Christer's corner: IOC Agenda 2020 suggests a ‘business machine’ with tendencies to hubris and negligence

Photo: kris krüg/Flickr

Photo: kris krüg/Flickr


Comment by Christer Ahl
With the Agenda 2020, the IOC is reaching out for opportunities to increase its influence in peripheral areas as a way of deflecting the focus away from what is really an increasingly vulnerable position, says Christer Ahl in his first column of 2015.

Several experienced observers, including Play the Game’s own Jens Sejer Andersen, have already offered their take on this important IOC document which was released in November, but I feel compelled to join them by providing some observations. 

The document reflects IOC President Thomas Bach’s instincts as a more astute politician and businessman than recent predecessors. But it also reflects his strong determination to portray the Olympic Movement and its role in the global society as far more important and influential than any nuanced and unbiased observer would accept.

At the same time, one gets the unmistakable impression that Bach and the IOC are actually ‘playing defense’ in a very challenging situation. By that I mean that they are aggressively reaching out for opportunities to increase the IOC’s influence in peripheral areas as a way of deflecting the focus away from what is really an increasingly vulnerable position, particularly in relation to International Federations (IFs) and due to a seemingly dwindling interest among potential Olympic hosts.

This is forcing the IOC to show its willingness to strengthen its core position, as the ‘business machine’ awarding and managing the Olympic Games, by offering relief for future bidders and by strengthening relationships with sponsors. But it also causes the IOC to try to create an ‘optical illusion’ by spreading it on thick when talking about concepts such as ‘Olympic values-based education’, ‘fostering dialogue with society’, ‘further blending of sport and culture’ and ‘Olympism in Action’. And, by contrast, it offers nothing more than feeble gestures in key areas such as ethics and good governance, gender equity and protection for clean athletes.

The well-oiled ‘business machine’ remains the real priority
The IOC knows only too well that its monopoly on organizing the Olympic Games is the main thing it has going for it, as a powerful institution and as a source of pride and pleasure for its own members. It used to be that this monopoly was really a ‘Damocles sword’ hanging over IFs, individual athletes and member countries being interested in hosting the Games. But things have changed!

Many large sports organize lucrative and well-attended World Championships and continental events. Some of the major sports are also rather fed up with the shackles that IOC regulations and prerogatives place on the way in which their Olympic competitions have to be run. There is also the looming competition from groups such as SportAccord and events such as the emerging European Games. And in other sports there are conflicts caused by the existence of globally dominant professional club leagues. All in all, the days are over when the threat of being excluded from the Olympic Games carries such weight. Instead, even Thomas Bach has admitted that heavy-handed treatment of certain IFs may cause them to drop out, something which the IOC desperately will want to prevent.  

It may seem that the new notion of event-based programming in lieu of sports-based programming might create some flexibility. But within a ‘zero-sum game’ of 10.500 athletes and 310 events, the conflicts and frustrations may get worse. This will require the IOC to step in and remove specific events from some sports, either to make room for new sports and their events or to keep coddling sports such as swimming with its absurd amount of very similar, but ‘television-friendly’, events.  

The notion that there should now be an increased emphasis on sustainability seems entirely appropriate, if taken at face value. But more concretely, it mainly amounts to offering the flexibility to host some events in locations other than the main host city. Because it certainly does not seem that the demand on the sports facilities is being reduced, considering the repeated emphasis on viewing a first-class competition environment for the athletes as the absolute priority.

Similarly, the stress on the value of the Olympic Village has now caused the IOC to suggest that athletes must be allowed to stay in the Village throughout the Games. This is just the opposite of a recent suggestion for reducing the size of the Village. So one gets the impression that the real meaning of sustainability is to ensure that the ‘Olympic Legacy’ be sustained forever in each host city.

A touch of hubris: Bach and the IOC want to beat Blatter and FIFA to the Nobel Peace Prize?
For a number of years, it has been observed with some amusement how the notoriously corrupt FIFA seems disappointed every year, when those silly Norwegians yet again fail to realize that Blatter and FIFA were the ones who deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Observing some of the new, ‘rather far-reaching’ ideas in Agenda 2020, one begins to wonder if the IOC is endeavoring to get there ahead of FIFA…

‘Keeping Olympism alive 365 days a year’ sounds wonderfully ambitious, especially when one hears Bach repeat the assertion that nothing compares with the Olympics in promoting ‘values such as global, inspirational, friendship, diversity, peace and excellence’. Considering that, if anything, such values are connected to the role and performances of the athletes, one wonders what expertise the selfish and ruthless IOC members have when it comes to preaching these values. The establishment of an ‘Olympic Channel’ is unfortunately more likely to serve the purpose of self-promotion than anything else.

Similarly, a strengthened partnership with UNESCO to ‘spread Olympic values-based education’ worldwide may sound laudable. But is the IOC bureaucracy really the best placed to exert this influence country by country around the globe. How would it be if, instead, the IOC provided support to the National Olympic Committees and the IFs for their national and local efforts to promote sports?

And what is this notion that it should be a major task for the IOC to strengthen the blending of sports and culture at the Olympic Games and in between’? The cause may be worthwhile, but does not the IOC have more pressing issues to tackle: in its internal operations; in the execution of Olympic Games where truly the athletes, and not the sponsors and accountants, should be in the center; and in the role of an umbrella organization in relation to IFs and NOCs where major clean-up efforts are often needed?

Perhaps it would be appropriate for Thomas Bach to invite Pope Francis to an IOC Congress, where the Pope could reiterate his stunning Christmas speech to the Vatican Curia. As you may have seen, he took on ’15 ailments’, e.g., ‘the ailment of excessive planning and functionalism’, ‘the ailment of rivalry and vainglory’, ‘the sickness of deifying leaders’, and ‘the ailment of closed circles’, to mention just a few.

By contrast some key areas which deserve much more attention are being neglected
It is mind-boggling to note that the IOC finds it necessary to ‘change the philosophy to protect clean athletes’. It is implied that, until now, anti-doping efforts have been seen as a cost and as a policing effort, rather than as an investment in the pursuit of a goal, namely the protection of clean athletes. Leaving this embarrassing admission aside, the IOC now seems proud of proposals to provide what are really very minimal resources for a brand new approach. In principle, it seems appropriate to focus more on research, with the help of external expertise, rather than being mainly focused on testing. But given the sense that those who want to cheat are always one step ahead, mere intentions are not good enough if the resources are totally inadequate.

One cannot argue against the objective of fostering gender equity. But it seems doubtful that a goal of achieving 50 per cent female participation in the Olympic Games is best addressed through manipulation of Olympic events, such as the inclusion of artificial ‘mixed-gender team events’. IOC says it will cooperate with IFs, but the important work on gender equity starts on the national and local level, and it needs to result in a longer-term, sustainable change, not a quick fix through gimmicks. And it will involve strong persuasion at the national level in order to remove long-standing biases and obstacles. IOC needs to do much more in order to be credible.

It is rather telling that in the area of ethics, the main recommendation is to strengthen the independence of IOC’s own Ethics Commission. With this being a problem, and with the history of ethics violations in IOC circles and at the highest level of IFs, how can anyone believe that the IOC will have any clout and respect in the intended efforts to increase ethics compliance also in IFs and NOCs?

Finally, it is well known that Thomas Bach personally is much more concerned about the autonomy of sports than about good governance in sports, although he admits that good governance should really be an expectation if one wants to insist on autonomy. IOC has a track record where breaches of autonomy are promptly punished, despite a situation where Sheikhs and Princes among the IOC’s own membership are members of ruling families who run the sports in their countries with an iron fist. By contrast, outrageous ethics and governance violations in NOCs and especially IFs are shrugged off as not being under the jurisdiction of the IOC. “They need to clean up their own act”, is the standard response.

Against this background, it is really laughable to see that the IOC intends to monitor and evaluate IFs and NOCs on the basis of ‘universal principles of good governance’, but that the basic approach involves self-evaluation by the IFs and NOCs. Regrettably, the IOC would not have the credibility to try to do much more. But this really suggests very strongly that governance and ethics matters, together with issues such as gender equity and a general protection of the rights of athletes, should be removed from the domain of IOC and be handled by a new, independent institution, somewhat along the lines of WADA. 

  • John Ian Wing, United Kingdom, 08.01.2015 01:21:
    The IOC President Thomas Bach is only carrying on the same programme where the late IOC President Juan Samaranch had started when he was in office. Both men believe that sports can help bring peace to the world. Sports can bring countries together, and the Olympic Games can bring all countries together, but neither can bring world peace. Samaranch had a delusions of grandeur and he believed that the IOC could one day be as powerful and influential as the UN in delivering world peace. Andrew Jennings wrote a lovely story about President Samaranch in his book ‘The Lords of the Rings’.
    Prior to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, no athlete or National Team had ever marched in the Closing Ceremony of the Modern or Ancient Games. A schoolboy asked the IOC President Avery Brundage to allow all the athletes to march in the Closing Ceremony for the very first time, not as separate nations but as one Olympic Nation. The boy’s wish was granted. Not many people know that.

    John Ian Wing
  • Andrew Jennings, 06.01.2015 23:49:
    Splendid stuff Christer. Bach ned Hickey talk the talk about autonomy - while kneeling to Lukashenko and Aliyev. Thanks for the caviar!

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