The next president of the International Olympic Committee, whoever it will be, takes over an organization that is, in these early years of the 21st century, at a crossroads.
By many indicators, one would look at the Olympic movement and see positive trend lines. The Games in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012 were memorable, indeed. The five rings are, without question, one of the world’s top brands. The IOC itself seems to have weathered the global economic downturn.
At the same time, the pace of change in today’s world is ever-increasing and the paramount challenge facing the movement is not merely to remain a source of connection and inspiration. Bluntly, and above all else, it’s to remain relevant.
The new president will be elected in September at an all-members IOC assembly in Buenos Aires. He — the presumed candidates are, at this moment, all men — will replace Jacques Rogge of Belgium, who has served as president since 2001.
The potential candidates are believed to include, in alphabetical order, Thomas Bach of Germany, Sergei Bubka of Ukraine, Richard Carrión of Puerto Rico, Ser Miang Ng of Singapore and C.K. Wu of Chinese Taipei.
Mr. President-to-be, you did not ask for a Top-10 list of what you need to do when you set up shop on Day One at the Chateau de Vidy, the IOC headquarters by Lake Geneva in Lausanne, Switzerland. Please consider this merely an early expression of goodwill in the form of constructive suggestion, along with a healthy measure of good luck — because, sir, you’re going to need that, too.
1. Be a thought leader
There is a lot to be said for making money. Every other sporting concern — the soccer leagues, American football, the NBA, the NHL — is there to make money. But that’s not what the Olympic movement, and by extension the IOC, are about. The movement stands for a set of ideals, and for values such as excellence, friendship and respect. The Games are the expression of those ideals and values, and at their best they produce moments that remind us of the best in each of us. As IOC boss, given that you get to meet with presidents, prime ministers and with school kids, too, your job is to promote those values. Relentlessly. Creatively. The mission is not to organize good Games. That’s too narrow. Instead, it is to make the ideals and values shine so brightly that they draw in young people and communities. The money will follow.
2. Fix the Summer Games program
In Vancouver in 2010, there were 24 medal opportunities in freeskiing and snowboarding. In Sochi next winter: 48. That speaks to the IOC’s understanding of how to keep the Winter Games program fresh and current. As for the Summer Games program? Not so much. The IOC has added rugby and golf for 2016 and 2020. Under Rogge, it has dropped baseball and softball. It now threatens to drop wrestling. The controversy over the policy-making executive board’s move in February to drop wrestling from the 25-sport “core,” and the uncertainty over the process by which sports might be added to the program underscores the wider bewilderment. Beyond process, there is also substance. It says everything you need to know that skateboarding is not even on the shortlist for inclusion. Or that dual trampoline and synchronized diving are in but wrestling is fighting for its Olympic life. This might make sense to IOC insiders — who understand the distinction in Olympic jargon between “disciplines,” “events” and “sports” — but to much of the outside world looking in, it can be all too difficult to fathom. Is that a good thing?
3. Make wholesale changes to the bid city process
Every two years, the roughly 100 IOC members award the next edition of the Games — whether Winter or Summer, each is a multibillion-dollar proposition — to a city and country that has spent millions chasing the prize. The members, because of rules imposed after the late 1990s Salt Lake City corruption scandal, are not allowed to visit the bid cities. Instead, an IOC evaluation commission tours the cities and issues a report. Problematically, many members acknowledge not reading that report. Is this best practices? Short answer: no. The time has come to thoroughly re-visit the bid city rules. The bids cost too much. For that matter, the members should be permitted once again to visit the cities. Some things really do have to be seen to be — well, if not believed then at least perceived. The problem is not trusting the members — it is, as it always has been, about trusting the cities. Here are some further assumptions for a thorough review of the bid process: since the Games are supposed to be about sport, not nation-building, perhaps future bids should meet some metric of preparation. Examples for consideration: Should x percent of venues already be completed? Should non-organizing committee budgets not be over $x billion? Should total budgets not exceed $x billion? In 2003, the IOC adopted a report calling for prudence, indeed modesty, in Games build-out and venue construction; the 2014 Sochi price tag is now known to be at least $51 billion. That sort of disconnect merits some hard reflection.
4. Fix the Youth Games, or get rid of this experiment
Why are the 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China? Originally, the notion was that YOG was a vehicle for cities and nations that couldn’t possibly stage the “regular” Games. Example: the inaugural version, in Singapore in 2010. Already, though, the second Summer YOG will be in China, where the Summer Games themselves were staged in 2008? With, it must be said, a budget of more than $300 million? Why? Is that only to keep this initiative alive? Big picture — what, exactly, is YOG doing? Originally, again, the idea was to connect teenagers more actively with the Olympic movement. Where is the real evidence YOG is achieving that goal? The Young Reporters project run as part of YOG has proven an unqualified success. But what metric shows YOG itself gets the Olympic spirit moving in teens? It is true, for instance, that South Africa’s Chad le Clos won five medals in swimming in Singapore and then won on to defeat Michael Phelps in the 200-meter butterfly in London. But le Clos wasn’t inspired to swim with Phelps because of what happened in Singapore. It had been his dream to race against Phelps ever since he saw Phelps compete in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
5. Decide: who, really, are the IOC members, and what are they doing?
The Rogge years have seen a concentration of power in the executive board and in the growing numbers of staff at Vidy. This has left many members wondering what, exactly, they’re there to do. They vote for the bid cities — but don’t get to see them. They vote on the sports — but not for sports that many would like to see on the ballot. The IOC’s sessions, as the annual assemblies are called, are not — repeat, not — exercises in robust floor debate but, rather, a succession of reports read out, often numbingly, to the members. To quote Peggy Lee: is that all there is? For all that, the line to get in as an IOC member remains long, and that needs to be addressed, too, because the current rules — again, adopted in the wake of the Salt Lake affair — make it difficult to recruit someone not affiliated with an international federation or particular national Olympic committee. Has that proven a sound notion or too limiting? As for the athlete members — in theory, that is a good idea but in practice they can be treated as second-class citizens because everyone knows they’re done after eight years. One essential — the mandatory retirement limit, again a function of the Salt Lake reforms, is now 70. It should be raised to 75.
6. Re-balance the “pillars”
Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC president for 21 years before Rogge, used to talk about how the Olympic movement depended on the unity of certain “pillars,” likening the entire thing to a table stool and insisting all the legs needing to be equal. There are the national Olympic committees, he would say. The international federations. The IOC. The IFs? How many of them right now could stand to be more accountable in terms of governance, use of IOC funds and anti-doping efforts? The more than 200 NOCs? How many of them could stand to have their governance brought into line with 21st century IOC practices? The Samaranch era, of course, has given way to a far more complex time in which there are other “pillars” that must be included in the calculus. While the IOC has always moved with governments around the world, the pressures on state-funded sport — which but for the United States means virtually everywhere — are now especially pronounced. And yet at the Games, if the IOC were called to produce records, how would it say it treated sports ministers, particularly from developing nations? Life, as Samaranch always taught, is a relationship business.
7. Re-think the broadcast strategy
This is the elephant in the room: NBC is the cash cow (apologies for mixing cows and elephants) that keeps the Olympic movement funded as we know it now. Its most recent deal is for broadcast rights to the Games in the United States from 2014 through 2020, and is worth $4.38 billion. NBC is paying $775 million for the 2014 Winter Games, $1.226 billion for the 2016 Summer Games, $963 million for the 2018 Winter Games and $1.418 billion for 2020. Three obvious questions: 1. How long can the IOC expect an American television network to keep carrying the financial load, as NBC has done for a generation? 2. How long is it reasonable to expect the U.S. Olympic Committee to remain politically sidelined — as it has been, partly because of its own internal issues, for most of the Rogge years — while an American network is so economically potent? 3. Compare: Brazilian TV rights for 2014-16, $210 million (after a 2012 Games that saw disappointing ratings there). China, 2014-16: $160 million. France, 2014-16: $120 million. Now, please, refer once more to the NBC sum and then to obvious questions 1 and 2 in this section, and ask, what is wrong with this picture?
8. Make the anti-doping campaign a priority, and betting, too
Rogge, a doctor, has talked a good game about trying to stamp our performance-enhancing drugs. He genuinely means it. A fair reading of the record during his term, however, will detail the BALCO and Lance Armstrong scandals in the United States; widespread doping in Russian sport; the Operation Puerto matter in Spain; and more. To be clear, the IOC president is not — repeat, not — to blame for cheating in elite sport. That would be absurd. He has the authority, however, to help engineer an even more coordinated effort — and way less infighting — between the IOC, the IFs, governments and the World Anti-Doping Agency. Governments need to understand the plain truth, and get serious about spending real money: sports stars are role models and the entire Olympic enterprise depends on the credibility of clean competition. For their part, the IFs need to stop fighting WADA over the truth, too — athletes cheat because they can, and they do because performance-enhancing drugs work. To read the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s “reasoned decision” in the Armstrong case is to sit down with a legal brief that reads like a John le Carré thriller. For its part, WADA needs to figure out what to do about a system in which doping tests prove almost nothing — Marion Jones, a serial cheater, passed 160 tests without a problem, and Armstrong got through hundreds cleanly — and far too many cases are marijuana-related positives, which burn up time and resource, and prove — what? Illegal betting, meanwhile, represents the next systemic threat to the Olympic movement. The IOC — along with police and prosecutors — must make it clear, as Rogge has done, that it will tackle match fixing aggressively.
9. Make equality count
On the field of play, especially at the Summer Games, the IOC is nearing gender equity. In London, every nation sent female athletes — a first. Women made up 44 percent of the competitors in London; that’s up from 23 percent in Los Angeles in 1984. In Sochi next February, women will, finally, take part in ski jumping — evidence, too, of how the IOC moves, if sometimes too slowly for some, toward increasing the number of women’s events on the program. The next issue: the percentage of women in executive and management positions. Simply put, it is way too low. The NOCs, IFs, national federations and others within the movement originally set a target of reserving 20 percent of all decision-making positions for women by 2005; this objective was not met. The current numbers, based on survey responses from 110 of the 205 NOCs (a 53.7 percent rate — itself showing that not enough take the matter seriously) and from 70.4 percent of the IFs: women account for only 4 percent of NOC presidents and 3.2 percent of IF presidents; as well 17.6 percent of the seats on NOC executive boards, 18 percent on IF boards. Those numbers must — to repeat, must — go up. Doubters? The IOC Charter — rule 2, paragraph 7 — declares that one of the roles of the IOC is to “encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.”
10. Communicate, communicate, communicate
The IOC needs a 21st century media department and press officer. Two reasons: 1. External communication is far too dependent — almost to the point of ridiculous exclusion of everyone else — on the wire services to get its message out. But the media landscape is changing — if not changed already. Moreover, in far too many cases, the IOC — for whatever reason — can seem defensive in relaying whatever the message might be. That’s mysterious. The IOC so often has a great story to tell. Again, it is the only enterprise rooted in ideals and values. 2. The IOC’s internal communications system is so lacking that any number of members and staff have created their own ad hoc networks to find out what’s what. Fixing both elements, external and internal communications, ought to be a pressing priority.