By STEPHEN WILSON
Securing a new term as president of the International Olympic Committee was easy for Thomas Bach. The real challenge will come in overseeing two Olympic Games over the next 11 months in the wake of a global pandemic.
Thomas Bach speaks after re-election. (IOC Media)
As the only candidate, the 67-year-old German’s re-election on Wednesday during the IOC’s virtual 137th Session was a foregone conclusion and bereft of any suspense.
Holding an uncontested election is inevitably a coronation more than anything else. This was the case as the meeting provided the platform for Bach to run through all his accomplishments over his first eight-year term and for IOC members – many elected during his presidency -- to shower him with praise and congratulations.
Bach celebrated the results of Olympic Agenda 2020, the 40-point reform program adopted a year after his election as the IOC’s ninth president in 2013. He rattled through a list of achievements, including creation of the Olympic Channel, double award of the 2024 and 2028 Games to Paris and Los Angeles, revamping of the bidding and selection process, inclusion of new sports, formation of the Refugee Olympic Team and efforts in gender equality, youth engagement and sustainability.
Anita DeFrantz (in monitor) joins in congratulating Bach. (IOC Media)
Dozens of IOC members took turns on Zoom to laud the successes and to hail Bach as the “captain’’ who has steered the Olympic Movement through what he called a “sea of troubles’’ – the Russian doping scandal stemming from the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, the problem-plagued Rio de Janeiro Games and, most notably, the COVID-19 outbreak that forced the historic one-year postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“Even in your wildest dreams you could not have imagined the roller coaster of the last eight years,’’ Aruban IOC member Nicole Hoevertsz told Bach.
Despite the certainty of his re-election, it was an emotional day for the former Olympic fencing champion.
After IOC 1st Vice President Anita DeFrantz recalled their parallel career as athletes and extolled him as a “visionary leader,’’ Bach choked up and his eyes welled with tears.
As for the presidential vote, the result was resounding: 93-1 (four abstentions were not counted in the official tally). The only surprise was that one member had voted against, denying Bach an outright unanimous victory.
Christophe De Kepper (left) and Pere Miro (right) applaud Bach after his re-election. (IOC Media)
When the result was announced, Bach walked to the middle of the meeting room at IOC headquarters in Lausanne and offered air hugs to the members appearing on the video screens as they applauded and shouted congratulations.
“This is touching me deeply,’’ Bach said.
A Second Term Full of Challenges
It didn’t take long for Bach to give a first glimpse of his plans for the new term. He declared that he would like to begin discussions on modifying the 127-year-old Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger’’ to “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together.”
The coronavirus crisis, he said, had underlined the importance of working together and prompted his proposal to alter the slogan, which was coined by French monk Henri Didon and adopted by the IOC in 1894.
“This could be, from my point of view, a strong commitment to our core value of solidarity,” Bach said, “and an appropriate and a humble adaptation to the challenges of this new world.”
Bach said a key focus of his final term, which officially starts after the close of the postponed Tokyo Games on Aug. 8, will be to position the IOC and Olympic Movement for the post-coronavirus world. This will start with the adoption on Friday of Olympic Agenda 2020+5, the updated version of Bach’s roadmap for the IOC.
“We will keep changing,’’ Bach said. “We will keep turning challenges into opportunities. We will keep being proactive.”
But his first priority will be managing a safe and successful Tokyo Games amid the continuing pandemic. The postponement has not only required a massive logistical effort, but the new waves and variants of the coronavirus have raised public doubts and concerns, especially in Japan, over whether they can or should go ahead in 2021.
How many spectators will be in the stands at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium in July? (IOC Media)
A slew of anti-COVID measures are being implemented for the Games, while final decisions are still pending on whether foreign spectators will be allowed to attend and how many Japanese fans will be permitted in venues. Regaining support for the Games from the skeptical Japanese public remains a tough task.
“Tokyo remains the best prepared Olympic city ever,” Bach said in his opening remarks to the session. “At this moment we have no reason to doubt the opening ceremony will take place on the 23rd of July. The question is not whether, the question is how these Olympic Games will take place.”
Looming just six months after the Tokyo Olympics are the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. Those Games, too, are grappling with the pandemic – not to mention the increasing pressure, including calls for a boycott, from human rights groups and Western politicians over China’s treatment of the Uighur minority.
“I have not been elected today to be a political leader and the IOC has no political mandate,” Bach said in a video news conference. “We can accomplish our mission only as we have it enshrined in the Olympic Charter, if we respect the political neutrality.”
Smooth Sailing After Beijing?
Paris 2024 should be relatively safe and trouble-free. (Paris 2024)
After Beijing, the 2024 Paris Olympics should be relatively safe and trouble-free, and Bach can leave his successor with the security of the 2026 Winter Games in Milano-Cortina, the Los Angeles Games in 2028 and, most likely, Brisbane in 2032. NBC rights deals are locked in through 2032, as are several long-time global sponsorship deals.
But Bach and the IOC still have to deal with the turmoil in the international federations governing boxing and weightlifting, the thorny issue of athletes’ right to protest at the Games in Tokyo and Beijing, and the continuing fallout from the Russian doping saga.
In his speech to the session, Bach called the organized Russian cheating in Sochi “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games.”
While Bach has yet to begin his second term, his legacy is already taking shape.
Bach joined the IOC under Juan Antonio Samaranch, who headed the organization from 1980-2001 and is viewed as arguably the most influential IOC president after Pierre de Coubertin, creator of the modern Games and founder of the IOC.
The Spaniard steered the IOC through a landmark period that saw the political boycotts of 1980 and 1984, the integration of professional athletes into the Games, the advent of lucrative global sponsorships and the explosion in TV rights fees.
Bach also worked closely with Samaranch’s successor, Jacques Rogge. The Belgian was a steady hand who stabilized the IOC after the Salt Lake City corruption scandal, created the Youth Olympic Games, mended ties with the U.S. Olympic Committee and continued the long-term rights deals with NBC.
Who Will Succeed Bach?
Bach brought new energy and vision to the presidency and pushed the “change or be changed’’ mantra that formed the basis of his Olympic Agenda 2020 strategy.
There is no obvious favorite to succeed Bach in 2025. One of the presumed contenders will be Juan Antonio Samaranch, the son of the former president who has held a number of high profile roles in the IOC. Potential female contenders could include Kirsty Coventry, the chair of the athletes’ commission from Zimbabwe, and former IOC vice president Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco.
But it is too soon to look that far ahead. There are too many big challenges to face right now, and this is Bach’s moment.
“We can only hope,’’ Bach said with a smile, “for a calm four years.”
Don’t count on it.
International journalist Stephen Wilson is the former Olympic Correspondent and European Sports Editor for The Associated Press and former President of the Olympic Journalists Association. Contact him at email@example.com
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