David Owen

I was a little surprised by the testy tone of a key part of Thomas Bach's opening speech to last week's remote International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session. 

Not that the IOC President is wrong to suggest that various aspects of life, including sport, are once again becoming politicised.

But is it wise I wonder for him to make his frustration so obvious, particularly on the 100th birthday of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the most inscrutable – and, arguably, successful – of IOC Presidents?

By the end of the passage, I felt I was listening to a man who had spent much time in recent months cooped up in the Palace hotel when he would normally have expected to be hobnobbing with world leaders.

You can readily understand why Bach might be frustrated.

After seeing his promising start as IOC President overshadowed by Russia, a wholly unforeseeable global health crisis has swamped all other concerns and exacerbated rising tensions between the other two global – and Olympic – superpowers, the United States and China.

Bach was already encountering turbulence from across the Atlantic, particularly in the realm of anti-doping, where US interests seem determined to usurp Lausanne's sovereignty.

Thomas Bach has spoken out about the encroachment of politics into sport ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach has spoken out about the encroachment of politics into sport ©Getty Images

If the febrile pre-election atmosphere in Washington combines with the growing assertiveness of the Chinese leadership over a gamut of issues to provoke more calls for a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, then the IOC President's frustration with politicians may become yet more evident.

Admittedly, the geopolitics might get easier again in the new year.

You could imagine a thaw setting in if, for example, a new Biden Presidency coincided with tacit recognition by China that, with Beijing 2022 approaching, it made sense to dial down the aggression, at least for a while.

But such a benign turn of events can by no means be guaranteed: the world today seems an even more unpredictable and unstable place than it did in September 2013 when Bach was elected to the IOC Presidency in Argentina.

Should relations between China and the West defy wishful thinking and continue along their present trajectory, it would present Bach and his main henchmen with an extraordinarily delicate situation to navigate their way through.

On the one hand, US interests are uniquely important to the IOC money-machine, which has been cranking out the readies at dizzying pace since Samaranch installed it in the 1980s.

Should, heaven forbid, pressure be brought on US entities to "defund" the Olympics, as the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy recently threatened to pull its funding of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in the absence of reform, it could spell serious trouble for the IOC and the wider Movement, especially given the strains which COVID-19 is already bringing to bear on the organisation. 

It could also get very messy.

While it would be crazy, once again, to take on the most powerful nation on earth if such a course could possibly be avoided, the IOC is not entirely bereft of its own financial leverage.

In the two-year period to the end of 2018, the United States Olympic Committee (as was) reported $509.4 million (£392.2 million/€433 million) of "support and revenue".

IOC financial accounts suggest that it distributed more than $304.5 million (£234.5 million/€258.8 million) to the USOC over the same period.

That figure is equivalent to almost 60 per cent of the USOC's "support and revenue".

By way of comparison, the US contribution to WADA is said to be some $2.7 million (£2.1 million/€2.3 million).

Tensions between the United States and China could spill over into the Olympic Movement ©Getty Images
Tensions between the United States and China could spill over into the Olympic Movement ©Getty Images

Based on WADA's 2018 income of $35.4 million (£27.2 million/€30 million), I make that well under eight per cent.

For its part, China has been a notably good friend of the Olympic Movement in recent times.

Indeed, if you look at the comparative records of this triumvirate of Olympic heavy-hitters over the past four decades, you could argue that China has been Lausanne's best friend of the three.

While the US and USSR (as was) were indulging in tit-for-tat boycotts in the 1980s, the Chinese were ultimately instrumental in salvaging Los Angeles 1984 by agreeing to take part.

In 2008, they invested heavily to host a genuinely awe-inspiring Summer Games – an event at which the sport, moreover, was so compelling it unexpectedly stole the spotlight completely away from politics.

And then, in the wake of Bach's election, they bailed out, and eventually won, the rather farcical race for the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

Now, Chinese multinationals are starting to get involved, with Alibaba hand-holding the IOC in the cloud computing realm, as well as digitising Olympic ticketing.

As preparation for writing this, I read a Financial Times article reporting that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in London this week, had previously indicated Britain should "choose whether to ally with Beijing or Washington".

Should things get so bad that Bach is offered the same choice, I really struggle to think, barring prevarication, what his strategy would be.

Last week's headline Olympic news was, of course, the German's confirmation – to the surprise of precisely no-one – that he would run for a second term.

If relations with one member of what I will call Bach's infernal triangle – Russia - took much of the sheen off his first term as IOC President, attempting to execute a daunting and potentially perilous balancing-act between the other two – the US and China – may be the defining theme of his second.