PtG Comment 12.07.2013

OG in the future: Olympic Games or Oil & Gas?

Six men want to climb the Olympic throne in September. In his second analysis of the IOC presidential election, German investigative reporter Jens Weinreich takes a look at two countries who may be the real power holders in international sport.

The so-called Olympic movement has showed a surprisingly strong interest in the first part of our report on the presidential race in the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The acronym ABB seems to have electrified people. It stands for “Anyone But Bach” – referring to the clear favourite among the six contenders for the IOC Presidency, the German Thomas Bach.

On April 21st this year, most senior IOC officials met in Tianjin, northern part of China. On this day, the "Juan Antonio Samaranch Memorial Museum" was opened, planned by the architect Ching-Kuo Wuo (Taiwan), another one of the six presidential candidates. At this occasion a conspiratorial-sounding abbreviation was used for the first time. ABT: "Anything but Thomas". Sometime in May it changed to ABB.

Of course, the five challengers of Thomas Bach discreetly promote the ABB story among their peers. But one of them, Ser Miang Ng from Singapore, currently thought to be number two or three in the presidential race, now argues more offensively with a historical fact:

There have been eight presidents in IOC history. Seven from Europe, one from the U.S. - but none from the biggest and most populous continent. None from Asia.

So perhaps the ABB will be replaced by an ABE: From anywhere but Europe? Personal relations countSuch momentum is not yet visible. The election of the president of the IOC is a personal choice in the truest sense of the word. Continental blocks do not seem to exist. It is quite different from for example the Olympic bid decisions, where continental considerations always play a role. But the presidential race will be decided much more by personal relationships, by sympathy or antipathy, by individual deals.

Programmatic statements are regarded as secondary. So it is almost logical that the six candidates are not allowed to publish and promote their manifestos, to advertise or to contest each other in public discussions. What is self-evident in democracies – such as TV election duels between politicians – is prohibited in the IOC.

Thus, the first presentations of the candidates were held on 4th July at the Palais de Beaulieu in Lausanne, at the Extraordinary IOC Session, of course behind closed doors.

After I had published the six manifestos worldwide exclusively on my blog the night before, the aides of some candidates told me: Thanks a lot. We would like to share our programmes with the public. But the ethic regulations do not allow us to do so. (The manifestos can also be found here)

If you believe the reports of the candidates and their teams, all six of them left a good impression during their 15 minutes in front of their IOC colleagues, friends and enemies. Richard Carrión (Puerto Rico), Thomas Bach and, to a lesser extent, Denis Oswald (Switzerland) and Sergey Bubka (Ukraine) is said to have been great. The two Asians, Ser Miang Ng and Ching-Kuo Wu, were reportedly a little weaker.

This is what IOC witnesses told. Not what the public was able to witness and judge.

It is interesting that all the candidates focused little on the facts and their manifestos. Rather, they chose the personal level, garnished with all manner of episodes and anecdotes that should make for hilarity.

Besides the presentation round: According to different sources the presidential favorite Thomas Bach faces the biggest resistance from the five IOC members from Switzerland. No other country has that many IOC members.

The outgoing IOC president Jacques Rogge from Belgium, who officially is neutral, is probably another danger for Bach’s ambitions. And it is widely said that the Dutchman Hein Verbruggen, IOC honorary member and for many years president of the International Cycling Union (UCI), who once supported his friend Rogge, is working against Bach – in the background.

Now it goes in the melee for two months. Almost all meetings between the candidates, the IOC-electors and influential people are private, taking place somewhere on the planet in chambres séparées of five star hotels or HON circle lounges in airports. Outside the reach of journalists’ eyes and ears.

At the end of August, on the way to the decisive IOC Session in Buenos Aires, a few dozen IOC members will attend the Judo World Championship in Rio de Janeiro, hosted by Marius Vizer, new president of SportAccord. At the same time the IOC Coordination Commission will check the status of preparations in the host city of the 2016 Olympic Games.

Between Abidjan and Rio there are several World Championships and other sporting events. The most important will be held in Barcelona (Swimming World Championships) and Moscow (Athletics World Championships). In the Russian capital, in early August, the IOC Executive Board will meet the Council of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), as always on the eve of a World Championship in athletics.

Russian dominance in world sports

Moscow again. Once again the famous Hotel Ukraina, one of the so-called seven Stalinist skyscrapers. There were two election congresses of Olympic world federations in the Russian capital in May, one at the Ukrania: the Congress of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF). Another Congress was held by the International Wrestling Federation (FILA).

Coincidence or not: The two candidates with the best relations to the Russian power holders and congressional hosts were elected: In IWF the much disputed Hungarian Tamás Aján (IWF) and in FILA, the charismatic newcomer from Serbia, Nenad Lalovic.

The decade of Russian sports has already begun. Last weekend Russian president Vladimir Putin opened the 27th Summer Universiade in Kazan (Tatarstan) in a brand new, futuristic stadium. The World University Games will go on until 17th July.

And Putin will open many other major events in the coming months and years: The IAAF World Championships in Moscow in August, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Formula 1 in Sochi, the 2015 FINA World Swimming Championships in Moscow, the 2018 Football World Cup, and more. The World Cup in the new Olympic sport Rugby Sevens has already taken place at Moscow’s famous Luzhniki stadium two weeks ago, at the end of June.

The influence of the former KGB officer Putin and his oligarchs extends deep into the Olympic business. Just a few examples:

  • Russia's sports minister Vitaly Mutko, a man from Putin's time in St. Petersburg, is a member of FIFA’s Executive Committee.
  • Russia’s so-called Olympic minister (and deputy Prime minister) Dmitry Kozak, one of the key players for Sochi 2014, is an old confidant of Putin's time in St. Petersburg, too.
  • In September 2013, Russia will get another IOC member: Alexander Zhukov, politician, economist, member of Putin's party "United Russia" and president of the Russian NOC. Russia already has no less than three IOC members: the athlete representative Alexander Popov; Vitaly Smirnov, who became an IOC member on behalf of the former Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev; and the infamous Shamil Tarpishev, former tennis coach of Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin and responsible for the mysterious disappearance of many billions of dollars from the Russian sports fund.
  • The semi-state owned Gazprom Group, Russia's largest employer and the largest natural gas producer in the world, is the sponsor of many professional clubs, several international federations in the Olympic world and the biggest football league (UEFA’s Champions League). Gazprom, strongly controlled by Putin and his men, has numerous sports and political figures on the payroll, including the German football hero and former FIFA-executive Franz Beckenbauer and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
  • The oligarch Alisher Usmanov, protected by Putin, is the general director of Gazprom subsidiary Gazprominvestholding and a big player in the sports business. Usmanov acts, for example, as president of the International Fencing Federation (FIE).
  • Gazprom will be an Olympic host in Sochi, too, when biathlon and cross-country competitions take place in the Gazprom ski complex. Olympic VIPs will be hosted in Gazprom Grand Hotel Krasnaya Polyana.
  • Oligarch Arkady Rotenberg is another Putin confidant and friend from the good old days when St. Petersburg was still known as Leningrad. Billionaire Rotenberg, Putin's old judo buddy, has gotten 21 different contracts for his companies connected with the 2014 Winter Olympics. The total amount of those contracts is 7.4 billion U.S. dollars. Rotenberg is, of course, also in league with the Gazprom Group and he has made the bulk of his fortune as a supplier with Gazprom pipelines.

Of great interest is the question of how much Rotenberg has earned from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin's summer residence city. According to recent calculations made by Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, 25 to 30 billion of the $ 50 billion invested in Sochi can be considered a corruption margin. If Nemtsov's information is near the truth, Putin’s friend Arkady Rotenberg should have made a profit of more than three billion dollars from the Sochi Games.

In interviews Rotenberg attaches importance to the finding that he has never abused his friendship with Putin for personal gain. The Financial Times quoted him last year saying that Putin was "sent by God" to Russia.

Another of Putin’s judo buddies is the Austrian Marius Vizer. He has always claimed that hedeveloped his wealth and his growing influence in world sport completely without the help of Vladimir Putin.

Vizer grew up in Romania, where he was trained as a military officer and judo coach. He left the country in 1988. In 2007 Vizer became president of the International Judo Federation (IJF), after a long fight with the former IJF president and IOC member Yong-Sung Park, a multi-millionaire from South Korea.

Guess who became IJF’s honorary president as well as honorary president of the European Judo Union (EJU), in which Vizer previously presided?

Vladimir Putin, of course.

SportAccord and challenges to the IOC

In May 2013 Marius Vizer made headlines in Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, when he was elected president of the umbrella organisation of all world sports federations, SportAccord. In early July, one day before the IOC Session, Vizer set the initial course at SportAccord’s council meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne: his aid and office boss Stefan Vlad Marinescu, an American with Romanian roots, was appointed the new general director. Vizer also took over the leadership of "SportAccord International Convention" - together with, yes, Arkady Rotenberg.

The SportAccord conference has become the most important annual meeting of the industry. It combines an exhibition with a conference and meetings of all world sport federations and the IOC Executive Board. The next SportAccord convention in 2014 was awarded this week to Belek (Turkey). Important for the Turks who are bidding for the 2020 Olympic Games.

It is Arkady Rotenberg, friend and judo buddy of Mr. Putin and the friend of Putin's friend Marius Vizer, who stands as a potential investor behind some revolutionary SportAccord plans:

  • Vizer wants to organise a so-called United World Championships of all Olympic and non-Olympic sports from 2017, every four years.
  • Vizer, experienced in the casino and gambling business, wants to establish an "International Insurance of the Sport" and an "International Lottery of the Sport".
  • Another spectacular suggestion he has made is the founding of a worldwide operating "International Bank of the Sport".

 Take that, IOC!

And you’d better take it seriously.

And Vizer is still pursuing his old suggestion to award an IOC membership to all 35 Olympic federation presidents automatically. Within the International Federations, whether or not they have to fight for their place on the Olympic Programme, there is surely a big majority in favor of the idea of giving IOC memberships to all presidents.

The new IOC president has to deal with all these challenges. A titanic task.

Back to judo friends Putin, Vizer and Rotenberg. Yes, Arkady Rotenberg is also president of the International Judo Fund. But officially, again, there are no business- or sport-political connections at all between Putin, Vizer, Rotenberg and some other gentlemen. In a modification of a quote from the movie classic "The Godfather" you might say:

"It's just personal, not business!"

All pure coincidence.

The IOC kingmaker

Another random finding on the IJF website: Vizer’s judo federation actually has an ethics committee, which is led by the IOC honorary member Lassana Palenfo as "Ethics Commission Director". Palenfo, once a junta general in his home country Ivory Coast, was according to media reports the head of a death squad in his country and played a key role in the 1999 military coup. At his side as chief ethicist of the International Judo Federation, according to the IJF website, is a person named "Mr. Sheika Nema Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah".

"Mr. Sheika" sounds a bit strange. A topic to be researched. Maybe just a typo. Surely just another coincidence.

Or maybe not?

We have arrived at another global player at the Olympics now: Sheikh Ahmed Al-Sabah of Kuwait. The powerful string puller who helped Marius Vizer climb the SportAccord throne in May in St. Petersburg. It was Husain Ali Al-Musallam, the Sheikh’s right hand for many years now, who boasted that he had predicted the election result on the eve before! Husain, as they all call him, predicted 52 votes for Vizer and 37 for the challenger Bernard Lapasset, president of the International Rugby Union from France, backed by former rugby player and current IOC president Rogge.

52:37 was the prediction.

52:37 was the result.

Precise work. Proper intelligence. This is not the first time something like this has happened.

Sheikh Al-Sabah is an IOC member, he serves as president of the Federation of all National Olympic Committees (ANOC) and rules the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA). He also manages the development fund of the IOC, called Olympic Solidarity, which is worth $ 435 million.

Nobody can ignore Sheikh Ahmed.

There have been many people over the past 22 years, after he followed his father to become an IOC member, who have underestimated the Sheikh. There have been numerous controversies and corruption scandals surrounding the Sheikh and his guys. But, he is still there. He is a talented networker, smart, even sociable and funny, chain smoker, wine drinker, and a hard worker from early hours to late night in the corridors, séparées and bars. In other words: people who have underestimated the Sheikh are not really powerful in the business anymore.

"I don’t have anything to hide. I am not a bad guy. You misunderstand me", says a smiling Sheikh at Lausanne Palace hotel last week.

The Sheikh is generally regarded as the IOC kingmaker.

Watch your back, Bach

The Sheikh’s repeated demonstrations of power not only impress. They also evoke resistance. The support of the Sheikh could have counterproductive effects for Thomas Bach.

Bach can already feel the potential danger. According to sources he had an argument with Sheikh Ahmed at Lausanne’s Beau Rivage Palace a few weeks ago.

Did the IOC presidential favorite Bach tell the Sheikh: Listen, Ahmed, would you please be a little bit more discrete? Would you please not position yourself as the IOC kingmaker?

Sources report a quite heated conversation.

The Sheikh is said to have been piqued. Supposedly, since then, he has indicated that his support for Bach will not last forever. Up until 10th September much could happen, even surprises.

Are there any alternatives for Sheikh Al-Sabah?

The even more burning question is: Which of the six wannabe IOC presidents Vladimir Putin favors?

Is a leader who pursues a master plan for Russian sport and his oligarchs, who collects mega-events like ordinary people collect stamps, is such a leader not interested in the IOC presidency?

If Putin and his allies support a candidate, for whatever reason, this man should have a pretty good chance to become the ninth IOC president.

The 2014 Winter Games were awarded to Sochi six years ago. Ever since those days in July 2007 at the IOC Session in Guatemala, the risks have been clearly visible. The IOC bent to the will, the promise and the pressure of Putin and proceeded deliberately dangerous dependencies. Since then, the dangers have increased.

Certainly, in 119 years of IOC’s history there have always been politicians and billionaires with great influence on IOC decisions. But the kind of power factor currently represented by the petro-billionaires from Russia, Qatar and Kuwait, has hardly ever been. It is probably unequaled in Olympic history.

Similarly influential in the 1980s, albeit on a different financial level, was perhaps the then Adidas boss Horst Dassler. Dassler was a string-puller and a puppeteer. He brought his guys into the IOC; he made his people presidents and general secretaries of many International Federations. These positions were crucial for Dassler to get the profitable, prestigious marketing contracts for his bribery agency ISL. Dassler was even able to decide where the Olympic Games should be held.

Is Sheikh Al-Sabah a modern Horst Dassler?

On 4th July the IOC elected the host of the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. Glasgow had the best technical bid. Medellin had the best story. But Buenos Aires got the most votes.

Right after the decision an outraged spin doctor ran through the Olympic corridors at Palais de Beaulieu, pale and outraged, and cursed: "The Sheikh again. The Sheikh again. Incredible!"

Funny detail: This spin doctor does make a lot of money in Russia on Sochi 2014, Kazan 2013 and the FIFA World Cup 2018. But he is shocked by the Sheikh’s growing influence?

Random relationships or calculated constellations

Perhaps some people have discovered ghosts in the billion-dollar business with the Olympic rings. Perhaps they have discovered Sheikhs or oligarchs even if Sheikhs and oligarchs are not really involved. Perhaps.

Probably experienced players and observers in the business are creating relationships where there are no correlations at all. Probably almost all IOC decisions are based on pure coincidence. Probably the ratio of Marius Vizer, Vladimir Putin, Arkady Rotenberg and others is totally based on a haphazard manner.

Maybe all these processes and people have nothing to do with each other.

Come on.

Sheikh Al-Sabah has favored the Olympic Youth Games in Buenos Aires. Why? Because his ally Alejandro Blanco, head of Madrid's Olympic bid for 2020, was interested in Buenos Aires and has worked for Argentina. Many of those who voted for Buenos Aires, will be voting for Madrid 2020 on 7th September at the IOC Session.

Alejandro Blanco has other positions. He is the president of the Spanish NOC, for example, and he is another judoka: As a friend of Marius Vizer he manages the IJF development fund. And, Blanco has been the negotiator between Sheikh Ahmed and former ANOC president Mario Vázquez Raña in 2012, when the Mexican billionaire Vázquez Raña blamed the Sheikh of "breaching rules", "buying votes" in an "insane and aggressive" campaign.

Once again: Sheikh Ahmed is responsible for IOC fund “Olympic solidarity”. His ally Blanco does a similar job at IJF. So-called development funds. Do you see a system?

Funds like this are always very important to win elections. Ask Sheikh Al-Sabah. Ask Alejandro Blanco and many many other officials. By the way, who have been the grandmasters of development funds of all time? Probably Joseph Blatter and his former ally Mohamed Bin Hammam in FIFA.

Another question: Does anyone still believe in random constellations totally independent of any structure?

People who want to invest money and make a good profit with London bookies or more dubious Asian online gamblers, should focus on these bets: 

  • On 7th September Madrid will be awarded the Olympic Games 2020.
  • On 10th September Thomas Bach will be elected as the new IOC president, supported by its Arab partners, above all by Sheikh Al-Sabah. 

This is the most likely scenario.

With Madrid hosting the Olympics the Sheikh can thus prevent Istanbul and Tokyo – the way is clear for Summer Olympics perhaps in 2024, but no later than 2028, on the Persian Gulf. In Doha or Dubai. Qatar's new Emir Tamim Al-Thani is already an IOC member, and he will continue the path of his father Hamad to transform Doha into the sports capital of the planet. And, totally coincidentally, Putin could eventually go for the 2028 Summer Olympics in his hometown, Gazprom city St. Petersburg.

Is anyone ready to challenge this pattern?

Eight weeks before the elections in Buenos Aires, no one is in sight.

"In the new IOC president waits enormous challenges," says one of the people closest to the outgoing IOC president Rogge.

You could also look at it positively, according to the chaos theory: The new IOC president has tremendous opportunities.

Read part one of Jens Weinreich's account of the IOC presidential elections:

The withering whispers of the IOC