At the UN: the Bach Doctrine

The recently elected president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, delivered a remarkable speech Wednesday to the United Nations Assembly, a signal declaration of the role of the IOC and what it can and can't do to effect social and political change in these early years of the 21st century. In essence, he laid out what future Olympic historians might well call the Bach Doctrine -- at least as it relates to the complex and never-ending interplay between sport, government and politics.

Here was a clearly defined and articulated vision of the roles of both sport and political entities. Sometimes, as in the endorsement of the Olympic Truce, as the UN did Wednesday, or to promote certain sports projects in a conflict zone, it works to work together. Other times -- when, for instance, it comes to changing the laws of a particular country -- that's beyond the IOC mandate.


"The IOC is above all a sports organization," Bach said. "Sport is our first priority."

That is the key, and Bach's address ought to serve as mandatory reading for activists anywhere in the world seeking to ride the Olympic rings to advance their own interests, particularly when such activists wonder why the IOC can't or seemingly won't do more.

The IOC is not, for emphasis, itself a government. It is "above all a sports organization."

Later in the speech, Bach said, "Of course, we know that, as in ancient Greece, sport and the Olympic Games can not on their own solve political problems or achieve peace.

"Peace-building is a long process. Sport wants to be a part of this process. However, we are aware of our limits -- but we want to use the power of our values and symbols to promote the positive, peaceful development of global society.

"These symbols, and especially the peaceful competition at the Olympic Games, should inspire all the people."

Bach's address was notable not only for what was said but the timing of his remarks.

Bach was elected IOC president Sept. 10, not even two months ago. His comments Wednesday can leave no mistake: he is not gently feeling his way about the office but rather seizing the pulpit that comes with it to lay out his agenda.

The UN has endorsed the notion of an Olympic Truce before each edition of the Games dating to 1994. In acting Wednesday, the assembly urged its 193 member states to respect the "values of the Olympic truce around the world" even as it agreed to cooperate with the IOC and International Paralympic Committee to use sport "as a tool to promote peace, dialogue and reconciliation in areas of conflict during and beyond" the 2014 Sochi Games. They are set to run Feb. 7-23.

It was in the context of the truce resolution that Bach delivered his remarks.

Bach's comments, of course come amid the ongoing controversy stemming from the Russian law enacted over the summer that purports to keep homosexual "propaganda" from children.

Bach did not pound his fists on any lectern and declare, for instance, that the Russian law must change. Why would he? Two weeks ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin told Bach, "We will do everything to make sure that athletes, fans and guests feel comfortable at the Olympic Games regardless of their ethnicity, race or sexual orientation. I would like to underline that."

This, then, is what Bach said Wednesday: "Sport stands for dialogue and understanding which transcend all differences. Sport, and the Olympic movement especially, understands the global diversity of cultures, societies and life designs as a source of richness. We never accuse or exclude anyone."

He also said that it "must always be clear in the relationship between sport and politics that the role of sport is always to build bridges," adding, "It is never to build walls."

Woven throughout Bach's address were references to what in Olympic jargon is called "autonomy."

It stands as a significant Bach priority, as the new president made plain after calling a "summit" Sunday at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, with more than a dozen senior Olympic officials from around the world.

Along with the campaign against doping, for instance, the summit detailed "autonomy" as one of the IOC's pressing prerogatives.

In most nations -- the United States is a significant outlier -- responsibility for the national Olympic committee runs through a branch of the federal government. There's thus inherent potential for interference from that government, or from politicians at federal, state or local levels.

The IOC wants "autonomy." It recognizes that the 204 national Olympic committees need to be funded; again, the U.S Olympic Committee, by act of Congress, has to fund itself. At the same time the IOC wants those NOCs -- and their local governing bodies -- to enjoy the authority to pursue sports-related decisions as sports officials see fit.

Similarly, the IOC wants international sports federations to be free of governmental interference.

In real life, this can sometimes create a delicate balance.

At the UN on Wednesday, Bach turned philosophical in explaining why the IOC believes the pursuit of "autonomy" to be so vital:

Sport, he said, is the "only area of human existence" that has achieved what in political philosophy is known as "universal law" and in moral philosophy as a "global ethic."

For instance, anywhere in the world that you want to put on a soccer game, the rules are the same.

Those rules are based on the same common "global ethic" of fair play, tolerance and friendship, he asserted.

But to extend this "universal law" to all four corners of the globe, he said, "sport has to enjoy responsible autonomy," adding, "Politics must respect this sporting autonomy."

Only then, Bach said, can sport retain its great potential to inspire amid all the "differing laws, customs and traditions" in the world.

In exchange, Bach said, it's entirely reasonable to expect that sports officials will exercise such autonomy "responsibly" and in accord "with the rules of good governance."

At this juncture, Bach took on squarely the notion -- often put out there -- that sports and politics do not mix.

In exercising autonomy, the sports movement must remain politically neutral, he said. But this did not mean being "apolitical."

He said, "Sport must include political considerations in its decisions. It must consider the political, economic and social implications of its decisions," and particularly when the IOC chooses the site of the Winter and Summer Games, the bid process fraught with politics.

"In the mutual interest of both sport and politics," Bach said, "please help to protect and strengthen the autonomy of sport."

Please, the new IOC president said: "I ask you all to take this message back to your countries."