PtG Comment 11.09.2013

Fencer, fighter and financier

The German Thomas Bach takes over the presidency of the IOC from Belgian Jacques Rogge and must immediately embark on an internal power struggle in top sport.

Buenos Aires, 10 September.

The former Olympic gold medalist in fencing, 59-year-old Thomas Bach from Germany, successfully defended his favorite position to also take the top podium of sports politics as president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), despite a series of attacks on him at the end of the election campaign.

Accusations of unholy sports political alliances, double-dealing in the fight against doping and mixing of Olympic duties with private economic interests probably led to a few anxiously risen eyebrows among the nearly 100 IOC colleagues, but it took them only two rounds of voting to give him the required majority of 49 of the 94 votes cast.

Thomas Bach is a lawyer by education, but has devoted most of his working life to sports politics. He is chairman of a number of German companies and has close links to the Liberal Party FDP and the German Government.

Among his qualities are a razor-sharp intellect, political maneuverability, commercial talent, ability to make decisions and a great oratorical talent. The last he gave an example of in Copenhagen in 2009, when he during the IOC Congress held an incendiary speech about on the one hand, the need of good governance standards in sport and on the other hand sport's right to autonomy. (Download Bach's 2009 speech here)

The speech could be read both as a showdown against the growing corruption and as a warning that the IOC would take action against those governments who interfered in sport's internal affairs.

But Bach was also one of the first international sports leaders to recognize the threat to sport from corrupt and criminal forces. When he took office as chairman of the newly merged Deutsche Olympische Sport Bund (DOSB) in 2006, he acknowledged that "we are faced with challenges of a terrifying magnitude."

During the next eight years, Thomas Bach will get a chance to show that he can tackle these challenges from the top management position in international sport.

Under the predecessor Jacques Rogge's leadership, the IOC has managed rules against corruption snugly within its own ranks, but has neglected to take action against the widespread corruption in international sports federations and the fight against match-fixing has also been hesitant.

Tested credibility

Bach's own credibility was tested lately, when the German media found evidence that he, as a young employee of Adidas' marketing department in the 1980s, assisted in paying Bundesliga clubs to influence internal political decisions.

Adidas was at that time instrumental in crafting a visionary, but also corrupt business system around sports organisations, sponsors and broadcasters. Bach denies that he knew anything about irregularities at the time.

Bach's role as chairman of the Arab-German Chamber of Commerce named Ghorfa has also come under scrutiny. Ghorfa's largest source of income is issuing export certificates for German goods - weapons among other things - to the Arab countries, including certificates that the goods are not produced with Israeli components or services.

The sheik from Kuwait

Bach's good relations with the Arab world have also caused concern among IOC colleagues who are not all comfortable with Bach's close alliance with the wealthy Kuwaiti IOC member, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah.

Al-Sabah is also chairman of the Association of National Olympic Committees ANOC and is considered highly influential in sport. When the outgoing president and founder of ANOC, the Mexican Mario Vázquez Raña, in 2011, had to resign from his post, he accused the sheikh of a coup attempt and for giving some ANOC members "50,000 good reasons" to overthrow the Mexican.

This spring, Al-Sabah has been considered to be the main man behind the choice of Romanian Marius Vizer as new chairman of SportAccord, an association of well over 100 international sports federations.

In this case - and in the question of wrestling’s rapid return to the Olympic program - Al-Sabah is believed to have worked closely with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Money versus idealistic values

Such alliances cause skepticism among some IOC members, who fear that the power of big money will soon put the more idealistic Olympic values out of the running.

"We need a president who can take completely independent decisions, and the question is if Thomas is independent enough," said a veteran IOC member with close ties to the outgoing president Rogge to Play the Game a few days before the election.

The frustration of one of Bach's rival candidates, the Swiss Denis Oswald, who for many years chaired the International Federation of Rowing Associations FISA, got the better of him in an interview with Swiss radio on Sunday, where he criticized the cooperation with the sheikh, and furthermore accused Thomas Bach of mixing his Olympic duties with his business interests.

Oswald since had to apologize for his statements, as the IOC rules do not allow candidates to comment on each other.

The master plan

The three most important decisions at the IOC meeting in Buenos Aires – the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the return of wrestling and the choice of Bach – are all considered to be part of the sheik's master plan. The way is paved for, among other things, that the summer Olympics in 2024 or 2028 may be held in one of the Arab countries.

That one or more master plans exist and that IOC members can think very long-term was proved by Sheikh Al Sabah himself in statements made to German television last week. Here, he acknowledged cheerfully - also against IOC rules - that he supported Thomas Bach and that his election as president was part of a plan made 12 years earlier when Jacques Rogge took office.

The alliance between Al-Sabah, Putin and Bach, will soon be put to a particularly interesting test. SportAccord president Vizer was chosen on promises to introduce a multi-sports World Cup in odd years to increase the federations' income, and the project is now the main priority for SportAccord.

Such a global event with many sports will easily resemble the Olympics and dilute the exclusivity and revenue of the Olympic Games. One of Thomas Bach's first tasks will therefore be to persuade his allies to either drop or revise these plans, so that they will not harm the IOC.

Diplomatic slip

For IOC, it was important to get the new president elected in one of the first ballots, and not to signal split by painstakingly sorting out the five other candidates one by one. Thomas Bach's victory with 49 votes in the second round against 44 for the remaining was in this spirit greeted with minute-long standing ovation by the IOC colleagues.

As both an Olympic gold medalist, a successful businessman, an experienced politician and a competent strategist Thomas Bach is an obvious choice for the IOC presidency.

But the reactions observed after his first brief acceptance speech, demonstrate the huge difference that exists between being a German sports chairman and Olympic president.

What was meant as a courtesy to the Argentine hosts fell out quite differently in many ears. In the beginning of his speech of thanks Bach talked about "the freezing cold weather, but the warm welcome" when he in 1977 won the World Championships in team fencing in Buenos Aires. "Good memories," he added.

1977 was one of the worst years during the Argentine military dictatorship (1976-84), where the illegal detentions, disappearances and torture peaked. The sport - even in a military sport like fencing - was the dictatorship’s main road to international recognition, and few Argentines describe this time as "good memories".

The master of the foil has to suffer one lost point on a diplomatic slip.