BUENOS AIRES — The intrigue, the mystery, the drama of the history-making 125th International Olympic Committee session got underway Wednesday, and though there are three essential decisions to be taken here — the 2020 Summer Games site, wrestling’s all-but-inevitable reinstatement and the election of the new president — there is one that overrides everything.
It’s that last one, the selection of the new president. Jacques Rogge’s 12 years as president are all but done. The IOC is about to turn to a new era.
Everything else that happens here must be viewed in that context, through that prism. True, the presidential election comes last on the docket, after the 2020 and wrestling votes, but it’s first in import.
To not understand that is to fail to understand the obvious, and to comprehend the cascade of deal-making and possibilities at work throughout the coming week here at the Hilton hotel.
Jacques Rogge is a sober, sensible man. He tends to process things in an orderly way, and to define challenges through bureaucratic, indeed technocratic, systems. His worldview is entirely Eurocentric — though, true enough, he has overseen the IOC’s “new horizons” Summer Games moves for the first time into China (2008) and South America (Brazil 2016) and the Winter Games to Russia (2014) and South Korea (2018).
About his presidency, he reflected Wednesday, “Have I enjoyed it? Not always. Was it exciting? Definitely. Was it a privilege to be able to do that? Of course it was.”
Rogge, as he further made crystal-clear at a news conference Wednesday marking the final meeting during his term of the IOC’s policy-making executive board, defined the success of his 12 years as the rendition of various editions of the Games, Summer, Winter and Youth — that is, the instrument by which the values of the movement are executed.
In all, starting with Salt Lake City in 2002 and ending with London last year, there were three Winter, three Summer and two Youth Games during the Rogge years. He said, “The fact that I could describe six Olympic Games and two Youth Games as being successful is for me the biggest reward I could have.”
This, then, is both the challenge and the opportunity facing the other 102 members of the IOC as they gather here in Buenos Aires for the votes ahead.
The IOC is facing an extraordinary moment in time.
The salient question it — that is, the members — must confront is elemental:
Is the movement mostly about the Games?
Or it is about more — indeed, in an increasingly connected world, much, much more?
The IOC, alone in the world not just among sports bodies but every other organization, has the opportunity to re-frame what it does so that it becomes not just a once-every-two-year organization but an entity — and by extension, the international sports federations and the national Olympic committees — that is part and parcel of the day-to-day lives, indeed the dreams, of billions of people across planet earth.
That is not hyperbole.
The members should be asking, as they wander around the Hilton lobby and, alone in their rooms at night, read — or, re-read — the manifestoes of the six presidential candidates: what is it you want?
That is: what do you want the organization to be? What role do you want for yourselves within it?
Where is the IOC going to be when this next president’s eight years — that is, in 2021 — are up? If you choose a candidate who gets or wants another four years, that takes him — and the IOC — to 2025. As seemingly unimaginable as that might be: imagine the role you want the IOC to play across and in our world by then. Does it involve more than the Games? Or is that it?
That is what is at stake in this presidential election.
This is also in a fundamental way what is at issue in what has, in IOC jargon, come to be known as the “ABB” movement — that is, “anyone but Bach.”
Thomas Bach is the German IOC vice president typically described in media accounts as the front-runner in the presidential race. To be clear: Bach is thoroughly qualified to be the next president, having served the movement over his lifetime — beginning with his gold medal-winning career as a fencer — in virtually every role but the presidency.
In his manifesto, Bach says, “Considering the many challenges ahead, the IOC’s focus must be safeguarding the uniqueness and relevance of the Olympic Games in an ever-changing world.” He adds that “keeping the Olympic Games the most attractive event in the world for all stakeholders is a top priority for the IOC.”
The other candidates — Singapore’s Ser Miang Ng, Puerto Rico’s Richard Carrión, C.K. Wu of Chinese Taipei, Sergei Bubka of Ukraine and Denis Oswald of Switzerland — have sought to define their visions in broader terms.
Oswald, for instance: the IOC must be the “moral authority of world sport.”
Wu has proposed a variety of education-based initiatives to actively engage the world’s young people.
Bubka’s 28-page manifesto is punctuated with novel ideas, including an “Olympic Future Project,” a “Council of Elders,” an IOC “Youth Council” and “Icons Council,” the creation of so-called “Olympic Global Citizens” and the enhancement of the Cultural Olympiad.
Ng asserts the movement’s “fundamental calling” is to “instill the eternal values of Olympism in the youth of the world,” and calls for a variety of values-oriented partnerships and initiatives — with the members themselves, corporate partners and “like minded organizations and governments.”
In a like manner, Carrión’s manifesto says the IOC finds itself on the cusp of a “Great Olympic Era” well beyond just the Games. He, too, calls for values-centered partnerships and projects with the members as well as with athletes, the United Nations and others.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with first-rate Games. That is the foundation. That is what Rogge has done, and brought — stability.
When Rogge was elected in 2001, elected in Moscow, succeeding Juan Antonio Samaranch, who had been president for 21 years, the IOC was still reeling from the effects of the Salt Lake City corruption scandal. The prestige and standing of the IOC worldwide was very much at issue.
Too, the IOC was facing a world in which security concerns — paramount since the 1972 Munich Games, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists — would be newly intensified in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Doping issues made for a major challenge. How, for instance, would the World Anti-Doping Agency be integrated into the international sports scene? Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong and others would test resolve, patience and systems.
Moreover, the IOC had to confront a multitude of financial issues. Some involved a longstanding dispute with the U.S. Olympic Committee over certain broadcasting and marketing revenue. Others revolved around the IOC’s own financial stability, in particular its reserves, which needed to be grown significantly.
In large measure, the IOC addressed each of these concerns and, through Rogge’s term, delivered successful — and in the case of Beijing 2008, historic — Games.
There were, too, as Rogge has said, reasons for sorrow, as in the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili before the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Rogge said Wednesday that was the “worst” moment of his tenure.
Rogge also said he believes the challenges his successor will face “will not differ very much” from those he inherited.
In this respect, he is partly right — security, doping, finance — and partly wrong.
Rogge does not know what the world will look like in 2021, much less 2025. No one can.
Twelve years after Moscow, here now in Buenos Aires, the record shows that Jacques Rogge absolutely brought stability and a steady hand.
“I’m wary of pompous words and big declarations and big descriptions,” Rogge said. “I did my duty. I did what I had to do. If it has benefitted the IOC, I’m happy.”
Now the IOC needs more. It needs a president with the vision thing, someone with creativity, resource and imagination to engage with a world that wants more from the IOC — a world that is changing, and changing fast.
Doing one’s duty is absolutely admirable, and not to be diminished. Of course, the IOC still needs stability. But there is more, so much more, that can be done. That is what is on the table, and nothing less, as election season gets going here in Buenos Aires.