International Olympic Committee – watch out for the news from Buenos Aires

Top row: Wu, Oswald, Bubka; bottom row: Bach, Ser Miang Ng, Carrion

Top row: Wu, Oswald, Bubka; bottom row: Bach, Ser Miang Ng, Carrion

Starting this coming Saturday, the eyes of the sports world will be on Buenos Aires, where the International Olympic Committee will hold its 125th IOC session. This time there will be more suspense than usual, due to confluence of the decision to the taken regarding the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics, the selection of one of three sports to be the final one included in 2020, and above all, the election of a new President of the IOC to replace Jacques Rogge.

Many of you are likely to be aware that there are three remaining candidates for the 2020 Games, namely Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo. After roughly 20 cities appeared ready to submit bids, there were six coming forward, with Baku, Doha and Rome being the additional three. Rome withdrew the candidacy for financial reasons, and Baku and Doha were eliminated in a preliminary round. Now, I am not in the possession of a crystal ball and I do not personally claim any special insights as to which city is likely to come out as winner. There are lots of indications to be had from betting companies and self-proclaimed experts, but I suspect it will be as exciting as always in the past, with some room for surprises.

My only take on it is that this time it seems likely that instead of selecting one of the cities for positive reasons, we are more likely to find that the IOC members will see it as a process of eliminating candidates for negative reasons. Istanbul would want to see it as giving an edge that they are the first serious candidate from their region, but in these days of unrest in many neighboring countries, this may instead turn out to be a disadvantage. Many wonder why Madrid is persisting instead of pulling out for the same reasons as Rome did. Will Spain really be in shape financially to take on the burden and risks of such an event in the near future? Tokyo has therefore been seen by some as the ‘safe bet’, but now some wonder if the continuing horror reports in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima soon three years ago might not scare some voters off.

You may wonder how much of a role the technical selection criteria will play in the end. There is an Evaluation Commission assessing each city on the basis of a large number of factors, for instance overall vision, competition venues, Olympic village, transport, environment, finances, safety and security, political and public support and several others. The answer tends to be that nobody can clearly figure out how the written report should be interpreted in terms of weighing together all this factors in an objective manner, when it comes down to the final two or three candidates. It is much more likely that political considerations and subjective judgment will play a role. This time there may also be a link to the election of new IOC President. Could realistically the same continent get the nod twice, will there be some ‘horse trading’ as between the two decision-making processes etc?

It might seem easier to speculate about which one of the three sports (squash, wrestling or baseball/softball) that gets in. Or, in the case of wrestling, stays in. Wrestling seemed to be subjected to some kind of coercion: you will be out unless you clean up your act! But that galvanized strong forces to come to the rescue, including such strange political constellations as USA-Iran-Russia. Chances are that wrestling may have atoned sufficiently. Squash is more and more a true world sport and many would give it a chance, but they may have to wait. Baseball/softball also tries to project itself as more of a global sport than a purely American-based, but the many controversies related to professional baseball may turn out to be too big a handicap.

It may be that most observers see the choice of host city as the most exciting one on the agenda, but for me personally it may be more intriguing to see who gets the chance to become the next IOC President. As some people put it, the bidding host cities get a chance every four years, while the mandate period for the President is eight years with an opportunity for a four-year extension. So the election for the Presidency just may be more important for the world of sport. Of course, some cynics argue that these days the IOC is a glamorous but rather toothless organization, where the role is essentially limited to running the Olympic Games. This makes it a financial and political behemoth, but does it really have much influence over the evolution of individual sports and the sports movement across the globe.

Well, in one sense the IOC can be seen as an umbrella organization for the matrix of International Sports Federations (IFs) such as FIFA, FIBA, IHF etc, and the National Olympic Committees (NOCs). But the reality is in fact that the IOC out of its own volition is really acting rather ‘hands off’ in relation to these many organizations. For instance, many IFs are frequently accused of corruption, bad governance or at least incompetence. But the IOC simply says that the stakeholders within the respective sports must be the ones to clean up their own act. The IOC is more likely to intervene if the politicians in a country try to get involved in running the national Olympic affairs. Then the IOC gets all uptight about the importance of the autonomy of the sports movement. But when in certain countries the Sheikhs, Emirs and Princes de facto run the entire complex of sports organizations and furthermore serve as IOC members, then the IOC does not seem to want to raise a stink.

Apropos Sheikhs, many seem to think the ‘puppet master’ in all the IOC elections is a certain Sheikh, namely Sheikh Ahmad of Kuwait, head of the Olympic movement in Asia and also the powerful chairman of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC). Handball fans will also remember him as an apparent manipulator behind the scenes in the fraudulent Olympic qualifying match Kuwait-Korea some years ago. As I wrote in a recent posting, he has been seen as the crucial supporter behind the frontrunner candidate Thomas Bach of Germany. Whether this support will last until the finish line and whether it will be enough remains to be seen. In recent time, Ser Miang Ng of Singapore seems to be the main challenger, but Puerto Rican Richard Carrion also seems to have considerable support. The other three candidates, Denis Oswald of Switzerland, Ching-Kuo Wu of Taiwan and Sergei Bubka of Russia appear less likely to succeed, unless perhaps President Putin takes over the role of ‘king maker’.

But you can rest assured that all the candidates are insiders from the Olympic movement. If you read their manifestos, you could almost suspect that they have the same agent. They all have very similar ideas in terms of priorities for the IOC and their respective strengths that would make them the best person for the job. They have the experience and the political skills. Whether any one of them could turn out to be a rejuvenator or a person ensuring that ethics and integrity will become more important than money and influence, that remains to be seen. Among the top contenders, there may be small issues and margins making the difference in the end. But while Bach shows signs of becoming less confident and more inclined to ‘play defense’; I think he is still the one to beat.

Now, if you want to go beyond this rather superficial overview, both now and after the decisions have been taken, then I have a really good recommendation for you. The foremost expert on these issues is the German investigative journalist, Jens Weinreich, whose name I have mentioned to you before. At this moment he is already in Buenos Aires, with better access than most other media representatives on account of his ‘seniority’ among IOC followers and also due to his really solid knowledge of the issues and the people involved. You really should follow his blog and buy his emerging E-book. Again: