David Owen

A few years ago, Peter Ueberroth told me that he still remembers being woken by a 3am phone call telling him that a full contingent of Chinese athletes would attend the 1984 Olympics.

This was a first for a Summer Games in the Communist era: only backstroker Wu Chuanyu had actually competed under the flag of the People’s Republic in the Summer Olympics up to that point, in the 1952 event in Helsinki.

But not only that, the Chinese presence in California all but ensured that a boycott by the Soviet Union and other sympathetic nations would be severely limited in impact.

“That was the first dart to blow the boycott out of the air,” Ueberroth, who served as President of the LA 1984 Organising Committee, said.

Since LA84 was the event which illustrated that the Olympics could be profitable, hence paving the way for an Olympic boom that fizzled only recently, that was a pretty exceptional service rendered.

I was reminded of that conversation this week, which could be designated the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s “China Week”, with the first official trip to IOC headquarters by a Chinese Head of State – President Xi Jinping – followed by a landmark sponsorship deal with Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce giant headed by Jack Ma.

I wonder if in three decades’ time, this week’s events will be seen as remotely as significant as that decision to come and join in the party in La La Land? Will they even be remembered at all?

The Olympic Movement has taken its own sweet time to warm to China.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach talk to each other following the announcement yesterday ©Getty Images
Alibaba founder Jack Ma and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach talk to each other following the announcement yesterday ©Getty Images

In 1993, when Beijing bid for the right to stage the 2000 Games, the answer was no, beaten narrowly by sports-mad Sydney 45-43 in the fourth round of voting.

Eight years later and the Chinese capital, bidding this time for 2008, cruised to victory over a strong field including Toronto and Paris.

But I still remember considerable hand-wringing at the 2001 Session in Moscow over the possible PR fallout from a Chinese win and whether the time was really right for the IOC to entrust its all-important flagship property to the tender mercies of the Central Committee.

In commercial terms at least, it certainly was, although hopes that the Games could be used as a soft-power lever to encourage policy change in other fields proved misplaced.

With Chinese IOC member Yu Zaiqing now a much-respected vice-president of the organisation, the tone and content of this week’s developments would seem to suggest that any remaining doubts and inhibitions on the part of the IOC leadership have been cast off.

The unpredictable international situation, with time-honoured alliances starting to shift disconcertingly and President Xi emerging as an unlikely poster-child of the liberal establishment for his recent comments on globalisation and climate change, might have helped push this process along.

So might the relatively subdued growth in the IOC’s income streams from broadcasting and sponsorship in the Sochi 2014/Rio 2016 quadrennium.

Whether the attitude of ordinary IOC members has shifted appreciably since 2015, when they came within an ace of dispatching the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics to Almaty, in preference to Beijing, is more uncertain.

While the Alibaba deal is partly about flogging more T-shirts and cuddly toys, there is no doubt that the IOC should benefit from an injection of digital wizardry.

The Olympic Programme (TOP) has lacked a specific computer partner since Taiwan’s Acer in 2009-12, although other TOP sponsors, such as Samsung, Panasonic, Atos and Visa, of course, have oodles of tech expertise at their disposal.

Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images
Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images

Sochi 2014 came to its own arrangement with Microsoft to gain access to cloud technology, but that was a one-off.

The long-term nature of the Alibaba agreement, until 2028, should give scope for a substantive partnership to develop.

You could argue that while the new deal is all to the good, and provided IOC President Thomas Bach with a nice day out in Davos, it makes no difference to the burning issues, namely doping and a sharp downturn in bidding interest that have made the past year or two such a struggle.

Maybe so; though it could be that Alibaba can help find ways of boosting the Olympic brand’s youth appeal, another pretty urgent priority.

But, with difficult decisions looming with regard to Russia, a big spender on sport in recent times; a tentative rapprochement with the United States which might, however, go out the window if Los Angeles fails to win the 2024 Games; and Western Europe, with certain fairly obvious exceptions, more recalcitrant than anywhere about hosting, the Chinese love-in comes at a time that makes much sense from a strategic perspective.

Based, moreover, on Thursday’s rather unfocused press conference at the World Economic Forum, I would say that Ma’s nimble mind is a more than useful asset simply to have in your corner.

I suspect he has said it before, but his maxim to the effect that in industrial times, we standardised things that were previously non-standard, whereas in digital times, we should make standard things un-standard - which I took to mean personalised - again, set me purring.

That I will remember - that and his observation that in a country of only-children, “we have to make them work like a team”.

To help those pushing 30 and their juniors in the world’s most populous country to a) get along and b) get the best out of each other.

That is as elegant a justification for social sport as I have come across in a long time.