The sport of athletics around the world is mourning the loss of European Athletics President Svein Arne Hansen, one of its most popular and respected leaders, who died on Saturday in Oslo following a stroke he suffered in March. He was 74.
The countless athletes whose aspirations Svein Arne supported as well the colleagues who worked alongside him share a sense of loss that is, of course, most sorely felt by his family and closest friends. It has been heart-warming in recent days to see the size of this fraternity as evidenced in the flood of tributes and messages of condolence in the press and on social media.
Sometimes known as “the Head Viking”, Svein Arne was a larger-than-life character, a one-off, a man who connected with just about everyone and left a positive mark on everything he did. Above all, he was a leader.
He certainly had charisma. It is hard to imagine that anyone was ever in a room with Svein Arne and didn’t know he was there. It was not that he tried to draw attention to himself, it was because his enthusiasm, warmth and sense of fun were always evident and, like a magnet, they just pulled people to him.
It is an understatement to say that Svein Arne cared deeply about athletics and especially the athletes. He thought about the sport every day and he constantly applied his intelligence and effort to promote it and somehow make it better. But, unlike many other sport leaders, there was never a sense that he did anything for personal recognition or power or any of the other attractions of high office. He just loved athletics.
The impact he made on the sport over more than 50 years is immeasurable. World Athletics President Sebastian Coe, one of Svein Arne’s closest friends and allies, put it very well when he said:
“He was in the vanguard of globalising our sport and, along with Andreas Brugger in Zurich and Wilfred Meert in Brussels, was one of the three game changers in our sport. He brought a professionalism to our one-day meetings that is still the template today and crucially he had the political savvy to be able to do that and navigate the sport from an amateur era into becoming an open sport and then a professional sport when there was a real risk that fault lines between East and west Europe could have split the sport apart.”
But that was just the 1980s and 90s.
In 2003 Svein Arne was elected president of Norwegian Athletics after two years as vice-president. He proceeded to demonstrate how to turn around a nearly bankrupt national federation in a country with a small population, a challenging climate and a lack of appropriate facilities. He led efforts to bring back sponsors, helped to convince local governments to invest in indoor halls and generally laid the foundations for the country’s current international success, the envy of most federations in Europe. It must be noted that he was re-elected no less than six times.
Stepping up a level, he was elected president of European Athletics in 2015 on a wide-ranging manifesto of new ideas, having previously served as vice-president from 2007 to 2011. Despite having to deal with the fallout from the doping and integrity scandal at the International Association of Athletics federations that threatened to engulf the sport soon after he took office, he managed the delivery of change after change, success after success, the highlight being the 2018 European Athletics Championships in Berlin, which by any metric was the best event European Athletics has ever staged.
Perhaps his biggest gifts to the organisation were optimism, vision and an admonishment to think big. Elected to a second term in 2019, he set an incredibly ambitious mission for the sport in the 21st century when he said he wanted to see “athletics in every home and on every phone in Europe”. Every time he and I spoke for over a year he would start the conversation with those words.
Beyond his various positions and the many achievements of his impressive curriculum vitae, it is only right to celebrate and honour Svein Arne’s human side. Of course his family will know him best but I can speak as a colleague and collaborator from the world of sport who knew Svein Arne for nearly 20 years.
Asked to attempt the impossible task of encapsulating the personality of the man in a phrase, my best effort is that Svein Arne was a passionate collector. By that I mean he loved acquiring and cataloguing rare stamps and he built a successful business around it. He loved gathering and internalising information every day from newspapers, the Internet, trusted friends, pure gossip and every other imaginable source and then, with his impressive recall, using it in all his endeavours. He loved amassing life-experiences, like his constant travel to both new and familiar places, meeting all kinds of people, witnessing important events, and then he revelled in recounting them over a meal or a gin and tonic.
But above all, Svein Arne collected, and cherished, friendships.
The many people around the world now feeling his loss will understand. It was not so much that they knew Svein Arne but, rather, it’s that Svein Arne knew them. In our sport, having reached that status is a badge of honour.
In addition to Svein Arne’s genuine interest in people, his ability to make friends reflected his instinctive communications skills and an uncanny ability to connect with anyone and everyone.
Once or twice he explained to me that the best advice he ever received to calm his nerves before a public address was to imagine the audience to be full of friends. For those who saw him speak to a crowd it is hard to believe that he ever needed such advice, but, if he really did, then he applied it brilliantly.
His speeches at the many dinners a president must preside over were text book: delivered off the cuff, totally relaxed, a large dose of humour and never over-long. His preferred preparation consisted of a list of all the champion athletes present so he could introduce them, thereby bringing the audience to a shared level of appreciation for the sport and its heroes. In other words, he made certain the room was full of the type of people he wanted as his friends.
The few occasions when he spoke after the meal were a real highlight. With professional technique and timing, he would draw those present into what felt like an inner circle, about to hear a state secret. He would dip into his repertoire of jokes and extended stories, including the always popular “Timbuktu”, often coming close but never crossing the line of decency and always sending the crowd away in an upbeat mood.
However, it was on the person-to-person level that Svein Arne was strongest. He had a perpetual desire to engage everyone at every opportunity: an Olympic gold medallist, a waitress, a VIP sport official, a young volunteer, a government minister. When he focused his attention on them it was like some kind of magic. Through a combination of warmth, sincerity and humour he would put people at ease and make them feel that they were the most important thing to him at that moment. It was rare that any encounter with him ended without a smile.
He often used an invitation to a relaxed occasion, sometimes at the last minute, to cement a friendship: “We are going to have a drink in the bar in ten minutes, I want you to join us”. Of particular importance was the dinner invitation. In cities he visited regularly he usually had a favourite restaurant: Chumadia in Brussels, Satyricon in Rio de Janeiro, Signor Sassi in London, Beefbar in Monaco. Not always the most famous or expensive, just places where he liked the food and had memories of previous good times.
An invitation to join Svein Arne and a few friends at one of these was a ticket to an evening of inside jokes, fantastic stories and passionate discussion about the sport and its future. Newcomers would normally feel they had been inducted to an exclusive club. And, indeed, they had been because for Svein Arne their presence was now a part of his history of the place itself, to be recalled as “that was a great time”, and it meant that they had to be on the list for the next visit.
As a leader he was not really into hierarchy or organisational charts. For sure, everyone had a specific job to do, but we were all in it together as a team. The tool he never ceased employing was gratitude. By constantly thanking people for everything, big or small, he was saying: “I know what you are doing and it is important to me.” It might sound like an obvious thing to do for someone in his positions, or even mundane, but coming from Svein Arne it was special, an authentic expression of his generosity of spirit. And the cumulative effect on both individual and team moral was, again, like magic. Who couldn’t say that Svein Arne treated them like a friend?
It was so typical of the man that after he had suffered his stoke and a month of terrible complications, when he should have been focused on trying to recover, his almost reflexive last public act was to thank his followers on social media for all their messages of support.
Those close to Svein Arne knew that his ebullient and engaging manner did not always include the highest degrees of tact or political correctness. Although he was typically very forgiving, he expected people to behave correctly and follow the rules, whatever they were. This reflected his personal professionalism and was, I believe, the basis for his steadfast opposition to doping, which in turn motivated his signature “I Run Clean” anti-doping education programme. But part of his charm was that he could sometimes speak without fear or filter about things he saw as wrong, giving voice to what many others might be thinking but would not, for whatever reason, express out loud.
An illustrative story, which I have heard from different sources, involves a large, formal lunch on the occasion of a championships or congress sometime in the 1980s. He was seated at a table with 8 or 10 others who did not necessarily know each other and the topic of conversation turned to athletes from a certain country in the East of Europe. Svein Arne, then a meeting director who depended on good relations with all athletes and federations, began railing in a loud voice that even if he could not prove it, the performances of the country’s athletes were illegitimate, that doping would ruin the sport and that he wanted to see harsher punishments for those caught. As he spoke, everyone went quiet and stared down at their plates or laps with gritted teeth.
One version of the story says Svein Arne did not realise until later that the president of the federation in question was seated at that very table. The other version, and the one I prefer, is that he knew, and was purposely making the point.
That Svein Arne could retain his friends even when there was friction or disagreements was in large part because of his ability to switch off at the end of the day and put work aside. He never let anything get in the way of a drink and a good laugh, or several. Regardless of how tough the task or contentious the meeting, by evening any harsh words would be forgotten and the slate would be wiped clean.
But for me, Svein Arne’s finest quality, and perhaps his most important lesson for the world, was loyalty to his friends. People from his past were constantly contacting him through social media or calling on the phone with requests or ideas, some of which I personally thought were crazy. But from what I saw he was always genuinely happy to hear from them and to hear them out. Importantly, if he could help in any way or create an opportunity for someone, new friend or old, he would do what he could.
It was striking how this generosity of spirit was repaid in kind. When he needed a favour himself, like a star athlete or a businessman to give a conference speech, Svein Arne would sometimes have me make the contact. In those cases the words “Svein Arne asked me to get in touch to see if you could . . .” always worked like a charm. I honestly cannot recall anyone ever even hesitating.
Svein Arne used to joke that he paid the athletes enough when they competed for him at the Bislett Games, of course they should do what he asked for free. But they were not really paying back favours and he knew it. They were simply happy to be asked and the longer they had been his friend the happier they were. I sometimes mused that all they really wanted was just to have another drink or a dinner with the Head Viking, a chance to hear the stories and experience the magic of his attention one more time.
Right now, as my heart aches at the loss of a great friend, I know that is what I really want. And I am sure it is the same for many around the world.
We knew Svein Arne and Svein Arne knew us.
Hvil i fred min venn.
Bill Glad is the Head of the President's Cabinet at European Athletics. He worked closely with President Hansen starting in 2007.