— Published 27 April 2021

“Don’t be afraid to trust young people”

Eric Saintrond

Belgium

General Secretary and Executive Director of the International University Sports Federation (FISU)

Having joined FISU in 1985, Eric Saintrond likes to explain that he “grew up a bit with the organisation” of international university sport. When it started out, the Bruxelles-based body had only three people, plus a secretary. Today it employs more than 40, spread over eight departments. Having worked in the private sector and in education, he started his career at FISU part-time, keeping the first years in another professional activity. Since 2007, he has held the role of General Secretary and Executive Director.

1) Since your professional beginnings, what has been the most memorable experience of your career?

Eric Saintrond: I have known a lot since I joined FISU, because we organise World University Games every two years. At each edition, the experience is remarkable. But I have fond memories of the end of 1988, marked by the cancellation of the World University Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We really didn’t know if FISU was going to be able to survive such an event and still exist the following year. We were on the verge of a fracture, without staff, without Games and without perspective. We had to find an alternative. In just six months, we staged a World University Games in Duisburg in Germany. Only four sports were on the program, but athletics were of an exceptional level. Primo Nebiolo being president of the IAAF and FISU at the time, the stars were there. Having successfully overcome such an obstacle, FISU then began a new life, where hosting the Games is now guaranteed 4 or 5 years in advance.

2) How do you view, in your role at FISU, the current situation and the uncertainty of the months to come?

I believe it is very important to keep a global view of the crisis. It affects sport and the sports movement, of course, but above all it affects the whole world. Our priority at FISU is to keep our national federations alive. Many have suffered since the onset of the health crisis. Campuses were closed, sports activities stopped. Some national federations depend almost exclusively on the revenue from the sporting events they organise in their country. With reserves for 2 or 3 years, we have not suffered too much. We were able to continue working to support the university sports movement. But our schedule promises to be extremely busy for the year 2022, with the postponement of the Chengdu 2021 World University Summer Games, now moved to the same year as all of our world championships. It will not be easy to manage such a schedule.

3) How would you define the way you exercise your role as a manager?

I have great confidence in my team. We remain a small structure, with a family spirit, where people should feel listened to and supported. For that, it is necessary to know how to distribute the tasks, not to concentrate oneself on all the activities. We must remain open, take into account the personal problems of each member of the staff. At FISU, we have 15 different nationalities. Some employees are expatriates, sometimes a little isolated, without family. My role is to help team members evolve in the structure, encourage them to stay. Competition is tough in Lausanne with the presence of the IOC and many international federations. We must maintain a spirit in which people retain a strong attachment to our organisation.

4) What are the three most important values ​​for you in your professional activity?

First of all, respect for the culture and traditions of the countries to which we go for our events. There is no such thing as a FISU culture imposed on host countries. The second value is therefore flexibility. It is up to us to adapt by being flexible. We should not ask people to adapt to our rules and how we operate. Finally, we should not be afraid to trust young people. You have to involve as many students as possible, without fear of their inexperience. We recruited some of them out of college. Today, the average age of FISU personnel is very low.