Zaiqing Yu

Bach's very busy first IOC EB


LAUSANNE, Switzerland --Russian organizers will set up protest zones in Sochi, the new International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach said here Tuesday. Whether they will work, or anyone will have the courage to want to step into them amid what is expected to be a ferocious security presence, remain very much an open question. The IOC president took the high road:  "It's a measure we welcome," Bach said of the protest area, "so that everybody can express his or her free opinion."

With an emphasis on such immediate challenges and even a nod to ceremony, the first executive board meeting of Bach's IOC presidency commenced here Tuesday and then, no surprise, broke up after a few short hours, the focus on Sochi, on the Rio 2016 project and even on a long-term plan that Bach has taken to calling "Olympic Agenda 2020."

IOC president Thomas Bach at a news conference after chairing his first executive board meeting

The former president, Jacques Rogge, handed over the keys to the presidential office at the IOC's lakefront headquarters, the Chateau de Vidy. Later Tuesday, the Olympic Museum, just down the road along the lake, was officially re-inaugurated.

But, first and foremost, Sochi.

The 2014 Winter Games are now just 59 days away. A host of other pressing near-term issues loom large on the agenda.

Despite the massive security presence due in and around the Sochi venues, activists purportedly now will be free to protest, for instance, the Russian law that purports to ban "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to those under 18.

In August, Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed a decree banning "gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets" for 2 1/2 months in Sochi around the Olympics and Paralympics. It is due to go into effect on Jan. 7. The Games start Feb. 7.

Bach said Sochi 2014 organizers informed the IOC of the decision to set up protest zones during their report to the board on Tuesday.

As a point of comparison: protest zones in Beijing in 2008, miles away from Olympic venues, largely went unused. Bach said he was unsure where the 2014 protest site is to be located.

Without making explicit reference to the gay controversy, Bach noted that IOC rules about what athletes can -- and can not -- do and say under the Olympic charter are going to be sent out shortly to the more than 200 national Olympic committees. Rule 50 bars political statements within Olympic venues. Rule 40, moreover, limits what athletes can do in regard to individual sponsorships. "They," meaning the rules, "are there to protect themselves," meaning the athletes, Bach said.

Bach noted that there is "still a lot to do" in Sochi "with regard to infrastructure, accommodation and other issues." Even so, he said, the IOC remains "very confident" that "everything will be in place and we will have really an excellent stage for the best athletes of the world."

The Rio 2016 Games, widely seen in Olympic circles as an "adventure," have already drawn the new president's sharp attention. He said he plans to travel to Brazil -- before Feb. 7, and Sochi gets going -- to meet with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and other officials. And after Sochi, the "top priority" of Gilbert Felli, the outgoing Games' executive director, will be Rio, Bach said, a recognition -- if not admission -- the project needs special attention. Even though Felli is formally retiring as of Aug. 31, he will continue long after to "work closely" with Rio organizers, Bach said.

"We have to realize, and also the organizing committee has realized, there is not a single moment to lose," Bach said. "Every effort has to be made, every single day, to bring the construction of Olympic sites and infrastructure forward."

Beyond all that, there already is in the works the makings of a long-term strategic plan. This is what Bach has taken to calling "Olympic Agenda 2020."

Indeed, the executive board -- after holding the briefest of meetings Tuesday morning with the Assn. of National Olympic Committees and then convening itself for the rest of the day -- is now due to head off for a four-day retreat up Lake Geneva in Montreux, better known as the site of the famous summer jazz festival, for a think session to sketch out Olympic Agenda 2020.

Everything -- for emphasis, everything -- not only should be but appears to be on the table.

As Bach has described it, this "brainstorming meeting" essentially breaks down into four categories:

One, sustainability. This includes everything from bidding for the Games to the 28-sport limit at the Summer Olympics to the management of the Games to "legacy," or what to do with Olympic venues post-Games to avoid so-called "white elephants" like the stadiums in Athens or Beijing.

Also: should the members be allowed again to the visit cities bidding for the Olympics? Should baseball and softball be allowed into the Tokyo 2020 Games? How, broadly speaking, to jazz up the program? Should tug-of-war be allowed in as a sport? Skateboarding? Surfing?

Two, credibility. This revolves around issues such as doping and match-fixing as well as issues of autonomy and governance.

Three, youth and the Youth Games. As Bach said, the notion here is how to " get the couch potatoes off the couch." What if the Youth Games, which came to life under Rogge, were used as a laboratory, just to see what worked and, perhaps, more intriguingly, what didn't? Above all, the IOC's No. 1 challenge is to remain relevant with young people.

Four, the structure of the IOC itself. Here, there are bound to be discussions revisiting some of the reforms that were enacted in 1999 amid the Salt Lake City scandal -- such as, for instance, the rule that now forces IOC members out at age 70 (it used to be 80). Fourteen years after that rule came into effect, there appears to be widespread consensus that 70 is too soon, that considerable talent and networking is being forced out in a world where being 70 is not necessarily old anymore.

This big-picture think is, frankly, long overdue. Every organization ought to go through something like it periodically. For the IOC, the change in the presidency is the natural time.

Bach has cautioned that the Montreux retreat is not designed to and will not produce decisions. There may be a new president but, as ever, the IOC moves at a deliberate pace.

In this instance, that makes sense. There are stakeholders of all sorts to consult. At the outset of his presidency, Bach enjoys considerable goodwill. Even so, he will want time to pursue that buy-in.

The timetable:

December 2013 -- Montreux retreat.

February 2014 -- Sochi session.

Fourth quarter 2014 -- probable extraordinary session, somewhere, to review and presumably enact Olympic Agenda 2020. "I hope we will need one," Bach said.

The IOC executive board and members of the Assn. of the National Olympic Committees after their joint meeting

The other advantage of this Montreux retreat, of course, is that while it can be assumed, politically, that the 14 others on the board are with the new president, the four days together will give him the chance to see who is all the more with him.

These next few days and weeks also will give everyone the chance to see -- with the elections in Sochi coming right up, by a quirk of the IOC calendar -- who is vying for authority in Bach's early years.

If, for instance, Zaiqing Yu of China isn't a candidate for the IOC vice-presidency, that would by most accounts be a surprise.

Similarly, if Turkey's Ugur Erdener doesn't run for the board, that would be unusual. Same goes for Canada's Dick Pound, who lost out by a mere one vote in Buenos Aires in September.

In just under two months, it's Sochi. Now, though, it's off to Montreux. No press allowed. No outsiders.

"I'm really looking forward to a brainstorming meeting in Montreux," Bach said. "Don't expect any kind of decisions from this meeting. It will be brainstorming."


Mario Pescante and the matter of dignity

According to the earliest records, the first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC in what we now call ancient Olympia, in Greece. Tradition holds that the city of Rome was founded 23 years later, in 753 BC.

In the abstract, it was quite okay for Rome to drop out of the race for the 2020 Summer Games, Mario Pescante was explaining Wednesday on the phone from Italy. But it was not okay to do so on such short notice, with just hours to go before the deadline for the applicant cities to tell the International Olympic Committee whether they were in -- or not.

This, he said, is why he had no choice but to resign as vice president of the IOC.

This is also why Mario Pescante should be applauded.

His resignation was an act of honor -- the work of a man of principled action who would not be persuaded to reconsider.

It's a significant loss for the IOC's policy-making executive board. Pescante has a law degree. He is a professor, a parliamentarian and something of a philosopher.

At the same time, it also may prove a key stroke in restoring the dignity of Italian sport.

How many senior officials would similarly have the fortitude to do what Pescante did?

It's a big deal to be an IOC vice president. Who gives that up, and why?

Who measures both the political and economic circumstances of the times in which we live now and the pull of the traditions, cultural and social, of a movement that reaches to ancient times?

"This movement," Pescante said, "has 2,700 years of antiquity."

He added a moment later, "It's not particular to decide 12 hours before the deadline. It's not correct."

Once more, for emphasis, "It has nothing to [do] with the negative decision. Just the timing."

Last Tuesday, the day before the IOC deadline, Monti scrapped Rome's 2020 bid, saying the Italian government could not provide the required financial backing the campaign required at a time of economic crisis. Projections for playing host to the 2020 Games in Rome: $12.5 billion.

Rome's withdrawal leaves five cities in the 2020 mix. In no particular order: Tokyo; Istanbul; Madrid; Baku, Azerbaijan; and Doha, Qatar. The IOC will pick the 2020 city in September, 2013.

Reflecting on the debt crisis in Europe and its intersection with Rome's 2020 bid, Pescante said, "Personally, I thought the moment to change the policy and to start with the investment was right. But the prime minster, at this moment, I think, with the situation in Greece, in Spain, where everybody -- they were sacrificing, the discipline is extraordinary, this was the time to think of the future. I respect this decision.

"My trouble is this decision could be taken two months ago, not 12 hours before the deadline. This is not correct for the Italian sports movement."

For emphasis, Pescante said, Monti is "doing a fantastic job." But in this case, "There was a lack of style," and for the sake of the Italian sports movement it was important that he -- Pescante -- resign his IOC vice presidency.

"Frankly," Pescante said, summing up, "sport is a very important social expression. But it's not decisive in this moment to solve the problem of Europe, or the crisis."

He also said, "I repeat -- 2,700 years of history. This is another aspect of life in the world. No other religion or philosophy has this. Frankly, if I can show my prime minister, and also the Italian public -- this must be respected. I am happy to finish my career at the top of the Olympic movement."

To be clear: Pescante, now 73, is not resigning his IOC membership. He is still a member; at the conclusion of the London Games, he will no longer be a vice president.

It is no easy thing to become an IOC vice president. There are only four. All four are elected by their IOC peers.

"I know well," Pescante elected as a regular IOC member in 1994, said. "I was elected vice president after 15 years of activity in the world of sport."

Once elected, you are the fourth vp for roughly a year, then the third for another year, and so on.

The way it would have worked, Pescante would have been in the enviable position of being the first vice president from the closing ceremony at the London Games until the session in Buenos Aires in September, 2013 -- roughly 13 months.

At that session in Buenos Aires, the IOC will elect a new president -- Jacques Rogge's 12 years in office come to a mandatory end -- and the 2020 Summer Games site.

Talk about influential.

This is what Pescante is giving up, willingly and knowingly.

Pescante said he spoke twice Tuesday to Rogge about the matter.

"Jacques said, 'Mario, will you change?'

" 'I said, 'No, thank you.'

"This is theater. Theater was also born in Italy. I don't want to be an actor in the theater."

It was not immediately clear how the IOC would address the matter of Pescante's position for those 13 months. Zaiqing Yu of China is due to rotate off the board after London; Ser Miang Ng of Singapore and Thomas Bach of Germany hold the other two vice presidencies. The early indication was that Ng would slide up to the first vice presidential slot and Bach to the second. Bach is widely believed within IOC circles to be interested in the presidency; Ng is similarly discussed as a contender.

Pescante said, "I would like to say -- how do you say it in English? -- that my decision is irrevocable."