Nick Butler: An afternoon in the life of the IOC President

Monday, 25 August 2014
Nick ButlerLast week I was privileged, and I use that term in a moderately loose way, to spend an afternoon following the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach as he toured around various venues here at the Summer Youth Olympic Games.

Since becoming head of the Olympic Movement last September, Bach has racked up a remarkable amount of air miles travelling around the world, patiently taking time to meet everyone from athletes to administrators, and from world leaders to the average man on the street. As we are told whenever the camera spots him at an Opening or Closing Ceremony, his status as "Olympic champion, team foil fencing, Montreal 1976" boosts his appeal further, adding an extra string to his bow...an extra sharpness to his blade.

But nothing had prepared me for quite how intense travelling around behind him would be, as we were met with a reception suitable for the most "A-list" of celebrities. It wasn't quite The Beatles in the United States in 1964, or Barack Obama on one of his world tours today, but I don't think it can have been too far off...

"Don't be late," I was warned. "We are leaving at quarter past two and won't be able to wait." Okay, this wasn't quite true as we didn't actually leave until at least 25 past, but once President Bach appeared and was chaperoned into the leading vehicle, we were off, and woe betide the two poor French journalists who were left behind.

"Are you ready for a crazy afternoon?" an IOC official asked. She had a look of anticipation mingled with trepidation and, perhaps, a touch of fear.

First up was beach volleyball. Bach was taken to the VIP stand - or rather, mistakenly to the media stand and then the VIP stand by a typically enthusiastic volunteer - while we all found seats whereever we could around him.

"Please give a big cheer for a special guest, the President of the International Olympic Committee," the stadium announcer shouted. After being momentarily shocked to hear just one lone clap, I realised this was because it had been announced in English rather than Chinese, and moments later, when the message was repeated in the local tongue, the arena burst into excited applause.

Beach volleyball was our first stop ©ITGBeach volleyball was our first stop ©ITG





For the next few minutes we sat and watched the action. Deprived of wi-fi access, I was quite enjoying being able to engross myself in sport without the distraction of our live blog, as Canada and Latvia engaged in an exciting duel on the sand. Beach volleyball is quite possibly the only sport, I remember thinking, in which serving is a disadvantage...

But no sooner had I taken this in than the set had ended and Bach was up and out of his seat, swiftly followed by his entourage.

"Be careful, we did this yesterday and he was just going to the toilet," warned one person. "Watch Mrs Bach, just watch Mrs Bach," cried another, who had clearly done this before. "If she moves, then you know he's actually leaving."

As it turned out, he was popping onto the sand for a closer look. This turned into a photo opportunity for a vast number of players, volunteers and cheerleaders, and, 10 minutes later, Bach was still posing on court with a ball, clearly wondering if it would be a good idea to attempt a serve. By this point, the four players were lurking close by, they did after all have a match to finish, and Bach left with a final flurry of "selfies".

Meanwhile, word of his presence was spreading, and more and more people were appearing with every second to catch a glimpse.

"There is always a lot of attention on the President at the Olympics," I was told. "But here in China they have taken him to heart more than anywhere else."

Thomas Bach and Bernard Lapasset are pursued as they stride purposefully at the rugby ©ITGThomas Bach and Bernard Lapasset are pursued as they stride purposefully at the rugby ©ITG



The fact that at the Opening Ceremony he invited people to take as many "selfies" as they could, probably has something to do with this, interpreted as it was as an open invitation to take one with him.

I have said it before, but in terms of communication the German is a modern politician of a remarkably high calibre. If he doesn't genuinely enjoy this sort of engagement, then he should pursue an alternative career as a Hollywood actor because, 457 such "selfies" later, his guard never dropped for a mini-second as he enthusiastically greeted everyone who wanted to speak to him, over and over and over again.

Next up was the rugby sevens, and perhaps my favourite moment of the day.

Bach, along with International Rugby Board (IRB) chief Bernard Lapasset and Olympic bobsleigh champion-turned-rugby-player-turned-Athlete-Role-Model, Heather Moyse, posed for a photo along with a mass of workers, players and cheerleaders. An almost as sizeable mass of local photographers poured in, determined to get the best shot, but all far too close to get any sort of picture.

In an impressive show of inter-International Federation unity, officials from the IRB and IOC then teamed up to push them back. "Get back, and if you don't do it quickly, you'll be sent back another 10 metres," IOC communications director Mark Adams quipped, a rugby-joke that was lost on the photographers but I certainly appreciated...

Soon after, our moment came, and we managed the briefest of chats with the President as he moved out of the arena, dealing with our attempts to get a more interesting line than "this is wonderful" with the same good humour he had afforded everyone else.

Yet even though it was a lot of fun, by the time we reached the BMX venue, I was struggling. The heat, the constant mingling and moving, the trying to avoid getting lost, it was all getting too much for someone whose biggest trauma usually involves logging on to the internet...

But Bach was still going, speaking to cycling officials in the stand, chatting to athletes as they waited to race, and even trampling up the steps to the start-gate to feel the vibe of races getting underway.

My admiration was growing with every second.

Thomas Bach being introduced at yet another venue ©Getty ImagesThomas Bach being introduced at yet another venue ©Getty Images



There are a lot of people who say the IOC, including its President, has too much of a presence at the Olympic Games. The Commonwealth Games model, where the Commonwealth Games Federation President is very low key and medals are handed out by ex-athletes rather than IOC members, is better, they say.

And in one country in particular - a look in the Winter Olympics 2022 section of our website will tell you which - there is a feeling of apathy and alienation with everything the IOC stand for.

But despite the validity of elements of this criticism, and accepting the fact that it is what they ultimately do, rather than how affable they are when touring sports facilities, that matters, Bach and the IOC's visibility has certainly added something to these Games.

Although in some IOC circles there are doubts over the success and durability of the Youth Olympic model, something currently being discussed as part of Olympic Agenda 2020, they have warmly embraced all aspects of China and these Games.

And when I gratefully escaped, along with one journalistic colleague, to the safety of a Media Café for dinner - the Chinese option rather than McDonalds, the "Western" one, on this occasion - Bach was off again to check out the weightlifting and fencing.

Despite the fact that by this point we had been travelling for over four hours, he seemed just as enthusiastic as ever, clearly relishing the opportunity to roll back the years and, like he did when he became, "Olympic champion, team foil fencing, Montreal 1976", make his presence known on the biggest stage.

He is doing a good job of it. 

Nick Butler is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.
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