LAUSANNE, Switzerland — In 1980, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain was elected president of the International Committee. The next year, the IOC held a far-reaching Congress in Baden-Baden, Germany, that set the stage for Samaranch’s visionary — yes, visionary — years in office. Germany’s Thomas Bach was elected IOC president last September. This December, the IOC will hold an all-members assembly in Monaco to reflect on his far-reaching review and potential reform process, which he has dubbed “Olympic Agenda 2020.” Backstage, the comparisons to Samaranch have already begun, and within the Olympic community those comparisons are assuredly meant to be complimentary.
Absolutely Samaranch endured criticism, some of it brutal, outside the walls of the IOC’s lakefront Chateau de Vidy headquarters. At the same time, he was widely adored within the IOC as a president who commanded authority but who also understood personalities and relationships.
Bach has already demonstrated the same touch.
On Tuesday night, the upstairs bar area of the Palace Hotel in Lausanne was turned into a viewing party area for IOC members — and reporters, too — for the soccer World Cup semifinal match between Germany and Brazil. The front row featured a couch where Bach, who promised to be “studiously neutral,” and Carlos Nuzman, who leads the Rio 2016 effort, sat side by side.
Behind were rows of couches or chairs for everyone else. Without anything having to be said, it was understood both that the president was to be left alone until the game was over, and that afterward he would be gracious enough to say a few words.
This scene would never have transpired during the Jacques Rogge years. Not that Rogge is not friendly enough. It’s just that this was not his style.
Almost a year in, it’s now evident this is more and more becoming Bach’s IOC. This is as it should be.
The IOC functions best when the president takes charge. When he is a strong figure.
Bach recognized this from the outset.
Politically, financially and diplomatically, he has -- in large measure -- moved adeptly.
Last November, he delivered a speech at the United Nations that delineated the IOC’s place in the complex worlds of politics and sport. He then navigated through the controversies of the Sochi Games. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon met Bach here in Lausanne in June; that meeting came just two months after the two signed an agreement to strengthen ties; Rogge, meanwhile, has been appointed Ban’s special envoy for youth refugees and sport.
Bach moved fast to strike a $7.75 billion deal with NBC, announced in May, that extends the network’s rights through 2032. A key facet of that deal is $100 million to explore the potential of an Olympic television channel — and it surely is no accident that of the 14 working groups in Bach’s Olympic Agenda 2020 process, the only one the president himself is chairing is the one exploring the potential TV channel.
A “summit” reviewing the working groups’ activity meets in Lausanne next week; the executive board takes a look at it all in October.
The TV deal extends the IOC’s enviable financial position. Keep in mind the global financial crisis of the past several years while processing these numbers: the IOC’s forecast 2013-16 revenues are up 86 percent compared to 2001-04. Why? Primarily television rights, which have increased by 85 percent to $4.1 billion from $2.2 billion. Throw in another $1 billion for top-tier sponsor revenues, up a comparable 53 percent, and simple math says the IOC is at $5.1 billion.
Bach’s pace has kept staffers half his age racing to keep up. After the three-day executive board get-together, he was due to fly out Wednesday night to Rio for high-level meetings amid the World Cup final with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and others. After the game, he flies to Haiti for the dedication of an IOC “Sport for Hope” project; the UN’s Ban is due to attend as well.
In his news conference Wednesday, asked a question about potential Tokyo 2020 venue changes by a Japanese reporter, Bach talked about how he’d recently had some discussions with senior authorities in Tokyo while on the ground there for all of 12 hours.
Bach, too, knows that all is not rosy with the IOC. Hardly. Absolutely he knows that criticism comes with the territory.
For one, he is not a dictator. He is a president. The IOC has to be careful not to overreach — so, for instance, when the Spanish Olympic Committee announces, as it did last week, that it is going to be working on an anti-doping program funded by the IOC, that is bound to raise questions about the role of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Much IOC business seemingly can take on the air of never-ending, impending crisis. The Rio project, for instance, is well behind schedule. “We have to stay vigilant. There is no time to lose,” Bach said Wednesday, adding a moment later, “We are very confident. The World Cup is encouraging. We are very confident we will have great Games in Rio de Janeiro.”
The cities that were passed through Monday to the finalist stage for the 2022 Winter Games race — Oslo, Beijing and Almaty — underscore perhaps the IOC’s most fundamental challenge:
There were only three left.
The IOC had essentially no choice but to go with those three, and Oslo is by no means certain to stay in. The government there must yet offer certain financial guarantees; it won’t be known until November whether that can happen.
Over the past several months, scared off by the $51 billion figure associated with the Sochi Olympics, other cities said no thanks to 2022: Stockholm; Lviv, Ukraine; Krakow, Poland; Munich.
In an IOC-commissioned survey released Tuesday, asked if staging the Olympic Games leaves the host city or country with “many benefits,” 73 percent responded favorably, 13 percent not. The online survey consists of 36,000 interviews in 16 countries; age groups ranged from eight to 65. A margin of error was not immediately available.
So there’s obviously a disconnect -- all those people all over the world believe the Games are beneficial, according to that poll, and yet all those cities and governments, when it comes to 2022, bowing out.
It’s reality, it's perception, it’s a significant communications challenge, it's all intertwined.
Asked about the disconnect Wednesday, Bach spoke, uninterrupted, for nearly six minutes. This is obviously unusual at a news conference — but underscores the importance of what’s much on the mind within the so-called "Olympic family."
This is what he said:
“Explain. We have to explain and to explain and to explain. This is sometimes, you know, we could say easily sometimes you have a difference between the published opinion and the public opinion. But this would be too easy. It is obvious we have to explain our system of bidding and organization of the Games better.
“That means we have to show that this is a very transparent procedure from the very beginning. You know, you can start with a working group — the results of this working group are public, are open to everybody, the report and the visit of the evaluation commission will be open to everybody, the bidding files are to everybody. The evaluation report is open to everybody. The comments from the bidding cities are open to everybody. Obviously, we need to explain this better and more.
“We have to explain better and more the system and the logic of the two different budgets," meaning, on the one hand, the Games operational budget and, on the other, however much a city, region or nation opts to invest in infrastructure. "It is, you know, this is easy when you speak to a financial or business community. They understand very well that you can not depreciate the investment for housing for thousands of people within 16 days to zero. But obviously the broader public does not understand this.
“This is an investment budget, what you could put in the Olympic Games budget and what is Olympic-related — there what you could argue is the rent for the four weeks, where this housing serves as the Olympic Village. The other day, a colleague of mine said, it is like with a housewarming party. It’s as if you would calculate the cost for a housewarming party [in] the construction cost of a house. It’s a little bit the same, therefore for the two budgets and for the investments to be made. There again we also have to explain.
“And the Olympic Agenda to make sure — it is first of all up to the candidate cities to tell us how the Games fit into their environment. That means which investments have they planned, anyway, to develop their city, their region, and how the Games fit into this, not blaming in the end the IOC and the Olympic movement for infrastructure projects they wanted to do, anyway, but using the Games just as a catalyst because they know that without the Games they would not never have gotten the approval to put them in place.
“I was once, allow me this to be a little bit because as I say I have to explain and I may take the opportunity to explain — we had once had a bid in Germany, this was for the Summer Games, this was the bid from Leipzig,” for the 2012 Summer Games. “One day the prime minister there of this region invited me to visit there Leipzig and to show me the project. Then he got me to a helicopter and we were flying over the airport of Leipzig.
"Then he showed me some land and said, ‘Here we are going to build the next landing strip for the airport.’
“I said, ‘What do you need it for?’
“‘It’s the other way around. I need it, the candidature for the Games, to get this approval for this landing strip.’
“In the end, if they would have gotten the Games, then people would have said the Games have to pay for this landing strip. It’s just not logic but sometimes in this business it’s more about perception than it is about reality. So we have to keep explaining and thank you for giving me the opportunity to start.”