Claim and reality: IOC as the bearer of world peace
Once again, suggestions of the IOC as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize have been aired. From PyeongChang, journalist and IOC expert Jens Weinreich looks into the possible considerations and strategical maneuvers behind the idea.
In the International Olympic Committee (IOC), there is a growing gap between appearance and reality, claim and reality. The huge contradictions cannot be ignored. There is the reality of doping, and not only emanating from the Russian state doping system, but also from the various forms of ‘Olympic crime’. Especially in connection with the Olympic Games in Sochi, whose medal count will still be shaken up for years to come, the IOC has shown that it does not protect the clean athletes. Athletes around the world have lost confidence. However, everything will change now, the promise sounds.
The gloomy headlines that have dominated the Olympic world for many years are met with energetic, yet desperate attempts to invoke lofty Olympic ideals. When the need is biggest, old Coubertin once again must come to rescue.
In PyeongChang, at the XXIII Winter Olympics in the southern part of the divided Korean peninsula, the IOC promotes itself as an angel of peace. "Peace and reconciliation", it is called in February 2018. In the summer of 1988, when Olympia first appeared in South Korea, it was put more simply, in the Buddhist sense, "peace and harmony".
In 1988, hundreds of white doves died in the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony in Seoul. Since then, no living pigeons have been released at the ceremonies. On the 9th of February, at the opening ceremony in PyeongChang, instead, a massive peace dove was formed by human bodies.
The symbolism is clear.
Sentimental headlines cover for fundamental problems
At the opening ceremony, the Koreans from the south and north marched together into the stadium. It was the fourth time at the Olympics following Sydney (2000), Athens (2004) and Turin (2006). However, some IOC propagandists described it as something unique. The following day, the unified ice hockey team played its first match. Thomas Bach sat together with numerous political dignitaries in the grandstand, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Kim Yo-jong, sister of dictator Kim Jong-un. In front of them North Korean cheerleaders provided bizarre scenes.
After the match, Bach told the women of the unified Korean team that they should not be sad about the 0:8 loss to Switzerland. Their performance allegedly served a greater cause. Then there was a group photo session with politicians.
A greater cause? Has an IOC president ever put politics that much over sport?
It looks like someone is formulating a political Olympic agenda here.
Where the journey goes has been clear for months. Of course, Bach has plunged into the Korean theme after the two unpredictable heads of state of North Korea, dictator Kim Un Jong, and the US, real estate tycoon Donald Trump, were on the verge of nuclear war. The 2018 Winter Games were in danger. However, those who thoroughly study Bach and the IOC also know that in Lausanne they are trying to distract from the fundamental problems of the so-called Olympic Movement with sentimental headlines about a unified team and the united entry of the Koreans.
It was only a matter of time before the Nobel Peace Prize came back on the agenda. A Nobel Peace Prize given to the IOC, or initiatives supported by the IOC, such as Korean rapprochement and reconciliation.
For decades, powerful sports leaders have wooed for the Nobel Peace Prize. The corrupt FIFA President João Havelange (†) wanted the prize, his successor Joseph Blatter as well. Bach's IOC mentor, longtime president Juan Antonio Samaranch (†), even commissioned an advertising agency (Grey) to influence the Nobel Prize committee and acquire the prize. Former IOC member Robert Helmick would admit that deal in public. After the Norwegian journalist Frank Brandsås unveiled the story, how Grey and its daughter company GCI influenced members of the committee on behalf of the IOC, in the newspaper Arbeiderbladet prior to the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Samaranch and the IOC became a laughing stock.
Since then, the world should be warned.
‘It’s just an idea’
Angela Ruggiero from the USA, head of the IOC Athletes Commission until the end of February, was the first to speak publicly about the Nobel Peace Prize in PyeongChang. Her interview was distributed worldwide by an agency journalist, and there are some indications that this was no coincidence. Obviously, North Korea's IOC member Ung Chang loves the idea. Other IOC members will follow. But above all, IOC allies, marketing partners, PR companies and politicians will support the project. It's more than just an idea, as claimed by Ruggiero. In the IOC you hear only a few warning voices that do not go public. Bach has lost touch with reality, they say.
On Tuesday, at a press conference at the Alpensia Resort, Ruggiero claimed that no one had asked her to propose the Korean hockey team for the Nobel Peace Prize. The idea just came to her. There is no plan behind it.
"That was me, Angela, the ice hockey player."
But by now she has received a lot of approval from other IOC members.
At the IOC, there are no considerations regarding the Nobel Peace Prize, said Communications Director Mark Adams. "I know that there is a lot of rumors and you are thinking about it”, says Adams to the media, “but I ask you to accept that." IOC members may voice their opinion since the IOC is a democratic institution, claims the PR director.
Bach can rely on Angela Ruggiero. It is not the first time she stands out. In the summer of 2017 she brutally brushed off WADA Athlete Committee chair Beckie Scott and her criticism of the IOC policy towards Russia.
No one denies that Korea diplomacy is close to the heart of IOC President Thomas Bach. Of course, sport can build bridges. Bach grew up in a divided Germany. And Bach has experienced first-hand what an Olympic boycott means for an athlete. In 1980, he stood as an athlete spokesman in vain against the boycott of the Federal Republic of Germany to the summer games in Moscow. Being affected by the decision of the German Bundestag in May 1980, has influenced Bach strongly. In this respect, no one can deny his inner drive and good will.
As always with Bach, these approaches are paired with maneuvers, tactics and initiatives from the PR and Propaganda Department of the IOC, which sometimes remind of the North Korean practices.
The question is how the IOC sells its diplomatic efforts. And how obviously these serve to distract the public from other fundamental problems. How alarming it is for the in-house democracy as was experienced at the 132nd IOC session last week by Canadian Richard Pound. Pound was the only one who rigorously criticized the halting and zigzagging policy of the IOC leadership on the issue of Russia. He talked about the gigantic loss of confidence all over the world and about the fact that the IOC should finally open its eyes and not shy away from the problems.
Pound was sharply attacked by Bach's praetorians, especially by the Argentine Gerardo Werthein. He denied Pound’s right to publicly criticize the IOC. Ironically, the senior member Pound, the doyen of the IOC, had to be lectured by newcomers from Bach's camp.
At the session, Bach finally claimed that Pound would be leaving PyeongChang on February 23, two days before the closing ceremony, due to urgent commitments. On February 25, however, the session will continue with the addition of new members, the athlete spokespersons elected in PyeongChang. In accordance to tradition, the IOC doyen is supposed to give the final speech. Bach asked Pound last Wednesday for his conclusion.
So far so good.
The problem is, however, that is not yet clear whether he will leave prematurely. "I wrote a letter to Bach and said that I would leave if the Russian National Olympic Committee was fully reinstated for the closing ceremony," Pound says. This decision will be made by the IOC next week.
Such tricks characterize Bach's sports political career. In this respect, one is well advised to look carefully and to question any allegedly independent expression of opinion.
Bach and the IOC are suffering a massive loss of prestige in democratic nations. In Brazil, where two IOC members (Carlos Nuzman and Patrick Hickey) are being tried this year for forming criminal conspiracies, Bach has not been seen since the 2016 Summer Games. He even, most embarrassingly, stayed away from the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial saying that the winner of the 2018 Winter Games is already the prison state of North Korea. Such enormous PR value has not been seen since the summer games of 1936 in Nazi Germany. At that time, incidentally, the Nazi leaders Hitler and Goebbels wanted the IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in order to enhance the value of the propaganda games in ‘Reichhaupstadt Berlin’. The Nobel committee in Oslo sent the appropriate answer: In November 1936, journalist Carl von Ossietzky, who had been imprisoned in a concentration camp, received the award.
A guardian of Olympic ideals and world peace
The day after Ruggiero had aired the Nobel Peace Prize ‘suggestion’, it was announced that Bach will travel to Pyongyang after the Winter Games. This is how the German likes to see himself: always on a grand mission, as a guardian of Olympic ideals and world peace. In the IOC administration, the number of meetings with heads of states and governments is registered. At irregular intervals, the IOC, otherwise not very transparent, reports about selected meetings to the public. Bach has already met far more than 100 heads of state and prime ministers, some of them several times, some of them he has decorated with the Olympic Order.
Bach gets along very well with infamous rulers like Vladimir Putin or China's state and party leader Xi Jinping. But some leaders of the Western world, like former US president Barack Obama, or German prime minister Angela Merkel would rather have less to do with the IOC president. Obama cold-shouldered the Olympic Sports World in the autumn of 2015 at the ANOC General Assembly in Washington. He sent his vice president.
Such disregard rankles Bach. In Korea, however, in the South as well as in the North, he can let off steam as a peace angel. Meanwhile, the IOC has got a kind of mascot: The former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ban Ki-moon became head of the IOC Ethics Committee in September 2017. What he does as an ethics boss is not known in detail, but urgent questions remain unanswered on the many criminal cases in the IOC and in the world’s sports associations. When Ban Ki-moon last week gave his report at the IOC session in PyeongChang, he effusively praised the IOC's initiative on the Korea issue.
When the first Olympic Games were held in South Korea in 1988, the North boycotted and received support in Cuba, Nicaragua, Albania, Ethiopia, Madagascar and the Seychelles. "The negotiations that the IOC had to carry out at that time were much more complicated than they are today," says one who was present: Richard Pound, IOC member from Canada, then mighty marketing boss of the IOC. By contrast, it is easy for Bach. In 1994, Pound published a book about those years that is a must-read on the Olympic Games: "Five Rings over Korea".
President Samaranch, whose son of the same name now serves as a Bach-loyal IOC vice-president, had to deliver a diplomatic masterpiece in the midst of the Cold War in the 1980s. Firstly, it was about preventing another large-scale boycott after many Western countries had boycotted the Moscow games in 1980 and almost the entire East bloc did the same with Los Angeles in 1984. Samaranch succeeded. However, he did not satisfy the demands from North Korea to host half of the Olympic competitions and parallel opening and closing ceremonies.
At that time, the IOC did business with the South Korean dictators and mass murderers Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, and decorated both with Olympic orders. In the North, the Grand Chairman and ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung, grandfather of today's Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, ordered the construction of numerous sports facilities. The world's largest stadium in the capital Pyongyang was used in 1989 for the World Festival of Youth and Students.
In 2014, when Olympic host Vladimir Putin cheered his doping forces in Sochi's extremely expensive arenas and at the same time prepared for the annexation of Crimea, Bach remained silent. Instead of protesting, he celebrated together with Putin and praised Putin’s mendacious doping games. Peace-building acts from those days are not known. Yes, even then, the IOC had been able to pass a resolution on the Olympic peace at the United Nations General Assembly.
But given the Crimea crisis, this resolution was not worth the paper it was written on.