PtG Comment 09.12.2014

IOC’s Agenda 2020: A cautious answer to terrifying challenges

It may leave many crucial questions open. But by accepting president Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 reform programme unanimously, the IOC has set the yardstick that it will be measured by for many years to come.

“We are facing new challenges of a terrifying magnitude”.

With these dramatic words the then Vice-President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, took office in 2006 as the first president of the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB). The sentence is equally valid today, more than eight years later, as Thomas Bach – now in his capacity as president of the International Olympic Committee – received a unanimous mandate from his IOC colleagues to carry out his blueprint for the Olympic future: the Agenda 2020 reform programme.

A package with 20+20 recommendations is designed to make change in the IOC policy on a variety of issues: the bidding for and hosting of Olympic Games, the protection of clean athletes, efforts against discrimination, stronger ties to the outside society and a reinforcement of ethics and good governance in the Olympic movement.

Most importantly for the IOC, the aim of Agenda 2020 is to restore public willingness to host the Olympic Games by lowering the financial and logistical barriers for hopeful host cities. This part of the reform package is the most detailed and takes up most of the space.

But the proposed changes touch upon many other worries that have been expressed by the public and leading politicians worldwide – or at least in those countries around the world where ordinary citizens are allowed to express what they think about sport. There is global concern over the widespread corruption in the organisations and competitions of sport, and with Agenda 2020 Thomas Bach and the IOC clearly show that they have heard the voice of the people. Moreover, Bach has entered his IOC presidency with an energy and determination that is not only utterly refreshing after a decade of aristocratic stagnation under his predecessor Jacques Rogge, but also inspiring optimism with regard to the outcome of the reform process.

The big question is if this optimism is connected to reality: Are Bach and his colleagues really able to act as they envision? Even if they wish, can they overcome the challenges?

New examples of corrupt practices

Mentioning FIFA corruption and criminal match-fixing gangs in Asia should be enough to remind everyone of the seemingly unsurmountable challenges. But if you heard these words so often that they no longer scare you, the week leading up to the IOC session offered two new examples that might refresh your sense of fear:

The public German TV channel ARD uncovered what seems to be systematic doping and related corruption at the core of Russian top sport: Various track and field athletes and officials blew the whistle to journalist Hajo Seppelt, accusing the Russian anti-doping agency, the Russian government and the Russian Athletics Federation – with leads to the very top of athletics’ world governing body, the IAAF. The secret footage, the copies of compromising emails and other documents, the convincing testimonies from frightened officials and athletes, constituted compelling and scaring evidence of fraud, greed and threats in one of the most prestigious Olympic sports.

Though legally speaking, some of these violations belong the jurisdiction of the World Anti-Doping Agency, it is also a challenge for the IOC how to deal with the most emblematic sport of the Olympic Summer Games and one of the most powerful nations in the Olympic movement. For Bach personally, the challenge is even greater as Russia’s president Putin and his loyal representatives in international sport gave decisive support for Bach’s campaign to become IOC president.

The Agenda 2020 may wish to “protect clean athletes”, but it offers no remedy as to how to force big nations and federations to comply.

If only the price is right

Another, smaller but significant example from one of Russia’s neighbouring countries:

In Azerbaijan last Friday, the reporter Khadija Ismayilova from Radio Free Europe received a visit by an alleged 30-man strong police force that ransacked her home and put her behind bars for at least two months. Khadija Ismayilova is accused of driving a person to suicide with her writings. But the real reason is more likely that she is known for digging into numerous cases in which the Aliyev family who has ruled the country for over 20 years is building personal fortunes from big public projects such as the construction of a hall for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Next year Azerbaijan will host the European Games 2015, an event owned by the European Olympic Committee (EOC), and the arrest of the courageous reporter – only one among many arrested for opposing the regime - exemplifies how the Olympic movement undermines its own credibility when placing prestigious events in authoritarian states:

On one hand the movement propagates “the values of excellence, respect, friendship, dialogue, diversity, non-discrimination, tolerance, fair play, solidarity, development and peace”, as Thomas Bach said when opening the IOC session in Monaco, on the other the movement gladly sells its prestige to a repressive regime that contradicts each and every of these values, if only the price is right.

Also association freedom is for sale. Last week I was present in the EU Sports Forum, where the Irish EOC President and IOC Executive Committee member Patrick Hickey, complained about how India and other countries infringed the autonomy of sport. Hickey, whom Bach has given a special assignment to defend the autonomy of sport, deflected questions on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and praised the cooperation with the authorities.

Little wonder that the cooperation goes well. The country’s president Ilham Aliyev is also president of the National Olympic Committee. And he has appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyev, to chair the local organising committee of the European Games.

Hickey may have a personal taste for strong leaders, since in 2008 he shocked the world by giving an Olympic Award to Belarus’ dictator Lukashenko. But the matter cannot be dismissed by referring to Hickey’s personal preferences; ignoring human rights abuse is a collective blind spot for the Olympic movement.

So it should come as no surprise that the Agenda 2020 goes very timidly about the issue of human rights. It does mention that host cities must sign a clause that they will respect the Olympic Charter’s principle of non-discrimination as well as “environmental and labour-related matters”. It also says that sustainability should “encompass economic, social and environmental spheres”.

Moreover, Agenda 2020 hints that the IOC can consider a broader scope of realities when it allows the Evaluation Commission of an applicant city to “benefit from third-party, independent advice in such areas as social, economic and political conditions, with a special focus on sustainability and legacy.”

This will fit well with the IOC’s wish to expand the dialogue with the surrounding society.

It is all very sympathetic, but it would be an exaggeration to say that it says new standards for Olympic Games and human rights. After all, aspiring for sustainability has been the official policy of the IOC for most of this century.

Please report if you are corrupt

As for the autonomy of sport, the recommendation of Agenda 2020 is equally weak:

 “The IOC to create a template to facilitate cooperation between national authorities and sports organisations in a country.”

In other words: let’s not upset China, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, the Arab monarchies, most of Africa and all other states where governments in reality run the Olympic Committees. It is a contentious issue which we have to postpone.

In addition to “protecting clean athletes” the IOC could have used this reform to “protecting clean sports officials”. Thanks to FIFA and a number of other international federations, the public perception of international sports leaders is that they are likely to be corrupt.

Clear standards of good governance could have helped clean sports leaders in clearing their own federations of corruption. But although Thomas Bach has highlighted the need for better governance since his great speech at the Olympic Congress in Copenhagen in 2009, the Agenda 2020 is surprisingly tame when addressing this threat to sport’s status in society.

In short, the IOC will ask all international federations to evaluate their own governance and submit a report with regular intervals. If they do not write to the IOC, the IOC will write to them! Oh, what fear this will cause in the offices of Sepp Blatter, Hassan Moustafa, Lamine Diack, Ary Graça and other troubled federation presidents…

One of the safest bets you can place in sport is that every single federation will respond to the IOC that their governance standard is close to excellent.

Agenda 2020 promises to reform the functioning ofthe IOC’s Ethics Committee – which is to be elected by all IOC members – and it sets out to revise the so-called universal principles of good governance in sport. That leaves us with a spark of hope, but without any guarantee of real improvement.The power to change?

But why is the IOC so afraid of addressing the scandals linked to corrupt federations?

The Danish NOC president Niels Nygaard has asked Thomas Bach and reports the IOC president’s revealing answer in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Stricter governance measures, Bach answered, might lead some federations to leave the Olympic movement.

If that is really the case, this raises serious concerns about the power of the IOC to carry out any change whatsoever that may bother the international federations. It fundamentally questions the role as head of the Olympic movement that the IOC so proudly highlights at any given occasion.

In the past years, the joint association of the international sports federations, SportAccord, has grown stronger, and its president Marius Vizer was elected in 2013 in direct opposition to an IOC-supported candidate and on a programme threatening IOC’s monopoly on profitable global multi-sport events.

But since Bach and Vizer both rose to power with the support of Putin and the powerful Kuwaiti IOC member Sheikh Al-Sabah, somebody has likely given a discreet signal that the IOC and Sport Accord should better keep peace. As of today, Vizer has backed down on his campaign promises, but SportAccord may still be a latent threat for the IOC.

Still, if the IOC does not wish to confront the international federations with a view to minimising corruption and mismanagement, there is at least one terrifying threat that will not be solved in the near future.

A bottle full of promises

The Agenda 2020 and its main author Thomas Bach wish to convince us that they are ready to bring the international sports world nearer to the realities of the modern world. In his brillant speech to his fellow IOC members, Bach made it clear that change will come one way or another:

“To change or to be changed, that is the question,” Bach said paraphrasing Shakespeare.

The success of Agenda 2020 cannot be measured today. Thomas Bach’s predecessor Jacques Rogge also launched a number of reform initiatives when he took office in 2001, but he quickly faced resistance and resigned from promoting major changes. He did, however, bring in a number of new IOC members that will be more helpful to Bach, and Bach has also prepared the ground for his reforms through much more extensive consultancy among his colleagues. 

Still, we may have to wait until 2020 to see if the reform agenda brought real positive change or merely was thought out as a grandiose PR exercise. But Thomas Bach should get credit for, as the first prominent sports leader in our time, to lay out a comprehensive set of  goals that he intends to reach in this time as IOC President. Agenda 2020 may lack concrete initiatives, but it sets the yardstick that Bach and the IOC will be measured by in the global sports debate for many years to come.

It is not relevant to ask if the glass is half full or half empty today, because nobody has started filling it yet. A bottle full of promises has been put on the table, but if it is to serve as a remedy against terrifying challenges, Thomas Bach has to fill the glass rapidly without a shaky hand.