My single abiding memory of last week’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) Extraordinary Session in Lausanne came sitting in the bar listening to one, nameless, observer perform an astoundingly brilliant impression of the body’s President, Thomas Bach.
Contorting his face and fiercely groping the air with his hands in an alarmingly provocative manner, he would then produce a series of low pitched “uh, uh, uh” sounds before slowly delivering the immortal line: “It is better to have one big bird in your hand…”
Cruel, maybe, but also uncanny.
This “German saying” about two birds, which Bach outlined in painstaking detail at last month’s Executive Board meeting press conference before repeating it again during the Session, has been recited so often in Olympic circles over recent weeks that it does not need to be listed in full again here.
Yet it is significant because it encapsulates Bach’s speaking style perfectly. Long-winded, ambiguous and not especially well delivered, it was particularly unfortunate that there were so many ways by which the analogy could be altered to make an entirely different point.
“I remember the days when I had a bird in each hand,” one rather wistful consultant reflected as others joked about circling vultures and birds excreting all over his plans.
But, while I have given Bach his fair share of criticism in this column in recent months, I can only bow my head in admiration for the way he bulldozed through plans to jointly award the 2024 and 2028 Olympics to Los Angeles and Paris this year.
It was a masterclass in navigating the complex and unique world of sports politics.
A possible joint awarding was first mooted during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro before gathering pace over the next few months. By the time of the IOC Executive Board meeting in December, it had replaced Russian doping as the leading subject discussed in bars and lobbies.
Bach, canny as ever, stayed sitting on the fence whenever he was questioned about it. Yet it was clear he was pulling strings in private and making sure it remained on the agenda.
Doubts remained at first and, when we contacted IOC members to solicit their views in February, the vast majority, including three of the four vice-presidents, criticised it publicly.
The turning point came a few weeks later when Budapest pulled out of 2024 contest. A clear path was beginning to form.
This was the first stroke of luck for the IOC, although I do wonder to what extent they forced the Hungarian capital’s hand. A second piece of luck followed when, unlike Paris, Los Angeles began using ambiguous language to imply their openness for a 2028 Games.
The IOC not only just have two extremely strong bids, but each was led by a Mayor – Eric Garcetti and Anne Hidalgo – prioritising the Olympics to bolster their personal political ambitions.
Bach, though, was always leading the agenda.
One thing that he can never be accused of is a poor work ethic and, as ever, he has been racking up the meetings and chartered jet miles at a relentless pace to get his point across. The IOC members, not a group famed for their backbone, were quickly forced onside, while, unlike on some other issues, most journalists and key observers were also won around.
Compare this with the decision of British Prime Minister Theresa May to propose the way councils fund adult social care shortly before last month’s General Election.
The idea was dumped into the party manifesto with absolutely no prior warning. There were thus no informed journalists ready to write supportive editorials and her own supporters had no time to form anything approaching a communications strategy to outline its merits. It was consequently criticised by all and sundry as a “dementia tax” before she performed a humiliating U-turn and abandoned the plan.
Bach’s strategy was the polar opposite.
The idea was deliberately aired early to allow time for it to fester and grow and it, therefore, surprised no-one when it was finally announced at an IOC Executive Board meeting in Pyeongchang in March.
Bach then pulled off another masterstroke by deploying his four vice-presidents to chair the Working Group duty-bound to propose an idea about which three of them had initially been opposed.
Their hands were tied and, from this stage, only one outcome seemed possible.
This was duly achieved “unanimously” at last week’s meeting. It was fascinating the way it played out, with Bach allowing vice-president John Coates to deliver the report but interjecting personally whenever a difficult question was posed.
It was Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva who provoked recital two of the “small bird” analogy after a question which appeared to be an allusion to a possible Saint Petersburg bid for 2028.
There were no questions which went beyond minor or constructive criticism, however, and when the Session resumed after a well-timed coffee break, the only dissent came from Canadian chief back-bencher Richard Pound.
He asked for two semantic changes, including that the demand by members to “request” a tripartite agreement for the two hosts be switched to “authorise”. This was actually a semi-important amendment, given how Bach was attempting to create a false impression that the idea had come democratically from the membership rather than forced down from above.
Even here he did not back-down easily, claiming he did not understand the nuances of the English language raised by Pound – rubbish, he understood them better than virtually anybody in the room – before belatedly retreating after Coates accepted the change.
But the battle had been won and Bach left the room looking happier than at any point I have seen him since the unanimous passing of Agenda 2020 in 2014.
Barring a drastic change in wider circumstances, virtually everyone at the Session seemed to agree that Paris will end up hosting the 2024 edition before Los Angeles follows in 2028. I imagine some sort of agreement in principle is in place already.
The IOC also deserve praise for managing to cleverly change the justification for the plan from “we are worried about getting credible 2028 bids” to “we want to reward two strong bids”. It thus became “win, win, win” rather than “avoiding losing”.
Risk, however, does remain.
Paris, I agree, was the bid which makes more sense for 2024, not least because it was generally considered the favourite among the IOC members in a two-horse race. It does, however, contain more risk.
Recently-elected French President Emmanuel Macron is currently riding high on the crest of a wave, but the example of May shows how things can change very quickly in politics these days. There is still the threat of terrorism and the lingering fear of rising opposition and public clamour for a referendum.
That said, given the IOC just about survived the virtual breakdown of Brazilian society in the years before Rio 2016, they will be confident of dealing with most things.
There were two other key outcomes from last week’s meetings.
The first concerned their proposals to reform the process for the 2026 Winter Olympics. I am not quite sure how significant the changes proposed really are. Most of the ideas were already being implemented in some form anyway in the 2024 race and the extended “invitation phase” seems more like a rehashed version of the old “applicant stage”.
More significant is the general shift away from an old fashioned bidding system to a more consultative and business-oriented tender procedure.
Surely it is more important that they change the actual Games-management procedures rather than the bidding process? For it is this, rather than bidding, which is the main reason why cities are being put off the Olympics.
Bach continually tells us that bidding problems come from external changes in the big wide world, but he has not done anything yet to change the perception of extravagance and elitism with which many people still view the IOC.
Any word on changes to per diems or VIP demands?
This brings me on to my second point about the results of a governance review into the IOC conducted by the International Institute for Management Development and cleverly published the day before the Session.
The report did produce general praise, but also identified various areas for improvement. One point mentioned on multiple occasions was the need for improved “transparency” in their work; an interesting reference to one of the IOC’s top five favourite buzzwords used in press releases.
It, therefore, came as a slight – very slight – surprise that our media access the following day had shrunk to a greater degree than at any other IOC Session I have attended. We were not allowed to watch live as Los Angeles and Paris presented to the IOC, we were not allowed within a dozen burly security guards of any IOC members until we had fussed them enough by the middle of the lunch break and, unlike normal, we were not told the list of absent members until they were announced during the Session.
When I tweeted about the latter point, I was bizarrely told to “relax” by the IOC media account. The same account also posted a hastily deleted tweet asking insidethegames editor Duncan Mackay if we would be live-streaming our meetings with advertisers when we criticised the closed nature of the presentations.
In my opinion, this is completely different as we are not conducting a public bidding process requiring political guarantees and – in Paris’ case – public funding. Not yet anyway.
The briefing was apparently held behind closed doors to “encourage IOC members to ask honest questions”. But they certainly had no problems asking World Anti-Doping Agency President Sir Craig Reedie tough questions on camera during the Rio IOC Session last year…
These restrictions were partly due to the presence of Macron, but it is also a growing trend. Multiple members told us that IOC director general Christophe De Kepper had asked them not to post on social media about the Session. Members of the IOC Executive Board were also smuggled in and out of the meeting at the Palace Hotel without going anywhere near the hotel lobby, thus ensuring that we had to rely on official IOC channels for their version of the outcomes.
Their style is becoming more and more Presidential and Bach-dominated. I’m not sure this would fulfill a dictionary definition of “transparency”.
Bach did a good job pushing through the 2024 and 2028 reforms but the jury are still out over whether he can lead so well on other issues such as Russian doping and the ongoing corruption probes surrounding the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 bidding processes.
One bird appears to have landed but plenty of others are still circling. And we all know what birds can sometimes do unexpectedly…