Sport supremo bows out of the game

Heinz Keller says sporting success is a priority for Switzerland Keystone

Heinz Keller, the man who has presided over the development of sport in Switzerland for almost 20 years, is handing over the baton.

This content was published on March 30, 2005 - 15:19

In an interview with swissinfo, the outgoing director of the Federal Sport Office calls for more centralisation and unveils plans to bring the Winter Olympics to Switzerland.

Keller was named director of the Federal Sports School in Magglingen in 1985 and was appointed head of the Federal Sport Office when it was formed in 1999.

He stepped down on April 1 and is being replaced by Matthias Remund.

swissinfo: Switzerland’s medal count in Athens was almost half that in Sydney four years earlier. More recently we have seen the skiers fail to win a medal at the world championships. Are we witnessing a steady decline in Swiss sport?

Heinz Keller: I don’t think so. There are a lot of sports in Switzerland where we are not so bad, such as fencing, ice skating, snowboarding, sailing, orienteering and beach volleyball.

Young people in Switzerland are curious and they are quick to learn new sports. But this means they are leaving traditional sports and that’s a problem for track and field, skiing, and a little bit for football.

swissinfo: The head coach of the Swiss Olympic Team 2006 said recently that he would like to see top-level sport run on a national basis. What are your thoughts on this?

H.K.: We have 26 cantons and we have 26 school systems, and that makes it very difficult to set up national training centres. Switzerland must change this tradition and right now we need two national centres to train future top sports athletes.

We have been discussing this and the result of these discussions could be the creation of two or three national training centres, combining snow sports, track and field and other sports.

swissinfo: Athletes in Switzerland, which is a rich nation, are seriously underfunded compared with rivals in other countries. You have seen your budget cut. How much value do the Swiss place on sporting success?

H.K.: The government invests SFr130 million [$110 million] each year in sport, with 20 per cent going to support top athletes. Political opinion is changing a bit and parliament is discussing pushing a little bit more of this budget into top-level sport.

I think sporting success is becoming more and more important for Switzerland. The same is true across Europe. I think every country is investing more, and Switzerland, as always, is a little bit behind the others.

swissinfo: In recent years both Bern and Zurich have rejected the idea of bidding for the Winter Olympics. Do you think this projects a negative image of Switzerland, which is after all the cradle of winter sports?

H.K.: Yes, it is a problem. But both these candidatures involved a city or only one region. Switzerland is a small country and if you want to bring the Winter Olympics here, then the whole country must be a candidate. With this in mind, we are holding discussions with partners about a possible bid for 2018 or 2022 with the whole country as candidate.

swissinfo: Hooliganism has been on the increase in Switzerland in recent years and the government is only now drawing up tougher legislation. Why the delay?

H.K.: We saw for the first time in 2001 during ice-hockey matches in Lugano that we had a problem at local level and we have tackled this in two ways. Our sports minister immediately asked the Swiss Olympic Association to get all the national federations to draw up new measures against violence in sport. This work is now finished. Our legislation is also being adapted for Euro 2008 and we will have the tools in place to deal with any trouble. Switzerland will be ready.

swissinfo: You have overseen the development of sport in this country for 20 years. What have been your biggest successes?

H.K.: We have seen the emergence of a new politics for sport that places great emphasis on developing young talent into top athletes. We have also targeted the general population, encouraging people who are not very active to take up sport.

Another project over the past 20 years has been the construction of new sports facilities across the country. The government gave us SFr80 million and with this money we were able to attract SFr700 million in investment to help build stadiums, such as the new Wankdorf in Bern, St Jakob’s Park in Basel and the Stade de Genève.

We also set up the High School for Sport in Magglingen in 1998, which is important for the future development of sports education in schools.

swissinfo: ... and the biggest failures?

H.K.: There is a law which says the cantons must ensure that each pupil spends three hours a week doing sport. However, not all cantons are complying with the law and this is not good.

swissinfo: 2005 is the United Nations Year of Sport. But can sport really play a role in terms of peace and development? It’s hard to see how a game of football can put food in a child’s stomach.

H.K.: If you play football with youngsters in a developing country where there’s no work, it’s clearly not enough. But sport has the potential to bring young people together, to work together and to play together – it can bring structure to their lives.

swissinfo-interview: Adam Beaumont

Key facts

1985: appointed director of the Federal Sports School in Magglingen.
1999: becomes director of the newly created Federal Sport Office.
2005: steps down to be replaced by Matthias Remund.

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In brief

The winter season served up a mixed bag of results for the Swiss, with the country’s sports stars reaching unexpected heights and crushing lows in equal measure.

Stéphane Lambiel’s gold medal at the World Figure-Skating Championships last month helped to banish memories of a disastrous winter campaign by the country’s alpine skiers.

It was left to the snowboarders, who dominated the men’s and women’s parallel slalom events, to fly the flag on the pistes.

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