.

The IOA itself has been reborn out of the scorched trees of the fires of 2007, modernising itself with new programs, initiatives and collaborations.  Since the election of IOA President Isidoros Kouvelos in 2009, and the installation of Dionyssis Gangas as Director of the IOA, the IOAPA has enjoyed a new level of cooperation and encouragement.  Dean Georgiadis continues to be our mentor. 

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the world, and forever changed us all. It forced us to shelter at home, separate from friends and loved ones, and prevented us from gathering in ways we had previously taken for granted.  But through crisis comes reflection, resilience, and reinvention.  It forced us to rethink our interactions with each other; reconsider our responsibilities in fighting this pandemic as an international community; and redouble our support to those frontline health care workers who kept us safe.

But this forced re-examination of how we conduct our lives has awoken us from our complacency and, in some respects, has brought us closer together. And the way we work, communicate and interact has been forever changed through the accelerated adoption of virtual technologies, bridging the challenging physical divide that we have all been experiencing.

And for IOAPA, the pandemic forced us to adapt the ways we deliver our programs. But in so doing we have developed new models for the future that brings the promise of greater engagement, greater access and greater transparency for all of our members. In 2020, IOAPA members designed the virtual format for the IOA’s Young Participants Session that has been in use for the past two years. We were able to produce an engaging week-long session that incorporated many of the elements and experiences one would have in Olympia, but via Zoom. This not only provided the IOA with new possibilities to increase its reach and footprint for future programs, but also served as a model for the IOAPA 2021 Session.

The 17th IOAPA Session was the largest event in the history of our organisation with nearly 120 participants registered. The barrier to attendance once caused by the cost of travelling to Olympia has effectively been eliminated, and in future years we will look to develop a hybrid model so that members can attend the session either in-person or at home.

Another innovation for that Session was our virtual elections for Executive Committee. For the first time, the full IOAPA membership was eligible to vote, bringing the ideal of universal suffrage to the organisation. 

Thanks to a successful fundraising campaign with our partners at Agrotourism Magna Grecia, throughout the course of 2020 we were able to raise nearly 2,500 euros for the Hans van Haute Fund. And in so doing, we will be able to provide, for the first time ever, the full cost of flight and accommodation to Olympia for our next Hans van Haute Scholar in 2023, from a designated underrepresented nation.  These are just some examples of how IOAPA has worked to bring us closer together even during this period of disruption and will continue to do so as its primary responsibility to our members.  A few other highlights of the 2019-2021 term were:

  • Signing the first ever partnership agreement between IOAPA and an NOC (Canadian Olympic Committee), to support and share international best practices in Olympic Education;
  • Hosting an IOAPA Lecture and Reunion at Lausanne 2020, creating new opportunities for outreach at this and future Youth Olympic Games;
  • Returning to the Olympic Torch Relay, after participating in 1996 and 2000, with three IOAPA members running a segment of the relay in Olympia;
  • Initiating a process to select an academic article from an IOAPA member for publication in each edition of the IOA Journal;
  • Hosting a virtual reunion for the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony;
  • Resolving the outstanding taxation issues in Greece, bringing the organisation into full and up-to-date compliance with Greek law.

IOAPA members continue to make impacts in their countries as members and leaders of their respective NOA, in some cases, being the driving force in their creation. They help in preparing the Young Participants for each year’s IOA session (our Orientation Manual can be downloaded and used in any county). They are respected professors of Olympic Studies, NOC officers, IOC members and Olympians. The future promises to bring us closer together as globalisation shrinks our world.  Technology will enable us to do more than ever before as we have seen when COVID forced us indoors.  The values of Olympism always shine brightly in troubled times, and we will always play a part in spreading these values. We were especially proud that all of the past presidents of IOAPA were able to join the 2021 session.  It is a reminder of the lasting impact of the IOA, IOAPA and Olympism.

We are reminded once again of the inspirational words of Dr. Nissiotis at the Closing Ceremony of the 1985 Young Participant’s session.   He said, “…make a miniature replica of the universal family, a family which you will form beyond and over the level of any religious, political and racial discrimination”.