LANE ONE: Thomas Bach is changing the IOC into something totally new, but will it be better?

IOC President Thomas Bach

Meetings of the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board draw quite a bit of media attention, even though there is often not a single athlete in attendance.

There are some former athletes, like gold-medal fencer Thomas Bach (GER), the IOC President since 2013, and American rowing bronze medalist Anita DeFrantz, who are members of the Executive Board. But today’s stars in sports like swimming, biathlon and table tennis are rarely seen.

But the interest comes from what the IOC is doing as the pre-eminent body in international sport. This has been true for more than a century as the IOC revived the Olympic Games and owns the concept, logo and all the rights to it. And with the Games having become – thanks to television – a multi-billion dollar business thanks to the interest of fans around the world, the IOC’s financial support is key to the survival of many of the international sports federations.

Last week’s sessions in Lausanne included daily news briefings on each of the three days, and taken as a whole, revealed Bach’s continuing renovation of the IOC’s methods of operation. Considering where the IOC was when he came in, and where he is taking it, the changes are astonishing.

Consider how this week’s piecemeal announcements might fit into the future:

● A working group was formed to study how to inject even more flexibility in bidding for future Olympic Games.

● The Executive Board asked the IOC staff for a feasibility study on holding the 2021 IOC Session in Athens (GRE).

● A new Advisory Committee on Human Rights was formed, to be headed by Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (JOR), the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights from 2014-18.

● The IOC announced it would reinvest its share of the organizing committee surplus from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games into a new PyeongChang 2018 Foundation.

● Bach’s enthusiasm in using the Games in specific as a catalyst for “engagement” in sport by the public and not just by elite athletes.

All of these concepts can be seen to work together as Bach stitches together a new IOC for the 21st Century, one that has far greater reach than ever before and for whom the Olympic Games itself is only a starting point.

So what is the future as Bach sees it?

Let’s start by noting that Bach has consistently described the IOC as a “values-based” organization: that’s crucial to understanding what appears to be a grand plan for the 125-year-old IOC:

(1) Olympic Games which are developed instead of bid for

This is the clearest signal coming from Bach, with the creation of a working group to study”further steps to make the Candidature Process even more flexible, targeted and dialogue-oriented.”

Coupled with the announcements that the IOC staff was directed to do a “to prepare a feasibility study” for the 2021 IOC Session to be held in Athens – the 125th anniversary year of the 1896 Games – it’s a clear signal about the future of how Bach sees the host countries of the Games being selected.

Be sure to include the human rights element in this as well. By creating its own advisory group on human rights, the IOC is poised to launch a new concept for the Games as a moving development-fitness-human rights vehicle to places where it feels it can do the most good … and not necessarily make the most money.

It would go something like this. An expanded IOC staff would engage targeted cities and countries where it feels it could have an impact in a discussion that would lead to an agreement-in-principle to place an Olympic or Winter Games there IF (a) that city/region/country would agree to respect not only the Olympic Charter, but a set of human rights requirements drawn up by the IOC, (b) agree to the necessary technical infrastructure, carefully aligned – and with more than $1 billion in IOC financial and services support, and (c) approve the placement of the Games there by a public referendum (preferred) or by a clear undertaking of the local and national governments if a referendum procedure is not available.

That’s a long way from the traditional bidding structure we have seen for decades, and as Bach likes to say, would eliminate the “losers” from the bid process, although the IOC will certainly have back-up options available if a city or country should reject a hosting opportunity.

(2) Permanent presence in cities and countries where the Games take place

The formation of a PyeongChang 2018 Foundation might seem superfluous, but when considered as a way to extend the IOC’s global intentions to be a player around the world and not simply an organization in a futuristic headquarters in Switzerland, it could be an important initiative.

Although it rarely mentions it, the IOC is quite aware of the revolutionary work of the LA84 Foundation in Los Angeles, which has been supporting youth sports continuously since the end of the Games of the XXIIIrd Olympiad in 1984. LA84 announced last Thursday its newest set of grants, totaling $2 million to 26 area organizations that are expected to impact 57,000 children in 21 sports.

Imagine such a foundation – not necessarily as large – in every city in which the IOC hosts Games and you have the start of a quickly-spreading network of “branch offices” which are outside of the often-politics-ridden National Olympic Committees in each country. Just take the current menu of Games and you could have foundations in Korea, Japan, China, France and Sweden or Italy by 2026, not to mention one in Senegal as a legacy of the 2022 Youth Olympic Games in Dakar.

(3) Using the Games as a platform for physical fitness and to reflect youth culture

Bach has become almost fanatical in talking about “engagement” with the public when discussing the future of the Games. He did so yet again last week in his news conference, responding to a question about the Paris 2024 idea of public participation on some of the Games venues, starting with a marathon on the Olympic course on the same day as the Olympic race.

“The working title is “Mass Events,” which is maybe a little bit heavy title, but I would prefer that we concentrate more on the inclusivity of these projects because what we have seen in Buenos Aires, but what we started in Nanjing in 2014 were these sports initiation programs on the occasion of Olympic Games, whether in Youth Games, we also had some in Rio in 2016 and that they were very successful and what we think that they’re very much needed because they are part of our efforts, there, what we were talking in the Olympic Agenda, to get the couch potatoes off the couch.

“And there, where we say we have in order to get people to sport, we have to go where people are. And if they are spectators at the sport event, or if they are in the city, then we have to benefit from this opportunity to engage them with sport, to motivate them not to watch only sport, but to practice sport. And this is why we are looking very positively at these inclusive events and we are even more favorable to it, knowing that they will start years ahead of the Games, so that really the entire population can be reached with these initiatives.”

Recognizing that the opportunity to reach people in a way which impacts their daily lives may be easier with young people than adults, look for even more attention to the Youth Olympic Games as a tool for experimentation. Long-time observers have been astonished at the ascendance of Break Dancing as an Olympic sport for 2024 – if the Paris organizers get their wish – when its first appearance in any Olympic-related event was the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires.

Future experimental concepts will show up in the YOG and their success will be measured without reference to television viewing, but to social media presence on varying platforms on a country-by-country basis.

It’s pretty clear – to me, anyway – that this is where Bach is taking the Games. It was noted that the IOC Session in 2021, possibly to be held in Athens, would be the time for the next election of the IOC President. While Bach has not officially declared his candidacy, he will certainly run since his expected heir, Swiss IOC member and International Basketball Association (FIBA) general secretary Patrick Baumann (SUI) suddenly died in 2018.

Bach will use the four years from 2021-25 to cement these approaches to select hosts for the 2030 Winter and 2032 Olympic Games, see IOC-affiliated foundation in at least six countries and can retire from his IOC duties at 71.

Too good to be true? All of this depends on the Olympic Games being as popular, or more so, than it is today, both in terms of viewership and commercial status. Those may not be good bets, but for the moment – with a U.S. television agreement set through 2032 – Bach can dream big. And he is.

Rich Perelman
Editor