— Published 27 May 2022

Johan Eliasch, an already highly contested president

It could have been a peaceful day. Quiet and uneventful. With only one candidate for the presidential seat – the incumbent Johan Eliasch – the 53rd Congress of the International Ski Federation (FIS) looked calm. However, it turned into a war of words on Thursday 26 May at the Allianz Tower in Milan (Italy).

It is true that Johan Eliasch was re-elected for a new mandate. The Swedish-British leader, former CEO of the Head group, had beaten off competition from three rivals last June to complete the last year of the presidency of Swiss Gian-Franco Kasper, who died at the beginning of July. In Milan on Thursday 26 May, he was the only candidate. But his re-election for a four-year term proved to be much more turbulent than the previous vote.

Unopposed for the top job, Johan Eliasch received 70 votes out of a possible 126. This gave him a majority. But the FIS President had received 65 votes less than a year earlier in his first election, despite competition from three other candidates, Urs Lehmann of Switzerland, Sarah Lewis of Great Britain and Mats Årjes of Sweden. In Milan, he fell short by about 40% of the vote, a result that raises questions in an election that had been decided beforehand.

After less than a year as president, Johan Eliasch is not unanimously supported. The Swede, who lives in Great Britain, is criticised by part of the ski family for his lack of communication and transparency, particularly in his strategy for reforming alpine skiing.

In Milan on Thursday 26 May, the opposition was heard. A group of some 15 nations, including Switzerland, Austria, Croatia and several Scandinavian nations, attempted a coup by challenging the voting system. Opponents demanded a secret ballot, with the possibility of choosing between yes, no and abstention, not just between the name of the single candidate or abstention. But their request was rejected, on the grounds that the statutes of the body did not provide for such a scenario.

In reaction, several delegates left the room before the vote. At the head of the procession were the two spokespersons of the protest group, Austrian Christian Scherer and Croatian Vedran Pavlek. The Swiss delegate Bernhard Aregger did not take part in the presidential election either.

Asked later in a virtual press conference about the result of the election, Johan Eliasch said: “I got 100% of the valid votes. All I can say is that my majority is between 60 and 100%.”

It was a close call for the billionaire with dual nationality. But the crisis may not be over. According to the general manager of Swiss Ski, Diego Züger, a procedure has already been launched to challenge the validity of John Eliasch’s re-election.

In Milan, the very turbulent episode of the presidential election dominated the annual FIS Congress. But the international body also had an important day.

Two personalities from the international body were removed from the Council. The first was expected. Former cross-country skier Elena Vyalbe, three-time Olympic relay champion in the 1990s and now President of the Russian Cross-Country Skiing Federation, lost her seat. With only 48 votes, she finished last in the vote for the FIS Council. Her candidacy was contested even before the Congress by several countries, including Finland and Sweden. She was accused of supporting the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army.

The defeat of the American Dexter Paine was less expected. A former vice-president of the FIS, he will no longer sit on the Council, having obtained only 74 votes, the third worst result. Dexter Paine was one of Johan Eliasch’s strongest allies.

Finally, the Milan Congress approved the change of name of the body. The FIS became the International Ski and Snowboard Federation. But it kept its acronym and logo.