Veronika Muehlhofer has 22 years experience in International Sports & Event Management, including 6 Olympic Games and countless World and European Championships in several sports.
She also has 10 years’ experience as an entrepreneur, and a lifetime’s passion for sports.
Veronika has worked, lived, or studied in the US, Europe, Asia, South America, and Russia and has learned six different languages along the way.
Veronika is a World Rugby Level 3 certified coach and educator as well as an ex rugby player and alpine ski racer. She is a member of the Board of Rugby Europe representing Switzerland, and chairs the organization’s audit & risk committee. Veronika also serves on the Council of World Rugby where she is proud to represent Rugby Europe and all of its 46 member unions.
Her start in the sports industry
I grew up in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, in Lugano. and I went to university in the States, in California, at Stanford University.
I came back here (to Switzerland) in the early 2000s and did the FIFA Master in Sports Management, after having done a Masters at Stanford University.
In 2004, I was Deputy Competition Manager for the Men’s Ice Hockey at Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games. The two years before the Games are the interesting planning phase, because anything two years out pretty much ends up in the trashcan!
We worked closely with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), and they recruited me to come to Zurich after the Torino Games.
I worked at the IIHF for five years as the Event Manager. They have big World Championships, but also tonnes of of different events, so it was a fun and busy time.
After five years I left that job, even though I loved it, to start my own company.
I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I kind of have it in my blood.
I started [my business] in 2011 and I was lucky enough to get a contract for the London 2012 Olympic Summer Games, as a Deputy Venue Media Manager.
Since then, I’ve been doing Venue Media Management at Olympic Games, and some Competition Management.
I also started working with National and International Federations, consulting for them, not just on the media side, but on strategic and organisational things.
And that’s how I came to be CEO of the Swiss Rugby Union (Suisse Rugby).
“Rugby’s like a grass-roots sport here and it’s been interesting and fun because I’ve worked at six Olympic Games, but the other side of sports is all the grass roots sport, with the volunteers, and it’s actually 99 per cent of sport around the world.
What you see on TV, with pro sports, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”
Her Rugby Road
I started playing when I was at university in the States and I ended up playing for 20 years. I played at Leicester in England, I played in Italy when I was working at Torino 2006, and then when I came back to live in Switzerland, obviously Rugby’s not that big here, but I started to get into coaching a bit more, and I was working in events, and that’s how the Union met me, because I was coaching.
They were looking for a part-time CEO and asked me to apply., and now I’ve been doing that now for eight years, and we’ve been able to grow the organisation, we’ve quadrupled the budget.
They used to have no employees and now they have a staff of seven. And there’s a set-up of volunteers, so I’ve been able to put a bit of strategy and structure behind it.
On being a woman in charge of a Federation
When I started I never gave that much thought to being a woman in charge, I just kind of organically grew into that and as we started growing the Federation.
The priorities were structuring and development, which, for a small grass-roots sport, are the main goals.
It’s only been in the last couple of years, since 2018, when I was voted in as a Council Member of World Rugby (which never had any women), and when I and a few other women were voted in there, and I was made part of the Board of Directors of Rugby Europe (and the only woman on the Board), that this started to crystallise for me, because people would comment, but I never wanted to be ‘the woman’ or just there for women’s sport.
In Swiss Rugby I’m in charge of Rugby. And at the Olympic Games, I was working on Men’s Ice Hockey, so I always try to build up my expertise and to be known for the quality of my work and not for being ‘the woman’ who does that. It just kind of came on the side.
“When I started I never gave that much thought to being a woman in charge, I just kind of organically grew into that and as we started growing the Federation.”
On women being ‘firsts’ in some organisations and whether it creates greater demands on those women
“I think in general that is the case, although for me, the sports I worked in, Rugby and Ice Hockey, which are both male dominated, there’s a culture that if you can hold your own on the field of play, you’re just as respected as your male counterparts, but yes, you have to prove your worth.
I’ve played sport my whole life and I’ve been working in it for 20 years, so I’m lucky enough to have confidence in my competence and ability, and I’ve been able to build that up thanks to a lot of mentors, most of whom were men who had confidence in me or gave me a chance to do things.”
How playing Rugby has affected her work with Swiss Rugby
“I think that playing rugby in general gives you a certain something for life. It’s a cliché, but they talk about building character, and it’s a tough sport, it’s a scary sport physically, but it does help to build courage and determination and teamwork.
Whether I was working in Rugby or in any other field, that background would be useful in a career.
But at the same time, working in Rugby, having played gives you a bit more street cred, if you will. And it was similar in Ice Hockey. I was never a big Ice Hockey player, it was just for fun, but when you’re running the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games Men’s Ice Hockey tournament, and there’s all these coaches and players who are that much taller, well, they have a certain respect if they know you played a little.”
“I think that playing rugby in general gives you a certain something for life. It’s a cliché, but they talk about building character, and it’s a tough sport, it’s a scary sport physically, but it does help to build courage and determination and teamwork.”
Her key strengths
- Certainly my positive, can-do attitude, which is so important in just getting things done in events.
- Problem-solving and a sense of humour have helped me through a lot of challenges.
- Another strength, which is a talent that I was born with, is an affinity for languages. I’ve worked in a lot of parts of the world, and I’ve often picked up enough of the local language to get by. In international events, languages are extremely useful.
Where she’d like to see Federations head
Well, in terms of diversity, I do think that Feds would benefit from opening up a bit more, to all types of diversity.
I was lucky enough that World Rugby made a conscious decision to open their board to women and to get a more diverse profile among the men. And they made a conscious push to get their members to nominate people from different backgrounds. So when the first women arrived, you could feel that they were excited for a breath of fresh air and for fresh blood.
It just goes to show that even a traditional sports federation can benefit from some diversity and I hope more of them go in this direction, but at the same time it starts at the bottom, because if clubs don’t have women on their boards, or regional unions don’t have women, then how can women go to being at the top?
You need to get that experience from the bottom; it has to start from the grass roots.”
How has Swiss Rugby adapted to Covid-19?
In terms of Covid, this has changed everything in sport and sport events this last year. It’s changed everything! I was meant to be spending the whole of last summer in Tokyo, working at the Olympics, and that didn’t happen.
When Covid first hit, it was a really busy time, because cancelling events is almost as much work as planning them. And for me, as CEO of the Union, I had to get up to speed as soon as possible to learn how sport in a pandemic works and there was a big responsibility of making decisions, taking advice and getting information and making big decisions on a day to day basis, sorting it out.
The pandemic has also provided huge opportunities to take a step back and look at how we’re doing things and to see if we could be doing things better.
We managed to work with the Swiss Federal Office for Sport and Swiss Olympic, to develop and get the approval for Covid concepts, for kids to be able to play, even during the pandemic.
Like, this last fall (autumn) we managed to have 65 amateur games, and we also cancelled about 23, 24, because every time there was a suspicion or a positive test we would cancel, just to be really safe. But we managed to get 65 games played, and that’s kids, youth, adults who got to play, who had an outlet for a stressful time. That’s been rewarding.
And now we’re going to create an under-20 league: we’re taking opportunities and trying to make things happen in a safe and responsible way.
“It just goes to show that even a traditional sports federation can benefit from some diversity and I hope more of them go in this direction, but at the same time it starts at the bottom, because if clubs don’t have women on their boards, or regional unions don’t have women, then how can women go to being at the top?”
What she’ll do at Tokyo 2020
“I’m working in Media Operations. At Rio 2016 I was in charge of Media Ops for Rugby, which was a new sport at the Olympics, so there was no copy-paste, which is often the case at Games. We got to invent a lot of the operations. So in Tokyo I’m doing surfing, speed climbing and street ball; the new sports. I think they appreciate me being able to think outside the box and translate things into an Olympic format.”