Sheikh Ahmad at ANOC gala: "Our job is to make dreams come true"


BANGKOK — Far too often, Olympic meetings are tedious affairs in which reports that have already been passed out well ahead of time are then read out from the lectern, word for word, to those seated at banks of tables below. Little wonder time sometimes seems as if it is passing like molasses. And then there is an affair like the more than 200-nation Assn. of National Olympic Committee meeting here in Bangkok, headed by the charismatic Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait, punctuated by Friday night’s first ANOC gala awards dinner, which may yet assume the role — which it clearly aims to be — of the Oscars of the Olympic sports world. Here was an assembly that, mostly, got it right. Starting with a focus on the athletes.

ANOC boss Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah after the gala with, among others, American gold medalist and activist Donna De Varona (far right)

There were presentations Friday afternoon, yes, from Beijing and Almaty, the two remaining candidates in the 2022 Winter Games race, Beijing promising a safe and secure “joyful rendezvous upon pure ice and snow,” and note the emphasis on “pure” amid significant pollution concerns, Almaty claiming it would be not only affordable but the most compact bid in 30 years.

The emotional touchstone, however, came just a little bit earlier in the day, when an ANOC youth working group, chaired by Sebastian Coe, the London 2012 Summer Games chairman who himself won four Olympic medals in the 1980s, two gold, and is now an IAAF vice president, put forward Isabel Goodall, 19, from the remote Pacific island nation of Palau.

Isabel was, for sure, nervous to be standing in front of so many people. She would say afterward that she practiced her speech “quite a lot, quite a lot.” Asked how many times she went over her remarks so she would not make not even a single mistake, she said, “I lost count.”

She nailed it, and this came toward the end of what she had to say:

“We all believe that sport can change lives. We learned that we can improve our reality when we open our minds and try to understand the reality of others from different countries.”

This is the essence of the Olympic mission.

The IOC is trying to figure out what it is that the cherished teen and young 20s demographic wants.

There it is, and in just a few words.

It is what Beijing and Almaty are trying to win for. And even now, all those thinking about bidding for the Summer 2024 Games.

It is why Rio is in it for 2016, Pyeongchang for 2018, Tokyo for 2020.

At least in theory.

It’s also what should — emphasis, should — be at the core of each and every one of the 40 recommendations underpinning IOC president Thomas Bach’s “Agenda 2020” potential reforms, to be distributed soon to the IOC membership for review and a vote at an assembly in early December in Monaco.

Bach, addressing the ANOC session Friday, said, “The time to change is now. We have been discussing for one year. Now is the time for agreeing on something.

“If we want to preserve our values, we have to move. If we stand still, we are falling behind.”

There were a fair number of IOC members in the house Friday night for the gala.

Here were the values not only to be preserved but to be advanced.

Canadian women’s hockey player Caroline Ouellette now has four Olympic golds, including that memorable gold from Sochi, as well as five world championship golds and four world championship silvers. She accepted the ANOC award for “best female team [from] Sochi 2012.”

When boys and girls are given the chance to play sports, she said, they are “empowered” to dream big and change the world.

Scott Blackmun, the chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, similarly accepted an award for “best team [from] London 2012.”

Doing so on behalf of America’s athletes, he said, he and everyone at the USOC is “proud to be part of something much more important,” the big-picture ideals of the Olympic movement, one-to-one change through the inspiration that heroes and dreams can bring, of “making the world a better place.”

The sheikh had said before the event, highlighting as well cultural performances by each of the five continental associations paying tribute to the diversity among the world’s national Olympic committees, “Sport has the power to bring us all together and unite us, and that is what we will be celebrating at the [gala].”

Frankly — these are technical issues for a show clearly aiming big — with dance performances Friday that included the likes of an Olympic-caliber flamenco show from Spain, samba from Brazil and haka from New Zealand, and more, the cultural elements ran on too long.

Yes — the show started late and ended on time. Even so — the dance performances were too much.

OK. What to expect? It was the first ANOC gala.

But since the gala was broadcast live in Thailand, as well as distributed to more than 25 broadcasters around the world with a potential reach of 350 million households, it was way more than just a dinner. Think about all good awards shows — they’re more than a banquet. You have to imagine way more than what’s happening in the room itself. If something is going to play on global TV, it needs way more rigor than the show presented Friday night.

Also: IOC member and former equestrian champion Mikaela Cojuangco-Jaworski of the Philippines and Brazilian actor Juliano Cazarré served as co-hosts.

Let’s just say this about Cazarré: for sure Cojuangco-Jaworski ought to be asked back.

Back to the sheikh: after he got off the stage, he was mobbed like a rock star. His security guy stood patiently by as he posed for pictures with Bach, with former IOC president Jacques Rogge, with everyone and anyone.

The sheikh has, in two-plus years, turned ANOC into a formidable institution in Olympic politics; here he was re-elected ANOC president. He is himself one of the singularly most interesting figures in the movement — a creative and innovative thinker and wielder of significant influence who may yet play an outsize role in deciding, among other things, whether China or Kazakhstan wins for 2022.

Among his other positions: the sheikh is head of the Olympic Council of Asia. Remember, one and all, China and Kazakhstan are both in Asia.

If the conventional wisdom is already that Beijing is the heavy-money favorite — well, the vote is a long way away. (It’s next summer.)

Friday night was all about the athletes.


It was a good reminder.

For everyone involved in the Olympic movement.

Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah said from the stage, closing the first ANOC gala, “This is only the start,” adding, “We have to create,” to “dream, dream, dream.”

Because he said, for emphasis, “Our job is to make dreams come true.”