David Owen

Whither – or should that be “Wither”? – the International Olympic Committee (IOC)?

Now that the matter of choosing the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games host has been taken care of, barring something highly unexpected, for the next eight years, how will members of what I used routinely to describe as world sport’s most powerful club justify their existence? And how can we expect the body to change?

Will it shrink? You could certainly be forgiven for viewing that as the logical outcome of this situation in which its most important task looks already to have been accomplished at least until 2025, when the 2032 host-city would normally be elected.

But no. A press release from IOC Towers the other day served notice that the current 95-member body is set to grow to 103 in September – an increase of 8.42 per cent.

Actually, in the endlessly fascinating circus that is international sports politics, there is nothing especially unusual about this. There is no automatic correlation between the rising or falling size of a body and the rising or falling importance of the decisions it takes. If anything, the contrary often applies.

Take the world football governing body, FIFA. In December 2015, I made the point that while it seemed to me that its new-look Council would have a more constrained range of functions than the discredited Executive Committee, it would contain 50 per cent more people.

Or go back further to the early 1980s. When then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch wanted to de-fang the Tripartite Commission, a joint IOC/International Federation (IF)/National Olympic Committee (NOC) body, he changed its name and tripled its size.

As that astute stamp-collecting lawyer and sports politician Peter Coni later shrewdly observed: “The Olympic Tripartite Commission was enlarged from nine to 27 members, with the inevitable result that it became too large to be of any real use at all.”

The annual drip-drip-drip of new IOC members allows a sitting IOC President, who in any case has scores of other appointments more or less in his gift, potentially substantial powers of patronage. And the longer this sitting President is in situ, the higher the proportion of IOC members who may feel that they owe their prestigious position to some extent to him.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach during a visit to the IAAF World Championships in London ©Getty Images
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach during a visit to the IAAF World Championships in London ©Getty Images

I am not suggesting that any IOC member automatically does what the President under whom they entered the club wants. But it seems reasonable to suppose that this may sometimes be among the complex web of motivations that ultimately determine their stance on particular issues.

No matter how supine the IOC might appear, however, no IOC President can simply ignore it because the Olympic Charter vests supreme authority in it, not him.

We saw an illustration of this in Lausanne last month at the 130th IOC Session. IOC President Thomas Bach was, I think, genuinely nervous, knowing that he needed members’ backing for the proposed tripartite agreement involving candidate-cities Los Angeles and Paris.

Nonetheless, as was plain during the embarrassing Agenda 2020 approval process, it takes quite a lot to make any individual IOC member, let alone a majority, publicly defy the President.

That whole Agenda 2020 process, incidentally, might have seemed at the time to be the acme of consensual leadership. With the benefit of hindsight, it now strikes me as primarily an exercise to get the membership to buy unequivocally into Bach’s vision of the Olympic Movement.

Almost everything that happens in Olympicland nowadays seems as if by magic to be portrayed as in some way in keeping with Olympic Agenda 2020. And if something is in keeping with Agenda 2020, that means it can be argued, if necessary, that every IOC member at the 127th IOC Session in 2014 has publically backed it.

It makes a lot of sense, then, for Bach to keep the IOC up to strength, even if common sense might tell you that if the rank and file are, as far as possible, to be locked out of key decision-making, it should be smaller.

In spite of the widespread and continuing public criticism of the Olympics on his watch, it seems to me now arguable that Bach is the most powerful IOC President since Avery Brundage in the 1950s and early 1960s before he lost the plot.

Samaranch? Perhaps later on, but the first half of the Spaniard’s long reign was overshadowed by the Cold War, when quite a number of IOC members would, in effect, have been taking orders from their Governments.

This would have made them impervious to the IOC President’s normal powers of patronage on many issues.

If you think about it, Samaranch had to wait close to a decade before he felt able to get the President of the Summer Games’ most important sport, Primo Nebiolo, and the President of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC), Mario Vázquez Raña, safely installed as IOC members.

On being informed of “dissenting voices” in 1984, Nebiolo wrote to Samaranch expressing “deep regret”, while also warning about the “considerable negative repercussions which, if such dissent continues, would fall on the relationships between the IOC and the other forces working together in the life of the Olympic Movement”.

Nebiolo was also President of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF).

Former IAAF and ASOIF President Primo Nebiolo had to wait for a few years before finally becoming an IOC member ©Getty Images
Former IAAF and ASOIF President Primo Nebiolo had to wait for a few years before finally becoming an IOC member ©Getty Images

If Bach wanted two sporting figures of comparable prominence to become IOC members today, it is hard to imagine that he would encounter the slightest difficulty.

So what will these 103 fine people good and true actually do now that the course for the Movement’s flagship sporting property has been mapped out for the next 11 years?

I might be wrong, but my impression is that what Bach would mainly like them to do is act as a rather superior global PR agency.

In this role, they would sing the Movement’s praises in their respective countries while he and his inner, largely technocratic, circle goes about the important business of running the show, more and more like a multinational corporation than a parliament of sport.

Remember the landmark NBC deal of 2014, when Bach disclosed that an initial meeting with the network had been “kept among the three of us”, meaning himself and the two senior officials who accompanied him.

There are other things. Some IOC members have important technical skills, while there is a need for others to populate outside sporting bodies to ensure that the IOC’s views are taken heed of.

Nor should the importance of bolstering the IOC’s image in these difficult times be underestimated.

But would such a role keep the very talented, knowledgeable and influential individuals who typically comprise the IOC content?

I cannot help thinking they would be more inclined to promote the body with maximum vigour and effectiveness if they felt they had played a meaningful part in determining key decisions.

The real long-term problem for the IOC as an institution would come if a perceived lack of real authority or influence among the rank and file prompted the calibre of new members to decline.

That would pose a permanent risk to its credibility.

In the meantime, it would be in everyone’s interest, not least Bach’s, if the IOC stood up to its powerful President a little more.