MONACO — From the department of the obvious: no one spends $601 million over seven years unless they’re serious. The International Olympic Committee is dead-bang serious about the digital television channel its members approved Monday as part of president Thomas Bach’s 40-part “Agenda 2020” plan. As for the other 39 components, which call for shifts in the bid process and the Olympic program? History and common sense teach that expectations ought to be tempered.
The IOC is now 120 years old. For all the talk — big talk among some here in Monaco — about how Agenda 2020 is revolutionary or radical, the blunt reality is that the IOC has talked this sort of talk many, many times before.
The issue now is whether it’s going to walk the walk.
To be clear:
Bach deserves significant credit for putting the IOC to and through a year of asking — with the help of considerable number of world-class advisers — what it is and what it wants to be in these early years of the 21st century.
The IOC absolutely, positively needs to innovate.
Just as an example of the kind of comparison that’s readily out there, one that gets almost no attention in the mainstream media but that draws intense focus within the Olympic sphere because the numbers show so plainly what’s what:
The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi: 88 nations (and one independent Olympic participant), about 2,850 athletes. Cost: widely believed to be $51 billion.
The 2014 Asian Beach Games, just a few weeks ago in Phuket, Thailand: 43 of the 45 national Olympic committees showed up (only North Korea and Saudi Arabia did not), about 2,300 athletes. The entire thing — test event, training, competition, demolition — proved a temporary put-up and take-down that required all of one month. Cost: not anywhere in a galaxy near $51 billion.
A consequence, perhaps intended, because sports politics is not a game for the naive, is that this year bought Bach buy-in from virtually every corner of the Olympic firmament — the dozens of international federations, all 205 national Olympic committees, the IOC athletes’ commission and more.
This stakeholder consensus enabled Bach to run the table Monday — to see Agenda 2020 go a perfect 40-for-40, with the IOC members voting “unanimously” for each and then at the end for the entirety of the resolutions, there being zero no votes even though perhaps not all hands were raised at all times.
The only time the members were not in unanimity was mid-afternoon Monday, when maybe five or six said they might like to take a coffee break but Bach opted to push through.
The last time the IOC went through such a far-reaching institutional exercise was under duress, amid the late 1990s Salt Lake City corruption scandal, which saw 10 members resign or be expelled. That prompted the IOC to enact a 50-point reform plan.
It was all this that Bach assuredly had in mind when, at the opening of the 127th IOC session here in Monaco, he made a play on Shakespeare and Hamlet, saying the IOC had to change or be changed.
The TV channel marks such a change. That’s $601 million talking, and that is big money.
Everything else is incremental change, at best, until proven otherwise.
Because the IOC has been there, done that, many times before.
“It would be very unfortunate, if the often exaggerated expenses incurred for the most recent Olympiads, a sizable part of which represented the construction of permanent buildings, which were moreover unnecessary — temporary structures would fully suffice, and the only consequence is to then encourage use of these permanent buildings by increasing the number of occasions to draw in the crowds — it would be very unfortunate if these expenses were to deter (small) countries from putting themselves forward to host the Olympic Games in the future.”
That is from Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron widely credited as the founder of the modern Olympic movement, and those are words he penned that were published in the Olympic Review magazine in April 1911.
Fast-forward to 2002 and 2003.
Under the direction of Jacques Rogge of Belgium, who had just taken over as president from Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, the IOC dialed up an in-depth report, what came to be called the “Olympic Games Study Commission.”
Under the direction of longtime Canadian member Dick Pound, a former vice president who himself had run for the presidency, losing out to Rogge, the panel — just like Agenda 2020 — solicited public input, taking in thousands of suggestions. More than half related to the Olympic program; others were directed to the format of the Games, the bid process, TV coverage, the extravagance of the opening and closing ceremonies and more.
The IOC, according to the report, produced for the IOC’s session in Prague in July 2003, sought “to ensure that the host cities and their residents are left with the most positive legacy of venues, infrastructure, expertise and experience.”
In all, the document contains 117 specific recommendations, each aimed at managing the “inherent size, complexity and cost” of the Games. The IOC adopted all 117.
Beijing 2008 ($40 billion, at least). Sochi (that $51 billion).
And the 2022 Winter Games bid race (numerous cities drop out, only Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, still in and not clear Almaty will stay in).
Monday’s action includes a provision in which the IOC created an “invitation” stage at which applicants will now be urged to discuss how their bids might be a more holistic fit with the Olympic universe.
OK, but look — this is going to take time, probably seven to 14 years, minimum, to figure out thoroughly.
Also, it’s one thing to say, all dreamy-like, you propose, you candidate city you, whether your butterflies and rainbows fit into your vision of the Games. What happens when that lovely little dream gets put to the acid test of a secret IOC vote?
This is the realpolitik of Agenda 2020.
Bach has, on numerous occasions, referred to Agenda 2020 as a “jigsaw puzzle” or “white paper.”
In a news conference here Saturday, before Monday’s discussion and votes, he called it a “strategy paper,” or “wishes for the future of the Olympic movement,” explaining, “We will not be discussing semicolons and bullet points.”
Now, though, the time has come to punctuate the conversation.
For all the headlines that rocketed Tuesday around the world about countries mounting dual-nation bids, those would be allowed only in “special circumstances.” Such circumstances would be few and far between and, again, the odds of any such bid winning a campaign for the Games — even more remote.
A real-life Agenda 2020 circumstance has already emerged, and it’s not pretty: the pushback in moving the bobsled run out of South Korea for the 2018 Winter Games? Already intense. And so predictable, the governor of Gangwon province, Moon Soon Choi saying in a televised address Tuesday, “Sharing the competition with another city is not an option we can consider. The South Korean people would never accept it.”
When they were bidding, and they bid three times for the Winter Games, x million for a bobsled run and y million in annual maintenance expenses were legacy costs the Koreans knew they were confronting. The political and cultural costs of asking them to do something else — how much is that worth? Is that somewhere in Agenda 2020?
Just as challenging, albeit in a different context: the real-world hard work that lies ahead in re-shaping the Olympic program now that the IOC has shifted the focus from “sports” to “events.”
IOC policy, renewed Monday, calls for a cap of 10,500 athletes except in “special cases.” This begs the obvious question: which of the established sports now figures to give up spots to sports such as surfing, skateboarding, climbing or others seeking to gain entry into the Olympic program?
Consider track and field.
Seb Coe and Sergey Bubka — Coe has already declared — are going to be the two candidates for the IAAF presidency. Under what theory does it serve either to suggest, before the presidential election next Aug. 19 in Beijing, that track and field should give up even one slot from its Olympic quota?
FINA launched high-diving at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona to great acclaim. It is experimenting with mixed-gender relays. It is promoting men in synchronized swimming, and has changed the name of that discipline — said to be at the urging of Bach himself — to “artistic swimming.” There’s urgency, in the name of gender equality, to put the women’s 1500 freestyle on the program.
So where does it seem likely that FINA wants to bend?
This can go on and on. Shooting. Rowing. And more.
Actually, there is an elegant solution — if, that is, the IOC wants to confront it.
The Olympic accreditation system gives athletes a placard with a capital letter “A” on it. Some of these “A” placards can feature a lower-case letter as well for others in the athlete camp; there are a variety of different letters. Altogether, the different “A” placards total roughly 10,500.
One of the secrets within the Olympic world is that perhaps 900 of those 10,500 “A” accreditations have not over the years belonged to, well, athletes. They have been assigned over the years to sponsors or, very quietly, to security personnel.
If the IOC wanted to take all of those 900 and move them to a new category, voilà! Problem solved.
Even a third, 300, would go far in addressing the practicalities.
Moving on, because the 2022 campaign remains a real challenge, and Agenda 2020 may well accentuate the matter.
One of the 40 resolutions affirms the IOC’s support for non-discrimination.
“It is not only with regard to sexual orientation,” Bach said at a Monday news conference, referring to the firestorm of controversy triggered by Russian legislation in advance of the Sochi Games. “We will be looking for the guarantee of the host country that the principles of the Olympic charter apply to all the participants during the Olympic Games.”
This ought to go over just swimmingly in either Beijing and Almaty.
Who remembers the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Games? The protests over human rights that marred the 2008 torch relay in London, Paris and San Francisco?
Pound, as the session was drawing to a close Tuesday, dropped the bomb of suggesting the IOC re-open the 2022 race with the newly enacted Agenda 2020 procedures, declaring it would be “leveling the playing field” and “doing our best to promote the Olympic movement.”
No, Bach responded immediately, the IOC’s policy-making executive board had decided a couple months ago that the only cities that could be in the race were those that had applied earlier. “There will be no change in this procedure,” he said.
Thus: the first post-Agenda 2020 Games are now destined to go a non-democratic nation; western protests over human rights would seem an inevitability; and more.
Bring it on, all of you who believe the IOC signed on Monday for big change.
That change, again, is going to take time, and lots of it — if, indeed, it ever manifests itself at all.
The TV channel — that absolutely is for real. Anything else?
Time is the measure of all things.
At that Monday news conference, Bach was asked what he hoped 20 years from now how he would feel about the passage of Agenda 2020.
“When I look from above — this is difficult to say. I hope very much that this then will prove to be an important and positive day for the Olympic movement. I hope very much, I’m confident, I’m sure that today we took the right decisions with a vision for the future of the Olympic movement that we are getting the Games and the Olympic movement closer to the youth and to the people.
“We with this day today and with the Olympic Agenda 2020, we are also fostering our relationship with society at large. I hope in 20 years that I can still live it, first of all. I can look back to this day with satisfaction and happiness and maybe a little bit of relief.”