PtG Article 09.12.2014

The coronation of a president

With the approval of the Agenda 2020 reforms, IOC President Thomas Bach cemented his own power basis. The question is if he also re-established the power of the IOC in a changing sports world. Andreas Selliaas gives a personal account from the IOC session in Monaco.

The 127th Extraordinary IOC Session in Monaco has been a great success for IOC President Thomas Bach. 14 working groups presented 40 recommendations all of which were approved unanimously by the IOC. This session has been a power demonstration by the German IOC president. Now he has the mandate to steer the IOC and the Olympic Movement very much according to his own liking. The session in Monaco has been the coronation of a new strong leader of the IOC.

Most of the IOC delegates and representatives of the international sports federations that I have spoken to, say that the decisions made here in Monaco are for the better of the Olympic Movement. However, many of them also stress that this is just the beginning.

These recommendations have to be implemented and the big question now is how to do this and what will really be the outcome of this process. The Agenda 2020 is not an action plan, it is a policy document, and to avoid it being a paper tiger, all the proposed changes have to be operationalised. That may prove the hardest part of the IOC reform process.

A changed bidding process

There are three big changes made by the IOC at this session, all of them to increase the interest of the Olympic Games and to improve the reputation of the IOC. All of the proposed changes will make the IOC more powerful.

The first big change is the total change of the bidding procedure. The IOC wants to shape the bidding process as an invitation, they want a firm hand with the formulation of the bidding process and the IOC wants to take more of the economic burden in the bidding process.

This means that IOC will take more control over the initial stages of a bidding process, but it also means that IOC have to increase their administration staff.   The new Olympic Charter also opens up for joint bids between cities and nations. These changes will, according to the IOC members that I have spoken to, especially from small nations, help them in their efforts to bring the Olympic Games to their neighbourhood. On the other hand more money from the Olympic Movement will go to Olympic bureaucrats in Lausanne when this part of the reform is implemented. If that is Olympic staffing for the future, I’m not so sure.

Local flavour added to Olympic programme

The second large change concerns the the composition of the Olympic programme. In combination with maximum limits on participants at the Olympics, the IOC will allow more flexibility when putting together the programmes for the Games.

IOC member Richard Pound told me that this decision was the most important here in Monaco. Each host nation now has the possibility to shape the programme with its local flavour. Just after this proposal was adopted, the Tokyo Olympic Games organisers had a press briefing signalling that baseball and softball will be introduced to the Tokyo Games in 2020, even if these sports are not officially on the Olympic programme. You can imagine how many new skiing events with local flavour will be introduced to the programme if the Winter Games are awarded to Nordic countries. And how many new variants of martial arts will be introduced if an Asian country will be awarded the Summer Olympic again? All this can be done without a vote at an IOC session in the future.

This decision will of course make the Olympics more interesting for more applicants, but at the same time many sports fear for their future. Sebastian Coe and Stefan Holm, for instance, tells me that they fear that triple jump, hammer throw and race walking will be phased out of the programme without anybody noticing.

Olympic TV

Third major change is the establishing of a digital Olympic Channel. The Olympic Channel will have two distinct operational divisions; Host Broadcasting and Olympic Channel. As a start, 106 people will be appointed to work in the TV channel and the headquarter will be placed in Madrid. There is an estimated cost of 409 million euro over seven years.

To many, this decision is a game changer in sports broadcasting. The development of a genuine Olympic Channel will be the most costly project of the Olympic Movement so far, but it will probably also be the most lucrative project if plans are executed firmly. With new digital technology an Olympic Channel may change the nature of Olympic marketing in the future and the big question will be how traditional media reacts to this development.

Totalitarian or democratic?

It is hard to say what we really witnessed when all 40 recommendations were adopted unanimously at this session. In totalitarian organisations decisions are unanimous all the time. But you can also have unanimous decisions in open and democratic organisations basing its decisions on consensus. Those already critical of the IOC will lean on the totalitarian explanation. Those positive towards the IOC will say from the start that what we saw was a result of a good and democratic process. I’m still not sure. Maybe a mix?

Many people I talk to here at the session – also IOC members – feel that Thomas Bach with the Agenda 2020 process is re-establishing the power of the IOC and strengthening the role of the IOC president. Some also make comparisons to the late Juan Antonio Samaranch. I don’t know if that is a comparison Thomas Bach applauds. And is it deserved?

The epicentre of international sports is moving east, and the main idea behind the IOC reform has been to keep the Olympic Games  eatable for Western democracies. As long as the IOC don’t put a roof on total expenses for the Games, the whole reform programme will depend on the IOC members’ wish for low key and low budget Games and not on the will of the bidding cities.

At the end of the day, I fear that the IOC members  will always go for the most spectacular project. Therefore, it is not only necessary to reform structures, but also the internal culture of IOC. A strong leader can take two paths. Use his power to change the culture of his colleagues. Or take full control. Now it’s up to Thomas Bach to show what he is really made of.