Challenges await IOC’s next president

Regular readers of this space know I now have the privilege of teaching at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism in Los Angeles.

One of the things about being a university professor — my formal title, by the way, is “lecturer” — is that for each class they make you write a syllabus. It’s not easy. You have to read a lot of books to decide which books you want to use in your class.

Before heading off this week to cover the U.S. Olympic Trials in track and field and then swimming, I have been at work drafting the syllabus for a graduate-school spring 2013 course tentatively entitled “Sports and Society.” A book I’ve run across, and like, comes from two Australian professors, Kristine Toohey and A.J. Veal, “The Olympic Games: A Social Science Perspective,” because it not only provides a broad sketch of the movement but also provides excellent context for the issues likely to confront the next IOC president.

This week, it’s true, the IOC seems wholly enmeshed in a black-market ticket scandal. But that is temporal. As the book makes plain, the ticket issue will — like many others — be confronted, and the IOC will move on.

The IOC has been in existence since 1894. In all those years, remarkably, it has had but eight presidents.

I have been covering the IOC since late 1998. I have known but two presidents: Juan Antonio Samaranch, who held the job from 1980 until 2001, and Jacques Rogge, who has been president since.

Rogge will, by term limit, step down in September 2013. The IOC will elect his successor at a regularly called election at its annual convention, called a session. The location of the session rotates around the world; this session will be held in Buenos Aires.

In about a month, when the IOC gathers in London for the Games, the world will watch Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps and the others who will make the XXX Olympiad what it will be for the history books. The IOC will hold a session in London as well and the members will stay on for the Games. Rest assured: the politicking, looking ahead to Buenos Aires, will be just as intriguing.

The list of potential candidates for the presidency is unannounced but fairly obvious. It’s a once-every-12-years-opportunity, and the maneuvering has been going on for months now, if not years.

In alphabetical order, and it’s important to note that being interested in running does not necessarily mean electable: Thomas Bach of Germany; Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico; Anita DeFrantz of the United States; Rene Fasel of Switzerland; Ser Miang Ng of Singapore; Denis Oswald of Switzerland. There may yet be others.

No Asian candidate has ever been elected IOC president; indeed, with the exception of Avery Brundage, the American who served from 1952-72, every IOC president has been European. Soft-spoken, well-connected, diplomatic, Ng oversaw the enormously successful 2010 Singapore Youth Olympic Games.

Carrion moves fluidly and fluently between the worlds of business and sports, in Spanish, English and, increasingly, French. In a world buffeted by economic crisis, the IOC has not only weathered the storm but is positioned strategically, thanks in significant measure to Carrion, its banker, a key player in the $4.38 billion rights negotiation with NBC through 2020, and other deals.

Bach comes from an Olympic background; he is a gold-medalist (fencing, 1976). He is a national Olympic committee president (Germany). He has done it all in a long and distinguished career that includes ties to business, law and the Olympics.

The IOC is always about personalities and relationships. One wonders, however, if at some level the 2013 presidential election has to be as much about the issues confronting the movement — this is why the book is so interesting as background — and whether the personalities of the potential contenders are best-suited to dealing with those issues.

An explanation:

There are always recurring issues in the IOC scene. For instance — stadium elephants.

That said, certain issues emerge at particular elections as defining issues in the moment.

In 2001, when Rogge was elected, succeeding Samaranch, the issues confronting the IOC were very different from now.

When the IOC convened for that 2001 session in Moscow, the events preceding and enveloping  that election were largely based on transparency and the dispersion of power.

Rogge won in the wake of the 1998 corruption scandal in Salt Lake City, which then prompted a 1999 50-point IOC reform plan, and in the aftermath of a number of doping scandals, in particular at the 1998 Tour de France, which helped create the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Now?

The challenges are not internal but external.

That is, the next president must be prepared to deal with events that come at him (or her) not from an internal sphere (doping, member corruption) but, indeed, from the outside world.

Indeed, the context and speed at which world events are happening is perhaps the No. 1 challenge to the movement.

Just to rattle off a few items: the global recession and euro sovereign debt crisis, the geographical expansion of the Games (2014 Sochi, 2016 Rio, 2018 Pyeongchang, bids for 2020 from Doha and Baku), the growing threat of illegal sports betting.

It is absolutely true that under Rogge the IOC has seen its financial reserves grow from $105 million in 2001 to $592 million in 2010. The IOC is well-positioned to weather one four-year downturn. This largely unheralded, and under-appreciated, development may be one of Rogge’s shrewdest plays as president.

The obvious big-picture question is — what next?

How much debt, for instance, can you throw at the Olympic scene before something goes amiss? How many countries can keep picking up the tab? Was the decision by the Italian government earlier this year not to push Rome forward for the 2020 Games, citing the ongoing European financial crisis, a signal of things to come — or was it just an aberration?

Eventually, and most likely during the 12 years of this next presidency, some very hard decisions are going to have to be made, and that will have repercussions for everyone, including the Olympic movement.

A corollary:

It would seem readily apparent that the size and expansion of the movement demand greater partnerships. There are bigger opportunities out there. But also bigger potential pitfalls.

Again, any IOC election is at its core about relationships. But this one has to be about more than schmoozing. There’s too much at stake for the members to be looking for more than just comfort. The world we live in can often be not a comfortable place.

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