David Owen ©ITG

Succession planning is currently low on the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s list of priorities. With his first Presidential term not yet completed, there seems every prospect that the good ship Bach will sail on until 2025, perhaps longer.

When the chit-chat in Olympicland does turn to the question of who might eventually step into the German's shoes, however, there is a name that has started to crop up with increased frequency. That name is Nicole Hoevertsz.

In a way, this is only natural: the 55-year-old Hoevertsz, an Executive Board member only since 2017, has started picking up the sort of posts and responsibilities that are often a prelude to further advancement.

As main scrutineer of the recent vote to determine the host of the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, it was Hoevertsz who handed the envelope containing the name of the winner to the 10-year-old figure-skater who then handed it to Bach.

Hoevertsz too it was who in December 2017 was fired into the eye of the Russian storm engulfing Pyeongchang and its run-up, by being appointed chair of the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) Implementation Group, a sure sign she was considered the safest of safe pairs of hands.

She has also been handed senior roles on the IOC Coordination Commissions that will monitor preparations for both the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games. In the case of 2028 – an event to be staged in the city of Los Angeles where she herself competed  as a synchronised swimmer in 1984 – she will serve as Commission chair. Here she is taking the place originally assigned to Patrick Baumann, who was himself widely viewed as Bach's likeliest successor prior to his death, aged just 51, in Buenos Aires last October.

In other ways, though, Hoevertsz’s advancement is truly remarkable. She comes, for example, from a tiny island – Aruba – whose population is less than Lausanne's and which I am confident few of you could locate on a map. Its most famous son/daughter is probably the one-time Boney M front-man Bobby Farrell – although Hoevertsz may be on course to change that.

She touches on these origins during the course of an extended interview in the lunch-break at the 134th IOC Session on June 25. "It is amazing that somebody from a small island like Aruba, a woman from a country that has never won an Olympic medal, that I am where I am today," she says.

"I am very much aware of that and I am very appreciative of that.

"This is not just for big countries: I am a product of the universality of what the Olympic Movement stands for, and I am very much a defender of that principle because if it was just the big and powerful countries, I would not be sitting here."

We begin at the beginning, almost, with the question of how she got involved in her sport. It soon becomes clear that she is a generous, diverting and, in my judgement, sincere interviewee; the stories and memories are soon tumbling out of her with minimal prompting on my part.

"I started sport after I started taking swimming lessons," she tells me. "In those days it was called water ballet…

"From the first day I was absolutely hooked. I loved the combination of swimming and dancing and music, and being first of all with a group of girls.

"I was very shy when I was young – would never speak in public. The fact that I was just among girls; it was a very protective environment…

Nicole Hoevertsz has been tipped as a future International Olympic Committee President ©Getty Images
Nicole Hoevertsz has been tipped as a future International Olympic Committee President ©Getty Images

"We swam at the local hotels because Aruba didn't have a pool. It was 1998 that we actually got our pool. Most of our time we were swimming at the Holiday Inn pool. We were swimming with tourists and they were all watching us."

The Olympic Games also left an early impression on her. "I remember very clearly," she says. "I was in The Netherlands on vacation with my parents and we were watching the Munich Olympic Games. I was eight years old and I said, 'That's what I want'. I remember it very clearly…"

"In 1976 I collected everything from gymnastics," she continues. "Nadia Comăneci was my role model, my idol. I thought it was the most fantastic thing. I collected magazines. I cut out the pictures. I still have the notepad at home with all the pictures in it because that is what I wanted."

In the run-up to Los Angeles 1984, where synchronised swimming made its Olympic debut and Hoevertsz represented the Netherlands Antilles along with swimming partner Esther Croes, she went to California to train.

"We lived in a very small town called Visalia, "she recalls. "We practised at the local high school. We had the local high school pool all to ourselves. In the weekends we would go to [our American coach's] mother, who was a synchro coach in Fresno…

"We would drive every Friday afternoon from Visalia to Fresno and there we would practice all weekend."

She goes on: "We were very close to the US and Canadian swimmers because they were very welcoming to us… We would go into their hotel rooms and ask, 'So how do you practice? What do you do?' And we would write down everything. 'How many repetitions do you do? How many laps do you swim?' And we would just go back and copy everything that they did."

She remembers the Games themselves, where she and Croes ranked 18th out of 18, as "totally overwhelming". She elaborates: "When I entered the Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony there were 100,000 people sitting there. And I was very much aware that all those people sitting there were the size of my entire country. It felt like they were all there to applaud me, that they were all there to support us."

Hoevertsz coached the duet, now representing Aruba, at the next Summer Games in Seoul. "It was our first presentation as a country, so we had quite a large delegation – remember in those days you did not have to qualify for the Olympic Games," she recalls. "We had a larger delegation than we have ever had since…I made sure that I talked a lot to my swimmers about what they could expect."

Like Bach, Hoevertsz is a lawyer by training. She has sat on the IOC's Legal Affairs Commission since 2015. It is clear from her comments though that sport, not law, was always her top priority.

"When they asked me, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' my answer was always, 'I want to be a synchro coach, I want to be involved in sports'. And my parents would say…'But you can’t make enough money to live.'"

When an aptitude test at the age of 18 suggested she might make a good lawyer, her initial reaction was probably not what her parents, or the test-setters, had hoped for. "'What the hell is a lawyer?' I had no idea what a lawyer was."

Nevertheless, she went to study the subject at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. "I chose very consciously to work in Government, I never wanted to be an attorney," she tells me. "Because, starting at 23-years-old, I knew that if I had to work full time as an attorney I could not combine my career with sports – and for me sport was always the most important thing."

She says she has now worked 28 years at Aruba's Department of Foreign Affairs, for some of this time as permanent secretary to the Council of Ministers. "That made me a person who had a certain degree of influence, even at the national Government level," she explains.

At the same time, "the Government career made it possible for me to leave my office at 4.30 in the afternoon and at 5 I was at the pool. From 5pm to 8pm I coached and at 8 o'clock I went to the stadium and I did meetings of the swimming federation. This has been my life ever since."

I wondered if the move to Europe had come as a culture shock – and indeed it did, for both social and geopolitical reasons.

"I always say everything that God forbids happens in The Netherlands and happens in Amsterdam," she tells me. "We would go out at night in the weekends and I was like 'Ohh what is this? Alcohol, a lot of beer, a lot of drugs, you know. Punk.' All these things…

Nicole Hoevertsz, right, during the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics where she competed as a synchronised swimmer ©Panam Sports
Nicole Hoevertsz, right, during the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics where she competed as a synchronised swimmer ©Panam Sports

"One thing that was shocking for me was the protests against the United States of America. In Aruba we are educated and we are formed pro-US. We are economically very dependent on the United States of America. We live off tourism. I would say that 80 per cent of our tourism is from the United States and we have a very big influence from the US…

"Of course, The Netherlands is very much an ally of the US; there were other countries that were much more critical of the US. But for me that was a big shock: 'How can people be against the US?' Now I know differently. I have developed. But at that time in my life, that was always very shocking…

"I have become more tolerant, more understanding because of those years I lived in The Netherlands.

"And also living as a student, I changed completely. I told you I was very shy. When you are a student in The Netherlands you learn that you have to have an opinion…

"In Aruba we come from a culture where when adult people speak you have to be calm and you don't go against that. In Europe, children are very much taught that you have to have an opinion; you have to express your opinion. And that is something that I learnt during my years of study in The Netherlands. I don't always speak, but I speak a lot more than I did when I was younger."

There is another way in which her Aruban heritage has equipped her well for a career in international sports administration: this is that, in her words, "All Arubans speak four languages" – Dutch, Spanish, English and the local Papiamento. She likens the last of these to Brazilian Portuguese. "That is why I like Brazil so much: because their culture is very much our culture." 

She is fiercely loyal both to her country and the Olympic Movement and those who support it. While discussing LA84, she recalls at one point that "we would buy Snickers bars every single day because it said that Snickers was the official snack food of the 1984 Olympic Games".

So marketing works, I observe.

"Marketing really works," she agrees. "My love for Coca-Cola was from those days – because that was the official soft drink of the 1984 Olympic Games…

"I am very loyal to the Olympic brand and the Olympic partners. I only wear Swatch. I drive Toyota. I use Samsung. I really am very loyal because I think loyalty is very important for a person to have and for an organisation to have."

I wonder about how Hoevertsz had originally become an IOC member and it seems that, while she was not inducted until 2006, the key development came during the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg.

Then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, to whom she had been presented in Aruba in 1988, was there. As a member of the Pan American Sports Organization (PASO) Executive Board and chief of protocol, Hoevertsz was responsible for his programme.

"He was there for a couple of days and I was with him all day," she tells me. "When he said goodbye at the airport, he said, 'I want you to be an IOC member.'"

She did not attempt to get onto the Executive Board until 2017, when her permanent secretary's role in Aruba came to an end, leaving her with a little space in her busy schedule. Once she had decided that the time was right, she seems to have set about the task of getting elected with typical wholeheartedness.

"I had to write a letter to all the IOC members to convince them to vote for me," she recalls. "You have to explain why you want this and what you think you can bring to the table.

"So I wrote that letter. I wrote the first version. And I thought, 'Okay this has to be a very serious letter'. And when I…let some of my friends read it, they said – and I said it to myself – 'There is something missing in this letter. Passion'.

"I am a very passionate person and I really had to put more passion in it. So the second version of that letter, my personality was in it. And I spoke to each and every one of the members of the IOC.

"By the time September 2017 came…I went to the vice presidents of each of the continents and said, 'I want all the continents to support my candidacy'. That is what I did and they supported it. And out of the five candidates that there were for two positions, I was the first one to get elected…

Nicole Hoevertsz gives the envelope containing the name of the winner of the 2026 Winter Olympics to 10-year-old Livia de Bon, a figure skater from Lausanne, who in turn passed it to IOC President Thomas Bach ©Getty Images
Nicole Hoevertsz gives the envelope containing the name of the winner of the 2026 Winter Olympics to 10-year-old Livia de Bon, a figure skater from Lausanne, who in turn passed it to IOC President Thomas Bach ©Getty Images

"I was elected and I feel like a fish in the water in this Executive Board. I feel very much at home."

I wonder whether Hoevertsz appreciates politics, or feels that it gets in the way, The question triggers what I found to be one of her best and most interesting answers.

"I work with politicians and I am very close to politicians," she reminds me. "I understand politics and I appreciate politics. People always look at the bad side of politics, but politics has a very beautiful side.

"You cannot imagine life without politics and it is my duty to support politics and make sure that the positive side of politics gets more attention."

She found herself at the coal-face of sports politics last year, as the fallout from the long-running Russian doping imbroglio spilled over into Pyeongchang.

She describes her role as chair of a three-person panel charged with finalising rules for the participation of Russian athletes at those Winter Games as "an intense and challenging process of approximately two months".

She goes on: "It probably was a good thing that…I did not have any athletes from my own country participating in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, because I would not have had a whole lot of time to cheer them on."

She is, she says, grateful for the opportunity to have been part of a "great team of professionals who worked extremely hard and with a clear objective to reach a final decision that we could all support and stand for".

"We tried to listen to different opinions and points of view as much as we could," she said. "We really took time to explain and share relevant information with others, in particular several participating athletes."

I also wanted to ask Hoevertsz about another high-pressure situation she had been in the thick of that had called for composure and a cool head in the face of the unexpected: the problematic vote to decide the host of the 2022 Winter Games that had been one of the main events at the 2015 IOC Session in Kuala Lumpur. This required an old-fashioned paper ballot after the electronic system that was supposed to be used malfunctioned.

Again a scrutineer, Hoevertsz was among the first to become aware of the problem. Casting her mind back, she says: "Just imagine me going to the President and Christophe [De Kepper] and saying, 'We cannot guarantee the integrity of the vote, Mr President'.

"He looks at me and we have to be careful [of] the cameras. 'So what do you suggest?' 'I think we have to do it over again'. 'What?' 'Yes, I think we have to do it over again'.

"We had to go in the back and make paper ballots. That is what was so stressful."

Asked when she had realised something was not right, she replies: "Well, we noticed because I got the feedback from the auditor, the company that does the system. They actually get to see it and there was something strange in the votes…

"The wi-fi was scrambled. It wasn't working right. So we had to do it over again."

Finalising rules for the participation of Russian athletes at Pyeongchang 2018 was one of Nicole Hoevertsz's most difficult assignments ©Getty Images
Finalising rules for the participation of Russian athletes at Pyeongchang 2018 was one of Nicole Hoevertsz's most difficult assignments ©Getty Images

I mumble something about the distance she had to walk to bring Bach the bad news and how synchro swimmers must learn to smile through pain.

"Exactly," she concurs. "Christine Lagarde from the IMF is a former synchronised swimmer and she has said that before.

"She has said, 'You know in synchro, we smile, we grind our teeth and we just go through the most difficult situations'. So that is what we have learnt."

Finally, I ask for Hoevertsz’s reaction to those suggestions that she just might have it in her to be a future IOC President. 

It is a potentially awkward moment, but she responds with – I think genuine – equanimity.

"If it is meant to be, it's OK," she says. "If it doesn't, it is also good. I am very comfortable with everything that is happening. I am getting opportunities that I am very grateful for.

"I am not looking for anything. I am not looking to become vice-president or President or anything."

Insisting she is not the type to draw up plans for where she wants to be in, say, five years' time, she adds: "I feel that I have true and sincere friendships in this Movement, and that for me is the most important thing.

"If it brings me any position, that's fine. If it doesn't, that’s also fine.

"I am very happy with what is happening in my life."

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Nicole Hoevertsz, a sports administrator of transparent integrity who appears genuinely content with her lot.