Article and image courtesy of USA Today
BUENOS AIRES – The first phone call Thomas Bach took as IOC president was from Russian President Vladimir Putin, appropriately enough. For the next five months Bach will have to manage the controversy surrounding the anti-gay measures that Putin signed into law.
Bach had just finished answering a question about that topic when Sochi Organizing Committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko interrupted and handed Bach the phone.
The man who holds the most powerful job in international sports and the man who holds the most powerful job in Russia exchanged pleasantries before Bach returned to answer more questions from reporters.
“Was that Mr. Putin?” he was asked.
“Yes, but we did not discuss the law,” he said with a laugh.
Much is unclear about the consequences. Rule 50 of the Olympic charter states “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” at any Olympic site. Athletes can speak about gay rights at a press conference, but what about wearing a small rainbow pin on their uniform during competition?
“Today we cannot enter into discussion about all the details,” Bach said. “You will see that we will follow our values in the Olympic charter. … We have assurances from the highest authorities in Russia (that the law will not affect athletes and visitors). We trust those assurances. The policy of the IOC in more detail will be worked out and be communicated.”
The USOC is taking the same stance. “That’s an IOC call and we will do everything to comply with IOC regulations and the way they intend to handle any protests or demonstrations,” USOC chairman Larry Probst said after being elected as an IOC member Tuesday.
Dick Pound of Canada weighed in on the issue a bit more pointedly. He called the law “disgusting” but said athletes need to respect their status as guests in Sochi. Pound said national Olympic committees should warn their athletes about the consequences. “You say to your kids, ‘If you screw around with this we’ll send you home.”
And if an athlete challenges such a mandate? “If there have been lots of warnings, there’s no excuse for it,” Pound said. “Then it becomes a provocation.”
At last month’s track and field world championships in Moscow, a Swedish high jumper who painted her fingernails in rainbow colors was asked by her federation to respect the rules and change the color of her nails.
Would such an action result in action in Sochi? “The IOC has to have really clear rules on what you can do and not do and probably nail polish is such a stupid thing to react on,” said IOC member Gunilla Linberg of Sweden.
American Anita DeFrantz, who was elected to the influential executive board on Tuesday, said punishment for small statements such as nail polish sounds a bit much. It also raises complicated questions. What if someone’s rainbow pin is just a good luck charm? “Sometimes just being alive is a protest against something,” DeFrantz said.
Another major issue facing Bach will be managing the sports program.
Wrestling was removed from the Games in February only to be restored on Sunday. Seven sports – wrestling, squash, wakeboarding, karate, wushu, roller sports and a combined baseball-softball bid – then competed for one spot on the program for 2020. The finalists – baseball/softball, squash and wrestling – spent nearly a combined $10 million on their bids, with wrestling’s budget nearing $8 million.
“You have to fix the program. That was just a mess,” Pound said. “If I was the new guy, one of the first things I would do is get on a plane to Tokyo and say, ‘Let’s talk about the possibilities here.’”
Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Summer Olympics on Saturday and would be keen to have its most popular sport at its Games. “Baseball/softball will cost you nothing and if you want to do something really special you say, ‘How bout we do squash as well?’” Pound said.
Pound added it would be easy to keep the total number of summer athletes to around 10,500 by cutting out a few events that are costly and no longer relevant, but said, “We need to do that quickly so when we arrive in Sochi there’s an answer.”
Bach agreed. “This is one of the issues I think we should deal with pretty quickly and to see whether it will or can still affect Tokyo. I don’t know the result yet, it’s a rather complicated procedure but the composition of the program will be one of the first priorities,” the new president said.
The 59-year-old German lawyer and IOC vice president replaces Jacques Rogge, who completed his 12-year term. Bach’s wide scope of experience was a key factor in his election, several members said.
Bach, who heads Germany’s national Olympic committee, has worked on many of the governing body’s most challenging issues, including its legal and TV rights commissions. Plus he’s served on the executive board under two IOC presidents, Rogge and Juan Antonio Samaranch
Bach is the first Olympic champion to become IOC president. He won gold in team fencing for West Germany in 1976. (IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin also won gold but that was for literature at the 1912 Games for his poem Ode to Sport.)
Bach easily defeated the five other candidates, including runner-up Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico, 49-29.
Bach received the backing of one of the most powerful members of the IOC, Sheik Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah from Kuwait. On Tuesday, the sheik also threw his support behind a probable U.S. bid for the 2024 Olympics.
“I wish America would bid for 2024,” he said. “It’s the right time … America should come back again for the Games.” An American Olympics would bring stability and income that could help build countries with fewer resources, he said.
It helps that after two recent defeats (New York and Chicago), the U.S. is back in the IOC’s good graces as evidenced by DeFrantz and Probst having new positions.
The USOC will discuss possible cities at its December meeting. “I think it’s got to be a city that’s compelling to people around the world that resonates with all of the IOC membership and that’s not a long list of cities realistically,” Probst said. “You have to have a story that’s ‘Why America? Why that particular city?’
“There has to be the elevator speech that resonates. You have to have a great technical bid, a great bid leader. There’s obviously got to be close cooperation with the USOC and the bid city. We have to make sure we can check all those boxes if we move forward. If we’re going to bid, we want to win the bid.”