Having watched the International Olympic Committee at work from near and far over 40 years, it is amazing how that organization has changed, especially in the last decade or so.
Back in 1980, the IOC was simply overrun by events beyond its control and its showpiece event, the modern Olympic Games, became almost invisible as 65 countries declined to participate as part of a United States-led boycott, or for economic reasons. At the end of the Moscow Games, the IOC’s new president, Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch, determined that things would be different.
In those days, the entire IOC staff was housed in the Chateau de Vidy, originally a church built in the 1450s, in Lausanne, Switzerland. No Olympic office building, no Olympic Museum. Just the house, owned by the city, which offered free rent. The prior IOC Presidents did not live in Lausanne; Ireland’s Lord Killanin lived in Dublin. Samaranch was the first to relocate – full-time – to Lausanne, as have his successors.
Fast forward to 2020, and the IOC has $4.1 billion in assets, with $3.6 billion in cash and securities, with about $1.4 billion in long-term reserves. It took in $2.2 billion in revenue in 2018 and spent 93% of it, with Olympic organizing committees, the International Sports Federations and National Olympic Committees receiving about $1.25 billion combined, or more than half.
Thanks in significant part to the transformative approach of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Games, the IOC has become a financial powerhouse. In 2019, it opened a new headquarters in a futuristic, 237,000 sq. ft. building adjacent to the old Chateau de Vidy at a cost of $147 million. Some 500 staff members now work there.
All this success came at a price, and the IOC was seen as mercenary and ruthless at the start of the 21st Century, especially in light of the Salt Lake City bidding scandal, where a number of IOC members accepted exorbitant gifts to pave the way for the Utah city to be selected to host the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
The IOC’s specifications to host a Games – summer or winter – became more and more demanding, especially in the requirements for increasing spectacular facilities in which to host individual sports. This climaxed with stunning costs to host the Games that were reported at $40 billion for Beijing as host of the 2008 Olympic Games and as much as $51 billion for Sochi to host the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
The response of many nations which considered bidding for the Games was to pass. Referendum after referendum, especially in Europe and even in the IOC’s home country of Switzerland, showed that voters had no appetite for the financial burden. The crisis crested in 2017, when the IOC selected two host cities – Paris for 2024 and Los Angeles for 2028 – by acclimation, ending a 30-year era of over-the-top presentations and bid costs in the tens of millions of dollars for each competing city.
In short, Samaranch’s IOC had become too successful and had to be brought back to reality. His successor, three-time Belgian sailing Olympian Jacques Rogge, served from 2001-13 and preferred to stay in the Olympic Village during the Games rather in an expansive hotel suite. On his watch, the Olympic Games were awarded to China (for 2008) and Brazil (for 2016) for the first time.
But the IOC was dogged by the perception of lavishness and dearly needed high-profile reforms. It got it in a new president, German Thomas Bach, a lawyer and 1976 fencing team gold medalist. At the height of the perception crisis, Bach developed and pushed through his Agenda 2020 program in December 2014, which significantly relaxed the process by which Olympic Games were awarded, planned and operated.
And Bach did not stop there. Building on the work of Samaranch – who established the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the 1980s – and Rogge, who led the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Bach has changed the IOC and therefore, the international sports movement. With few exceptions, whatever the IOC does, everyone else follows.
One of the first implementations of the Olympic Agenda 2020 was the publication of an IOC Annual Report covering the year 2014. Its sub-title was not the famed Olympic motto of “Citius – Altius – Fortius” (roughly, Swifter, Higher, Stronger), but an aspirational statement of “Credibility, Sustainability and Youth.”
The contrast with 1980 could not more dramatic. And Bach has been relentlessly expanding his reform efforts:
● Today, the IOC continuously reminds everyone that it gives back 90% of all of its revenue to support sport around the world. This is borne out by its financial statements, although there are criticisms of how some recipients spend the money provided. This “Solidarity Model” is an important aspect of its credibility promise.
● A nearly-continuous series of reform policies has been adopted by the IOC that has eliminated the need for any Olympic bid city to build even a single venue if an existing site can be used, or a temporary venue can be employed. Reforms now underway could cut the requirements for the last remaining major venue requirement – the Olympic Village – to be reduced by as much as 40%. This is where its sustainability focus comes in and has become a major emphasis for the IOC.
● The bidding process, for decades plagued by excess and waste, has been essentially eliminated. No more leather-bound bid books offered in jeweled presentation chests; the process now features a “dialogue” between IOC commissions for the Olympic and Winter Games and interested cities/regions/countries or even multiple countries, with the goal of finding a good match for a specific Games and then offering a consensus recommendation to the IOC membership for ratification. This was unthinkable even five years ago, but furthers the sustainability pledge.
● The focus on youth has turned one of the IOC’s most wasteful projects into a living laboratory for sport in the 21st Century. The Youth Olympic Games, created under Rogge’s leadership, started in 2010 and was seen as an almost worthless sideshow and was widely expected to be abandoned by Bach at some point.
Instead, the event has been transformed; Bach talked about this at last week’s news conference following the IOC Session in Lausanne, held during the Winter Youth Olympic Games going on in the same city:
“[W]hat is the most important is the experience of these young athletes. This is what counts; these Youth Olympic Games are for them. They are for them to get familiar with the Olympic environment, with the Olympic values and with [a] multi-sports event. So this is priority no. 1.
“Then, the international awareness, from what I have heard from the figures from last night, for instance, is the fact that I guess that this Winter Youth Olympic Games get maybe more international attention than any other junior event in any other sport. Because this is life; you don’t publish a lot about junior events over the year and therefore, it’s maybe a sad record, but it still is a record.”
He added a little later, “So another signal or demonstration for the fact that we are using, there also, the Youth Olympic Games as a laboratory for new sports, for new disciplines, and [for 2022], these seven additions we made all together – including the two I just mentioned – they were very well appreciated by the Executive Board.”
For those who have watched the IOC for decades, this is amazing.
Samaranch worked tirelessly to end the three-Games cycle of mass boycotts in 1988 by getting almost every nation to the Seoul Games and in 1993 convinced the United Nations to approve an “Olympic Truce,” along the lines of the truce followed in ancient Greece to allow athletes to travel without hindrance to and from Olympia. He thought it was possible that the IOC could be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for these efforts, but it didn’t happen.
Bach may succeed where Samaranch did not. He was awarded the Cem-Papandreou Peace Award in Athens last June for having made “an outstanding contribution to peace.” And the resume keeps growing; under his watch, the IOC:
● Continues to support and has helped further the independence of the anti-doping and legal movements in sport, not only through the World Anti-Doping Agency and Court of Arbitration for Sport, but also the formation of the International Testing Agency;
● Created the memorable cooperation of North and South Korea in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and some sports of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games;
● Continuation of Samaranch’s Olympic Truce initiative, which was adopted for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games by consensus resolution of the U.N. General Assembly on 9 December of last year;
● Creation of the Refugee Olympic Team, with athletes who – for varying reasons – cannot be entered by a National Olympic Committee. This was a Bach initiative from 2015 for the Rio Games and included 10 athletes; it will be expanded for Tokyo. The IOC awarded the U.N. Refugee Agency its 2019 Olympic Cup award in Lausanne on 10 January;
● Close cooperation with the International Paralympic Committee, including significant financial support for Paralympic athletes, another expansion of the Olympic message of inclusion.
Bach underlined a now-familiar theme at the Cem-Papandreou Peace Award, noting that “The Olympic Games show us that despite all our differences it is possible for humankind to live together in peace and harmony. … In a world drifting apart in so many ways, the Olympic Games today stand out as the only event that brings the whole world together in peaceful competition.”
The IOC will hand out thousands of medals in Tokyo this summer, but Bach’s astonishing turnaround of an organization which has been continuously written off as archaic and imploding might well find itself on the podium at a Nobel Awards ceremony in the near future.