MONACO — To much self-promotion and -congratulation, the International Olympic Committee on Monday “unanimously” enacted all 40 points of president Thomas Bach’s review and potential reform plan, dubbed “Agenda 2020.” The potential game-changer: approval of a digital TV channel. Other significant elements: shifts in the bid process as well as to the Olympic program.
The action Monday gave Bach what he craved, approval of what he has variously described as a "jigsaw puzzle" and a “white paper.” Now comes the hard work: implementation.
How to balance considerations such as finance and the essence of Olympic tradition? Should the bobsled track for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea be moved to save money? Isn’t it ridiculous — or worse — to pressure the Koreans to give up building a track to move the event to, say, Japan, when, for instance, the matter of the 1936 Berlin marathon, won by Korean Kee Chong Sohn, who had to compete under the Japanese flag, is still very much alive in Seoul and precincts beyond?
To move it to, say, the United States? Canada? Europe? Wouldn’t that make the Olympics something of a united world championships, the very thing Sport Accord and international judo federation president Marius Vizer had proposed just last year?
The Koreans bid twice for the Games, for 2010 and 2014, before winning for 2018. It’s not as if they didn’t know the Winter Olympics included a bobsled run, right?
More of the struggles to come:
Yay for a move from “sports” to “events” if that means the possibility of fresh additions to the program, and particularly in the Summer Games — say, for instance, surfing.
But with a cap of 10,500 athletes except in “special cases,” the policy affirmed anew Monday, which of the established sports can be counted on to give up spots to newcomers? Track and field? Swimming? Shooting? Rowing?
In a word: ha.
To be sure, Monday ushered in evolution, not revolution.
In a style that can only be described as only in the IOC, the 40 measures were voted on one by one and by a show of hands, the 96 members in attendance passing each resolution in what was described from the head table as “unanimously,” even though it was sometimes plain not all hands went up.
To be abundantly clear: no hands went up to register a vote against.
Why did the IOC not register the votes on each measure through electronic ballots, which — in December 2014 — would be simple enough? Which the IOC actually does (though it does not attribute votes cast to individual members) for its bid-city ballots?
For those who might be befuddled, it must be understood that what transpired Monday is, in its way, progress.
In IOC terms, it amounted to something that might be termed transparency. The votes were shown on closed-circuit television that was beamed out to the internet. Thus some — if not all — the members could actually be seen raising their hands.
Moreover, the IOC is not, repeat not, a democracy.
Here is another fundamental principle:
The IOC works best when the president is firmly in control.
Bach, who is German, was elected in Buenos Aires in September 2013, replacing Jacques Rogge of Belgium.
Rogge served from 2001. He took over from Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, who served for 21 years.
Rogge sat Monday at the head table. Bach referred to him, among others, in the ceremonial introductions of the address that opened Sunday night’s 127th IOC session. That was, well, it. Not a word from the former president.
Since being elected in Buenos Aires, Bach has clearly sought to model himself after Samaranch, who operated with a direct yet deft touch.
For more than a year, Bach has worked energetically to secure buy-in across, within and without the Olympic movement for Agenda 2020. Though Rogge was not invited Monday to speak, Didier Burkhalter, president of the Swiss confederation, was — the IOC, of course, based in Lausanne. Agenda 2020, Burkhalter said, would enable the movement to “be proactive and change rather than be changed.”
The key item on the docket was always the creation of the digital TV channel.
To get there, though, the IOC had to work through hours of agenda items.
First up Monday morning: changes to the bid process, including a provision that in exceptional circumstances would allow events to be held outside host cities or countries.
Insiders noted that many of the bid changes, aimed at streamlining and reducing the cost of campaigning, evoked the Madrid 2020 bid that lost out to Tokyo, also in Buenos Aires.
It takes nothing away from the winning Tokyo bid to note that with as with many things in the Olympic universe, it can be a matter of timing: Madrid’s bids, particularly the 2020 campaign, its third in a row, may well have articulated an apt strategy but caught the IOC at a wrong time.
Around lunch time Monday in Monaco, the IOC moved to change the Olympic program from its traditional focus on “sports” to “events,” a potential boon for sports such as surfing, skateboarding, cricket, climbing and, as soon as the Tokyo 2020 Games, baseball and softball — again, if that is, spots can be found around that 10,500 cap.
“This is really a major step forward in the modernization of the Olympic Games,” Bach said as it passed, of course unanimously.
By mid-afternoon, the members affirmed their support for what’s called “Principle 6,” including non-discrimination on sexual orientation, a response to the firestorm over legislation in Russia before the 2014 Games.
“This is a very important step,” Bach said. “Congratulations.”
Approval of the TV channel came right after that.
Bach, speaking from the head table, called such a channel “crucial” for Olympic athletes and values between editions of the Games.
Yiannis Exarchos, head of Olympic Broadcasting Services, said it would be “the always-on, multimedia platform,” aimed at being the “ultimate” Olympic content source, initially digital only.
“This will be a truly collaborative effort [among] the Olympic family,” he said, also calling it “a challenge of Olympic proportions.”
“This will be a historic step in our existence and one we should embrace,” he urged the members.
Start-up costs were fixed at roughly $446 million euros, plus a 10 percent cushion, meaning $490 million euros all-in, or $601 million at current exchange rates.
Ser Miang Ng of Singapore, a former vice president who now chairs the IOC finance commission, said the channel represented a “substantial but necessary” investment. Break-even, he said: seven to 10 years.
“These figures are more than achievable,” said Bach, who chaired the TV channel working group.
“I think this is an excellent concept and the sooner we can launch this the better,” Larry Probst, the U.S. Olympic Committee chairman and new IOC member, said from the floor.
After the channel was approved, once more unanimously, Bach said, “This is a great, great step forward. I wish all the ones who will be involved in making this happen really good luck. This is really a historical step for the IOC an the Olympic movement. Thank you very much for your approval.”
Richard Peterkin, the witty IOC member from the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia, tweeted early in Monday’s session:
Looks like we will have an abundance of unanimous acceptance votes on the recommendations. Either a good sign or we are a bunch of sheep.
— Richard Peterkin (@rncpeterkin) December 8, 2014
A few minutes later, he posted another tweet:
Just to clarify. There's nothing wrong with sheep. They taste great, make lovely wool sweaters, and know a good thing when they see it.
— Richard Peterkin (@rncpeterkin) December 8, 2014
After lunch, yet again:
My arm hurts from voting yes so often. would it be different if the votes were by blind ballot? I doubt it. Other options in the future.
— Richard Peterkin (@rncpeterkin) December 8, 2014
From the floor in the afternoon, Peterkin said, speaking directly to Bach, “Like President Obama, you are a strong proponent of change. I hope you have more success than he has.”
Bach had predicted at a news conference Saturday that all would go smoothly here.
Of course he did. He had lined everything up in advance, Samaranch-style.
It was “very encouraging,” he said at that news conference, “to see that all the stakeholders of the Olympic movement are actually supporting this Olympic Agenda 2020,” including representatives of the international sports federations, summer and winter, the national Olympic committees and athletes committees.
Beyond which, as longtime IOC member and former vice president Dick Pound pointed out in an interview Monday, the topics themselves lent themselves to an easy show of hands in favor of yes votes.
“It’s pretty much motherhood and apple pie,” Pound said, adding, “These things are obvious. Friction will be in the events. What does athletics,” meaning track and field, “have to give to create some space for new sports? What does shooting have to give? What does swimming have to give? And there will be a lot of wailing about that,” down the line.
“You look at the team sports. Do you cut a 14-team draw down to 12? There are lots of ways to slice the pie.”
Pound served as IOC vice president under Samaranch. The comparisons between Bach and Samaranch seemed manifest.
Referring to Bach, Pound said, “He’s well prepared. You look at those committees, especially the outsiders. He has got good traction there. So you’re getting a lot of good thought having gone into it. Things have been circulated. You read them — there’s very little there that has a big hook out there that you want to grab onto and want to fight. I think it has been well-managed, well-directed, well-meaning."
Pound continued: “… I’m trying to think, somebody raised the visit issue, very tentatively,” meaning whether the members could visit cities bidding for the Games, a notion Bach had emphatically shot down before all arrived in Monaco.
“There may be people with hair my color who may object to having to retire before the age of 70 or something. We’ll see. I don’t think anyone will throw themselves in front of the train for that purpose.”
The image of whether to tinker in any significant respect with the age limit didn’t even begin to come up until 5:45 p.m. — too late in the day, really, for anybody to do anything about it, given that Bach had determined mid-afternoon that he was going to hustle the members through all 40 bullet points in one day.
As the clock ticked toward 6 p.m., Bach did call on Vitaly Smirnov, the Russian member who holds a special place in the IOC, what is called the doyen, the longest-serving member. Smirnov, carefully reading from a script, backed the measure on the table that would allow for a one-time extension of a member’s term beyond age 70, to 74, for a maximum of five cases at a given time.
So Samaranch-like, really.
“Even in, as you say, my wildest dreams, I would not have expected this,” Bach said in a wrap-up news conference Monday night, referring to the 40-for-40 unanimous yes votes, going on to deflect credit away from himself and onto the members, just the way Samaranch used to:
“It showed the great determination of the members for these reforms to make this progress and to make this happen.”
Francesco Ricci Bitti, president of the international tennis federation and the association of summer Olympic international sports federations, said, “We did open today a big window but most of the work still needs to be done. That’s the most difficult part of our job. It’s a historical day.
“Now we have to proceed step by step. If someone has signed a contract like Tokyo, they cannot change everything. There must be a balance.”