RIP Gian Franco Kasper

An incomparable era is coming to an end. In 97 years of the FIS, there have only been 5 presidents, 70 years of which two Swiss men determined the course of events in their federation. In these 97 years, the Catholic Church has had 8 popes, at least. An obituary for Gian Franco Kasper (1944 - 2021).

Gian Franco Kasper. (Photo: IOC / Benoît Fontaine)
Gian Franco Kasper. (Photo: IOC / Benoît Fontaine)

Smoking breaks are unhealthy, but important. Anyone who spends a lot of time at Olympic meetings and conventions appreciates those moments when addicts rush outside to inhale. Knowing who smokes can be quite helpful when it comes to catching a comment, asking for talks, making appointments or having this or that fact confirmed. Smoking breaks are an opportunity for journalists.

In the IOC environment, big names such as Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, Prince Faisal bin Al Hussein, Vladimir Lissin or Nenad Lalović (and several others) first check out the smoking corners in order to lose little time when the conference leader calls for a break. Many a topic is discussed there bilaterally. As an observer, one should orientate oneself on this. Gian Franco Kasper belonged to this ever-shrinking group. When he started his career, smoking was of course still done during meetings, even on the plane, always and everywhere. Fantastic times for someone like him.

Times have changed decisively. But one thing remained: when smoking, you could get closer to Kasper, even as a non-smoker.

Of course, everyone knows that passive smoking is also harmful. It was rarely pleasant, but at least Kasper tried to smoke in the other direction. Despite many years of unhealthy conversation, he grew on me. There were dozens of hours of conversation, especially after the smoking breaks. Kasper was always approachable, always argumentative, not cowardly like most, and he answered or returned calls. Such qualities are still rare, especially as he was one of the most influential officials in the Olympic industry for many years.

Kasper had been admitted to hospital (spittal as they say in his homeland) with respiratory distress a few days before the elective congress of the Fédération Internationale de Ski et de Snowboard (FIS), which took place virtually at the beginning of June and elected the Swedish-British billionaire Johan Eliasch as president.

Gian Franco Kasper died on Friday, 9 July 2021, at the age of 77.

Kasper marks the end of a Swiss era in the FIS that is unparalleled. Not even FIFA, where a general secretary from the canton of Valais (Joseph Blatter) became president only to be succeeded by another general secretary from Valais (UEFA, Gianni Infantino), can offer that. Blatter grew up in Visp, just a few kilometers from Brig, where Infantino grew up many years later.

FIFA is domiciled in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, in Zurich. Blatter took over the General Secretariat in 1981 from his father-in-law Helmut Käser, whom he had forced out of office. If we take Käser's time into account, because he was the actual FIFA boss as head of administration, then the Swiss have ruled over FIFA and its administration since 1960. That's another 61 years.

In 1975, Gian Franco Kasper was poached by Marc Hodler from his post at the Swiss Transport Centre in Montreal for the job at the FIS. That year, 1975, Blatter had started at FIFA, selected by a certain Horst Dassler.

Marc Hodler was president of the FIS from 1951 to 1998. His secretary general Gian Franco Kasper then took over and led the FIS until June 2021.

For 70 years, Hodler and Kasper, two Swiss, ruled over FIS, which is domiciled in Oberhofen on Lake Thun, also in German-speaking Switzerland, like FIFA and the IIHF. A few kilometres away, in Thun, lived Gian Franco Kasper.

An incomparable era is coming to an end.

In 97 years of the FIS, there have only been four presidents, 70 years of which Hodler and Kasper determined the course of events.

Johan Eliasch, CEO of the sporting goods manufacturer HEAD, is now only the fifth president in the history of the FIS.

In these 97 years, the Catholic Church has had eight popes, from Pius XI to Francis, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has also had eight presidents, from Pierre de Coubertin to Thomas Bach.

Incidentally, Marc Hodler was instrumental in organising the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz alongside Peter Kasper. The formative influence of the Hodler and Kasper families thus goes back several years further. Peter Kasper was the father of Gian Franco, who was born in January 1944. Peter Kasper was the spa director of St. Moritz for three decades.

Such reminiscences, however, also give an idea of how problematic it is when someone cannot leave office. That, in turn, is a typical problem of organised Olympic sport.

I am sorry to say this because I liked him very much, but of course Gian Franco Kasper's best days were far behind him. It was increasingly painful to listen to and watch his verbal accidents. Several times in recent years he made headlines around the world for a few hours, sometimes as a climate change denier, sometimes because he was not the first sports prince to say what everyone knows: Major events and mega-events are easier to organise in dictatorships.

By the way, you could tell Kasper when he was talking crap again. In fact, he sometimes replied:

"I don't know what got into me again."

For all his verbal blunders, Kasper only had explanations in public that were increasingly unconvincing. The growing hatred at the top of the FIS was similarly absurd: between the General Secretary Sarah Lewis OBE, who had been in office since 2000, and Kasper.

Kasper saw it as one of his last tasks to prevent Lewis from becoming president.

In autumn 2020, Lewis was ousted.

In the virtual election on 4 June 2021, Lewis, a Briton living in Switzerland on Lake Thun, was in the running for Belgium. It was won by Eliasch, a native Swede nominated by Britain. The billionaire already achieved an absolute majority in the first ballot with 65 votes. Urs Lehmann of Switzerland received 26 votes, Lewis 15, and the Swede Mats Arjes 13.

Mission accomplished. But I don't know whether Gian Franco Kasper in the spittal was still able to perceive this result and perhaps even enjoy his last will and testament.

I have heard a little about why the relationship between Kasper and Lewis was so fractured. But that has no relevance here and now. Just an episode to illustrate the absurdities: Most recently, before Covid, I chatted at length with Kasper at the SportAccord Congress on the Gold Coast in May 2019 - over many cigarettes, of course. We were watched in the background by Sarah Lewis, who later joined me straight away and couldn't really hide her interest in our conversation.

The duo had not flown to the Gold Coast together, nor were they flying back together. Of course not. The ingenuity of both was legendary in avoiding joint appointments.

Kasper began his professional career as a journalist. As a journalist, I clarify here again: his name was Gian Franco, not Gianfranco and not Gian-Franco, as he is called in the IOC's obituary. I also often misspelled him.

Kasper was an IOC member ex officio from 2000 to 2018, that is, in his capacity as president of an Olympic international federation (IF), as Blatter once was, as Lord Coe was, as Infantino was. As of the 2018 session in Buenos Aires, Kasper was an IOC honorary member.

On the FIS website, Kasper is still listed as president at the moment. The administration in Oberhofen has other things to do. The new boss Eliasch is holding a lot of talks there right now. Very soon everything will change.

I have, in memoriam while writing, listened to the recording of our last conversation back in Australia. We talked about fundamental things: How do you do sports politics - and how do you stay in power? How useful is the one country, one vote electoral system, which the FIS, as one of the few Olympic federations, does not have?

Of course, we talked about the superpowers in world sport, about Russia, China, also about Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Kasper said he was quite happy that the FIS had not yet been targeted by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, like many other world federations. At least he would be spared this problem.

Then he said, "Snow only ever falls on intelligent countries."

Excuse me?

"That's what they say: snow only ever falls on intelligent countries. But please don't write it!"

What a superfluous headline that could have been in his lifetime.

That's how he was, the eternal president. Always a frank word and an open ear, increasingly, unfortunately, a bit clumsy. His reputation had suffered. Nevertheless, one had to like him until the end, even if he could not leave office.

Gian Franco Kasper leaves behind a wife in need of care, who has suffered from multiple sclerosis for decades, and his son Gian Marchet Kasper.

Rest in peace, dear Gian Franco.

See you again!