MONACO — Proclaiming, “We are successful,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said on the eve of a potentially historic session convened to consider a review and potential reform plan he has dubbed “Agenda 2020” that “success is the best reason for change.” “If we do not address [upcoming] challenges here and now,” Bach told the more than 100 IOC members at the seaside Forum Grimaldi, “we will be hit by them very soon. If we do not drive these changes ourselves, others will drive us to them. We want to be the leaders of change and not the object of change."
Mindful that he was speaking Sunday evening not just to the IOC membership but via the internet to a worldwide audience, Bach sought to turn the opening of the 127th IOC session into something of a revival meeting before the committee gets down to the hard work Monday morning of considering the 40 bullet points that make up Agenda 2020.
In all, the plan amounts to the most wide-ranging action since the IOC enacted a series of moves in late 1999 after the Salt Lake City corruption scandal. The IOC will debate and vote, one by one, on each of the 40 recommendations; debate and voting are expected to carry through Monday and Tuesday.
This assembly comes as several countries, all European, have been scared off by the costs of hosting the Games, in particular by the $51 billion figure associated with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. A number withdrew from the 2022 Winter Games contest, leaving only Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, and it is far from clear that Almaty will stay in the race through the finish line next summer.
The key Agenda 2020 item: creation of a digital Olympic television channel.
Also on the docket: shifts in the bid process, a transition in the Olympic program from its current focus on “sports” to “events,” a renewed commitment to non-discrimination and a number of elements dealing with financial transparency and governance.
Bach said in a news conference Saturday that he heads into the two-day workshop confident he has the support of key stakeholders for all 40 points.
Anything, though, is possible at an Olympic session. At the Sochi get-together last February, there were 211 “interventions,” as comments and questions from the floor are called in IOC-speak.
Behind the scenes, however, it was thought that the only one of the 40 that might draw real pushback is Recommendation 37, which calls for the full IOC session — upon the recommendation of the policy-making executive board — to allow for a one-time extension of an IOC member’s term beyond the current age limit of 70, to 74. The extension would be allowed for a maximum of five cases at any given time.
The issue? There might be some significant number of members, well beyond four, who are turning 70 who want to stay on beyond 74.
The other complication bubbling backstage Sunday night?
The second piece to air on German television alleging doping and other serious irregularities rooted in Russian sport, particularly track and field.
The airing of the production can hardly be seen as accidental. After all, it's on German television, in the days before and, now, during what should be the big moment for Bach, the German IOC president.
At issue, potentially: after a year pressing Agenda 2020, would potential misconduct somewhere in the reaches of the so-called "Olympic family" steal or dim the spotlight?
The first show aired last Wednesday; the next day, track's governing body, the IAAF, put out a news release saying it noted "grave allegations" and the federation's ethics commission had already launched an investigation. Late Sunday, the IAAF put out another release, this one saying an English-language transcript from Sunday's show would be forwarded to the ethics panel.
Bach made no mention from the lectern of such matters. Instead, he sought Sunday evening one final time to press his case for Agenda 2020.
“If I would deliver this speech in a theater,” he said, making like Hamlet, “I would say with an ironic smile, of course: to change or be changed, that is the question.”
Of course, in that scene, a despondent Hamlet is contemplating suicide.
On Sunday evening in Monaco, Bach — since he chose Hamlet, and now if we move just a few lines down in the scene, the president cheerfully bearing “the insolence of Office’’ — proved relentlessly upbeat.
“Whenever you initiate change,” he asked rhetorically, “you have to answer three questions: Why? What? How?”
To begin, he answered, “We need to change because sport today is too important in society to ignore the rest of society. We are not living on an island, we are living in the middle of a modern, diverse, digital society.”
And more, here speaking in French, with this fascinating, never-before-spelled out explication: “If we want our values of Olympism — the values of excellence, respect, friendship, dialogue, diversity, non-discrimination, tolerance, fair play, solidarity, development and peace — if we want these values to remain relevant in society, the time for change is now.”
This, too, back in English: “For us, change has to be more than a cosmetic effort or a procedure. Change has to have a goal. This goal is progress. Progress for us means strengthening sport in society by virtue of our values.”
That was the why.
He turned to the what.
“We are living in a world more fragile than ever,” Bach said, one beset by “political crisis, financial crisis, health crisis, terrorism, war and civil war,” one in which the “Olympic message is perhaps more relevant than ever.”
But: people not only have to “hear our message, they have to believe in our message, they have to ‘get the message.’ “
Thus the dozens of action points in Agenda 2020, he said, adding what has become over the past year one of his favorite taglines: “We have an interest and a responsibility to get the couch potatoes off the couch. Only children playing sport can be future athletes. Only children playing sport can enjoy the educational and health values of sport.”
The digital channel, he said, is intended — in part — to give Olympic athletes and sports the “worldwide media exposure they deserve” between editions of the Games.
“This modern world,” he said, “demands more transparency, more participation, higher standards of integrity. This modern world takes less for granted, has no place for complacency, questions even those with the highest reputation. This world takes much less on faith.”
Agenda 2020, he declared, takes on these matters under the broad themes of sustainability, credibility and youth.
In another of his favorite lines, Bach said, Agenda 2020 is “like a jigsaw puzzle,” adding, “Every piece, every recommendation has the same importance. Only when you put all these 40 pieces together [do] you see the whole picture. You see progress in ensuring the success of the Olympic Games, progress in safeguarding the Olympic values and progress in strengthening sport in society.”
Which led him to this third, and final, question — how to achieve such progress?
It needs, he said, cooperation.
Since being elected IOC president in September 2013, he said, he had met with 95 heads of state or government, declaring, “In most of these meetings the Olympic Agenda 2020 and our relations with the world of politics played a major role.”
Unsaid: he has not met with President Obama, and seems unlikely to take such a meeting before Obama’s term expires in January 2017, the White House still frosty over Chicago’s first-round 2009 exit in the 2016 Summer Games vote won by Rio de Janeiro — though the U.S. Olympic Committee has, to its credit, made great strides in repairing many “Olympic family” relationships since.
Bach, as expected, touted what he called a “new sense of cooperation and partnership” with the United Nations.
As he neared the end of his remarks, Bach said:
“Dear friends and colleagues, now this Olympic Agenda 2020 is in your hands. Now it is up to you to show that this is our vision for the future of the Olympic movement.
Referring to the French baron widely credited with founding the modern movement some 120 years ago, Bach said, “Our founder Pierre de Coubertin, I am sure, is following us closely these days and with great sympathy, because he was always a man of reforms.
“He said, ‘Courage … and hope! … charge boldly through the clouds and do not be afraid. The future belongs to you.’ “
Bach added a moment later, turning to his catchphrase from last year’s presidential election, “Let us demonstrate the true meaning of unity in diversity. Let us together shape an even brighter future for this magnificent, truly global Olympic movement.”