Records are constantly being broken in sport but Switzerland’s claim to fame is unique: it is home to more international sport bodies than anywhere else in the world.
The city of Lausanne takes pride in its designation as the Olympic capital, officially awarded to it by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1994 to mark the body’s 100th anniversary.
But the love story between Lausanne and the Olympic movement is much older than that. Back in 1915, the French baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, chose Lausanne as the IOC headquarters: a city on the shores of a beautiful lake, with a wonderful view of the Alps – and far away from the turmoil of First World War.
Since then, 23 federations and 20 international organisations have followed suit and set up their headquarters in Lausanne and the surrounding canton Vaud. Switzerland as a whole is home to 47 international sports bodies. Its nearest rival, Monaco, has five.
But as the business of sport is globalised and more and more countries are eager for their share of the pie, Switzerland cannot rest on its laurels, experts say – and has no intention of so doing.
"The tradition of hosting international organisations goes back to the 1920s, when the League of Nations was established in Geneva,” says Jean-Loup Chappelet, an expert on the management of sports organisations at the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration in Lausanne.
“After the IOC, other sporting bodies like Uefa [the Union of European Football Associations] and Fifa [world football’s governing body] naturally turned towards Switzerland,” he added.
Piermarco Zen-Ruffinen, a specialist in sport law at Neuchâtel University, told swissinfo.ch that Switzerland is attractive for many reasons: its geographic location, highly qualified work force, political stability, neutrality, security, quality of life, plus an attractive tax regime and legal code.
“The Swiss law on associations is extremely simple and hugely flexible. Furthermore, the slowness of the legislative process offers a lot of legal security,” he said.
Chappelet explained that associations are not obliged to register with the state nor to publish their accounts. “When the civil code was drawn up in 1912, no-one imagined that there would ever be such huge associations. Fifa is in effect a holding which owns public limited companies, but its statutes are the same as those of a bridge club.”
Are exemptions justified?
Swiss authorities are experts at exploiting their own legislation to justify tax rebates. The federal tax law allows for exemptions to be granted to corporate bodies that pursue “public service goals” or are acting “in the public interest”.
On the sidelines of the European football championship in 2008, a number of Swiss members of parliament queried whether giving tax breaks to bodies like Uefa or Fifa, which make hundreds of millions in profit every year, could be justified. The government merely responded by stressing the importance of these bodies to Switzerland.
“[Minister for sport] Ueli Maurer recently assured us of the wholehearted backing of the government,” said Nicolas Imhof, head of the sports service of canton Vaud.
Chappelet considers the tax breaks legitimate.
“Without them, the associations would go somewhere else. International competition is getting tougher and tougher. Malaysia not only offers complete exemption from direct and indirect taxation, but actually put down money to persuade the International Badminton Federation to locate there,” he explained.
Switzerland has not been sitting on its hands. Vaud has been conducting a very energetic policy in this area for the last ten years. Among the steps it has taken are the establishment of the House of International Sport in Lausanne, which organisations use rent-free for two years.
Sometimes there is even competition within Switzerland. In 2006, the International Gymnastics Federation decided to leave Moutier, in canton Bern, for Neuchâtel, before finally settling on Lausanne. The tax battle between the three different cantons made waves at the time.
“We go canvassing federations abroad, never in neighbouring cantons,” said Imhof. “The cantons have now agreed to practise the same policy as far as tax exemptions are concerned.”
The efforts being made by canton Vaud are bearing fruit, since several international sport bodies, like the International Judo Federation and the World Series of Boxing, have recently established their headquarters in or near Lausanne.
Zen-Ruffinen pointed out the importance of the circle: “This makes it more and more attractive for other federations to join this network, since it is important for them to come into contact with each other.”
And all this is good news for the local economy. A study published at the end of 2007 put the spin-off for the local economy from all these sport bodies at SFr200 million ($196 million).
“In 2007, their presence was responsible for 1,000 jobs, against only 300 in 1998,” said Imhof. “But in addition to the economic benefits, they are a wonderful advertisement for the city and the canton.”
World sport in Switzerland
Nearly 50 international sport federations and organisations are currently based in Switzerland. The first to come was the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which has been in Lausanne since 1915.
Canton Vaud, of which Lausanne is the capital, is home to about 20. In addition to the IOC, they include the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), UEFA, and the world bodies governing Gymnastics (FIG), cycling (UCI) and volleyball (FIVB).
Among the organisations based elsewhere in Switzerland are the governing bodies of football, FIFA (Zurich), basketball (Geneva), handball (Basel), ski (Oberhofen, canton Bern) and ice hockey (Zurich)
Translated from French by Julia Slater