Ban Ki-Moon

Like life itself, no one owes you anything


Welcome to 2017. My friend of many years, Gianni Merlo, the Italian president of the international sportswriters association, keeps telling me to write shorter. In that spirit, here are 12 three-sentence nuggets (OK, some of them are long sentences):  

1. The 2016 and 2012 Olympic decathlete champion Ashton Eaton and his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, the Rio heptathlon bronze medalist, announce their retirement. Great athletes, better people and congrats to them and their world-class coach and first-rate human being himself, Harry Marra. The hug Ashton and Brianne shared after she won the pentathlon at the 2016 IAAF world indoors in Portland, Oregon, is the moment of the year in the sport, if not the entire Olympic scene.

2. Nick Symmonds, the U.S. 800-meter runner, announces he’s going to retire, too, and the likes of my longtime colleague Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated assert Symmonds’ activism will be missd in a sport that “has been ruled by bureaucrats and shoe companies that have successfully suppressed athletes’ earning power and voices,” Tim adding that Nick has been “the most willing to place his career and earnings at risk.” That’s one point of view, along with Tim’s assertion that Nick, sponsored by Brooks, was “excluded” from the 2015 Beijing worlds team amid a dispute over when and where to wear Nike gear. The truth: Nick opted out because he refused to sign and it’s far from clear how far, age 31 that summer, he would have made it in the 800 rounds at the Beijing championships.

Nick Symmonds after taking silver in the men's 800 at the 2013 IAAF world championships in Moscow // Getty Images

3. Symmonds is a relentless self-promoter and provocateur who has failed significantly at the core notion some percentage of those who cover track and field for some bizarre reason seemingly keep wishing (or at least suggesting) he is something of a success at: getting other national-team athletes to go along with his act or significantly and constructively influencing corporate or federation policy. Tim writes, “There is not another Symmonds on the horizon, and that is an enormous loss.” Hmm — maybe if more people thought Nick had a point worth pursuing, there would be lots and lots more Nicks on the way, the 2004 Athens shot put champion Adam Nelson telling the New York Times, “It would have been great if he had found more ways to involve more athletes.”

4. In 2014, when he switched from Nike to Brooks, Nick wrote this in a piece that was published in Runner’s World: “In the past few years I have been very vocal about athletes’ rights, and Brooks’ support of professional runners for the health of competitive running is squarely in line with what I have been advocating.” Fascinating — tell that to Jeremy Taiwo, the U.S. decathlete. In March 2016, Brooks announced it had signed Taiwo to a deal, declaring Taiwo was part of the company’s “Inspire Daily” program, a “group of athletes and coaches around the country who lead by example and inspire the love of running every time they lace up and head out”; after the U.S. Trials in July in Eugene, the company hailed “Brooks Beast Jeremy Taiwo” for his second-place finish, behind Eaton, saying, “Brooks sponsors athletes like Taiwo to inspire runners everywhere, and supporting them on and off the run is central to that goal"; in Rio, Taiwo finished 11th; a few days ago, Brooks acknowledged it had dropped its sponsorship of Taiwo, declaring it was a “running-only company.”

5. Here is the unvarnished truth about the economics of track and field (and by extension the Olympic movement) in the United States, as popular or not as it may be: like life itself, no one is owed anything. The athletes are independent contractors, there is no union, no collective bargaining agreement, no teams, no league. Indeed, track and field is the essence of what most Americans say since kindergarten is what they believe in: self-determination, becoming what you dream you want to be, in short the ability to make money off your own talent, skill and enterprise.

6. Track and field’s world governing body, the IAAF, says the new “Nitro Athletics” meet next month in Australia, featuring “Usain Bolt’s All-Stars” and other teams, is destined to be “the innovation [track and field] needs.” For sure the presentation of track and field needs innovation. Not clear if a Team Tennis-style format is going to be it.

7. The gymnast Simone Biles is fabulous. But how did the swimmer Katie Ledecky not win every U.S. female athlete of the year award for 2016? She won the 800-meter freestyle in Rio by 11 seconds!

8. The European Olympic Committees is due to make a decision soon on whether to keep next month’s Winter European Youth Olympic Festival (that’s the name) in Erzurum, Turkey. The concern, obviously, is the security situation in Turkey, which really makes it not a difficult decision. If you were a parent — under what theory would you permit your kid to go?

9. Ban Ki Moon steps down as UN Secretary General. He and the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, are close. Is Ban the next president of scandal-wracked South Korea, and just in time for the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games?

10. A U.S. intelligence assessment says Russian president Vladimir Putin sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, asserting one of the motives was payback for, among other things, allegations of widespread Russian athlete doping, the report asserting that from a Russian perspective the doping scandal and Panama Papers were seen as “U.S.-directed efforts to defame Russia.” This is the best intelligence the U.S. can produce? Maybe this is why President-elect Trump has been publicly so unimpressed: pretty much everything in that report has been public knowledge for weeks.

11. Thousands of words in that report, yet not even one about President Obama’s politically driven move to very publicly stick it to the Russians on the occasion of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, nominating to the formal U.S. delegation a number of gay athletes amid the furor over the Russian anti-gay legislation? That is a material omission. Who are the geniuses, exactly, working for these “intelligence” agencies?

12. Here’s what, if you are American, you really ought to be upset about, and it’s not Russia and Putin, because you have to assume hacking is, and has been for years, a fact of life, and it goes both ways. Getting all sanctimonious over a Russian “influence” campaign, meanwhile, willfully ignores the many times the U.S. government has sought to “influence” affairs in other nations. Here’s the dilemma: are the Russians really that much better at cyber stuff than the Americans?

Sports and politics do mix


At long last, the secret that really is no secret is finally out: sports and politics do mix. The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, said so, in a speech over the weekend at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. If it is a mystery why it took so long for the IOC president, any IOC president, to articulate the obvious, this IOC president deserves full credit for not just recognizing reality but standing ready to build on it.

Sport needs to acknowledge its relationship to politics and business, Bach said. At the same time, he said, the world’s political and corporate elite must be mindful of the autonomy of sports organizations or run the risk of diminishing the positive influence that sport can carry.

IOC president Thomas Bach (right), with Olympic Council of Asia president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah at the OCA general assembly in Incheon, South Korea // photo Getty Images

“In the past,” Bach said, “some have said that sport has nothing to do with politics, or they have said that sport has nothing to do with money or business. And this is just an attitude which is wrong and which we can not afford anymore.

“We are living in the middle of society and that means we have to partner up with the politicians who run this world.”

This is as far from radical as saying that dollar bills are green.

And yet — there has been this fiction that the Olympic movement is, somehow, some way, supposed to be divorced from politics.

As if.

Now we can do away with this fiction, too — just like the one that the Olympics are for amateur athletes. If you think that LeBron James is an amateur, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

Juan Antonio Samaranch saw to the end of the amateur era.

Now Thomas Bach is making it clear to everyone — at least anyone who wants to listen — that, indeed, sports and politics really do mix.

Of course they mix.

The world is full of politics.

We all live in the real world.

Perhaps this fiction goes all the way back to Avery Brundage — like he is supposed to be some great role model — declaring that sport and politics should be kept apart. (Query: would the record suggest that was the case during his years atop the IOC?)

In any event, everyone knows — has always known — that sport is and always has been intertwined with the world in which it moves.

The examples are far, far, far too numerous to list, everything from the political protests and more in Mexico City in 1968 to the terror attacks in Munich in 1972 to Cathy Freeman amid the ring of fire and water in Sydney in 2000 to the hushed silence of the 9/11 flag at the opening ceremony in Salt Lake City in 2002 to the beating of the drums at the opening ceremony in Beijing in 2008, and on and on and on.

Of course, every edition of the Games — which transpires after frantic bidding contests involving multiple countries — involves layers of relationship between entities. All of that is entirely, wholly political.

The issue amid all of this is, and always has been — always will be — how to draw appropriate boundaries.

This theme — establishing it, defining it — has been one of the primary hallmarks of Bach’s first year in office as he and the IOC head now toward the all-members session in December amid the review and potential reform of the “Agenda 2020” process.

Bach has met with 81 heads of state and government. He has developed what seems to be a special relationship with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki- Moon, in Incheon calling Ban a “great friend of the Olympic movement … with whom we really enjoy an outstanding partnership and relationship.”

The IOC and UN in April signed an agreement to explore ways to work together. Ban attended both the Sochi Games in February and last month’s Nanjing Youth Games.

In July, with Ban on hand, Bach officially opened the “Sport for Hope” community center in Haiti.

In Sochi, meanwhile, Bach — apparently motivated by President Obama and other politicians who took positions against the Russian law banning gay “propaganda” against minors — said the Olympics should not be “used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests.”

Bach also said, “Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes.”

Last November, at the UN, he delivered a speech in which he said the IOC is, itself, not a government. It is, above all, a sports organization — one that seeks to “use the power of our values and symbols to promote the positive, peaceful development of global society.”

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 that speed were references — as in Saturday’s address in Incheon — to autonomy. That is, the IOC wants sports bodies to be free of governmental interference.

Bach said last November that sport 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.”

To repeat the example: if you go anywhere in the world and throw down a soccer ball, everyone knows the rules.

Saturday in Incheon, he said, allowing countries to set their own rules for a soccer game would mean that “international sport is over.”

“So we need this worldwide application of our rules to ensure also in the future that sport remains this international phenomenon — which only sport can offer.”


More and more, indisputably Bach's IOC


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.

IOC president Thomas Bach, flanked by communications director Mark Adams, leaving Wednesday's news conference

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.”


Putin's big "Dreams about Russia"


ADLER, Russia — In a ceremony entitled “Dreams about Russia,” the Sochi 2014 Olympics got underway, arguably the most controversial and contentious Winter Games in history, as much a referendum on modern Russia as celebration of the best in winter sports. “Welcome to the center of the universe!” Russian TV star Yana Churikova shouted to kick off the evening, touching off a show that veered through the centuries amid the strains of classical music, the thump of dance music and the crash and boom of fireworks that lit the night sky.

A scene from early in Friday's "Dreams of Russia"

As the Russian team made its way into and around Fisht Olympic Stadium, the place literally shook to a heavy bass beat. Television cameras showed Russian president Vladimir Putin smiling. Later, he would formally declare the Games open. And he would smile again.

Irina Rodnina, the most successful pairs figure skater in history with three gold medals, and Vladislav Tretyak, arguably the greatest hockey goalie ever with three golds and one silver, together lit the cauldron.

In much the same way that with the bang of 2008 drums China sought six years ago to announce its arrival onto the 21st century world stage, these 2014 Olympic Games were always going to be a defining occasion for Russia and, in particular, Putin.

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