Nick Butler
Nick ButlerInternational Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has a knack of producing his best speeches when you are least expecting it.

In February at the Zimny Theatre in Sochi, the German delivered an address to open the IOC Session immediately after a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not having had the chance to hear a leading international statesman speak often, I was just finishing off an article leading with Putin's comments, when Bach launched into a venomous criticism of world leaders for "trying to score points" by missing the Winter Olympics. It forced a hasty rewrite.

Last Saturday (September 20) at the Olympic Council of Asia General Assembly in Incheon, something rather similar happened, Sitting in the back row in an early-morning, post Asian Games Opening Ceremony slumber, I pricked up my ears to hear Bach start redefining the sporting landscape.

"In the past, people have said sport is nothing to do with politics, or with money and business," declared the lawyer and former fencer. "This attitude is wrong and we cannot afford it anymore.

"We have to partner up with the politicians who are running this world, and with international Governments. To ensure the functioning of worldwide sport, we must be politically neutral but realise that our decisions have political implications."

Thomas Bach, speaking alongside OCA President Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, at the General Assembly in Incheon ©Getty ImagesThomas Bach, speaking alongside OCA President Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, at the General Assembly in Incheon ©Getty Images

It was not what he was saying that was so significant more the sheer fact he was saying this publicly. For it is the worst kept secret in sport that the Olympics and the IOC, as with the rest of the sports world, has been affected - controlled even - by political machinations ever since the Games began.

You would need a whole book to document the extent of this, but, for a brief introduction, Governments can promote sport to bring people together within their country, to provide an avenue for a restless youth or to raise the morale of a nation ravaged by other problems. The London 1948 Olympic Games, happening so soon after the Second World War, and Salt Lake City 2002, after 9/11, are two great examples. Construction required for hosting sporting events can also help regenerate communities or, alternatively, make problems worse, with Barcelona 1992 a case of the former and Montreal 1976 one for the latter.

In an international sense, a state can use sport to project a state to the world, from Adolf Hitler with his Nazi propaganda at Berlin 1936, to South Korea illustrating its shift from dictatorship to flourishing Asian "Tiger" at Seoul 1988, to the recent events in China and Russia designed to showcase the emergence, or re-emergence, of a global superpower.

All manner of people, ranging from athletes to Governments to external interest groups, can also use the Olympics as a platform to make a political point. Examples include the "Black Power" salutes by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at Mexico City 1968, the mass boycotts at Montreal 1976, Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, and the horrific terrorist attacks that scarred Munich 1972 and Atlanta 1996.

One of the most famous examples of the Olympics being used for a political protest: the Black Power Salute by Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos at Mexico City 1968  ©AFP/Getty ImagesOne of the most famous examples of the Olympics being used for a political protest: the Black Power Salute by Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos at Mexico City 1968
©AFP/Getty Images

The IOC and other governing bodies have always been affected by this. One recent example that comes to mind involves Kosovo, where the IOC are reluctant to grant Olympic recognition despite the majority of the international community recognising the Balkan Republic. Although there are other issues, the cusp of the matter is that , with Kosovan independence is such a divisive issue in international politics, and various influential countries remaining opposed, it is too much of a political risk. Others cases of this nature have occurred throughout the entire realm of Olympic history...

But in all this time the IOC and other sports bodies have resisted admitting such links exist. "Sport and politics should be kept apart", declared IOC President Avery Brundage in the 1930s. Eighty years later, Sochi 2014 chief Dmitry Chernyshenko effectively reiterated this. "Any political talks or discussions are not appropriate for the Olympic Games," he said. "The Olympics is not about politics."

Although sport has always maintained it can help make the world a better place, the fact that they have for so long avoided openly admitting its links to the real world, and occurrences therein, has been a central ambiguity. Yes, the Olympics has striven for "a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity", but can you really do this only by setting a sporting example, or do you have to direct integrate with the rest of the world?

That, I feel, is what Bach was getting at in his speech. In the last 12 months there has been a more outward, a more obvious, effort to court international leaders as well as to made an actual difference. In a release sent out to mark his one-year anniversary as President earlier this month, the IOC proudly wrote that he had already met 81 heads of State and Government, spanning countries across the world, of different political persuasion and with different levels of development.

Thomas Bach is developing increasingly close relations with Ban Ki Moon and the United Nations ©Getty ImagesThomas Bach is developing increasingly close relations with Ban Ki Moon and the United Nations ©Getty Images

In April, a "historic agreement was signed with the United Nations to "work together to build a better world through sport", with Bach delivering a speech at the UN General Assembly in New York before UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon returned the compliment in Sochi. An IOC President's Dinner - with 12 heads of state, four heads of Government and other major figures from business, media, science and culture - was held in Sochi, while a new "Sport for Hope" Centre has been opened in Haiti this year to accompany the one in Zambia opened under the leadership of former IOC President, Jacques Rogge. 

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, an emergency fund was set to Ukraine to help athletes at a time of political strife, with similar activism now being attempted in South Sudan and Central African Republic.

But as well, as this action, the sheer fact that Bach has admitted the hitherto unmentionable political influence, as well as the importance of "money and business", has shown that the IOC is a more open and honest organisation that no longer hides its real intentions.

An interesting contrast can be made her with football's world governing body, FIFA, that still insists it has an apolitical nature, even in the aftermath of the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup events being awarded to Russia and Qatar in circumstances that could hardly have been more political.

FIFA still denies being politically influenced ©Getty ImagesFIFA still denies being politically influenced ©Getty Images

One final point that needs to be noted is that, when I asked the IOC for a copy of the speech, they did not have one, because, well, there wasn't one. "There were only bullet points, and the President largely improvised," I was told. Is it possible then, that Bach made a speech that can be seen as historically significant without really meaning to?

Yet whether he meant it or not, there is no doubt this is a message Bach is keen to get across. There are some purists who believe this is wrong, and that the IOC should still stay, or pretend to stay, apolitical, focusing only on sport. But in the ruthless world of realpolitik, this is nonsense.

As Bach says, the IOC must be alive to the times and must evolve as the world does. And by finally admitting a truth they have denied for generations, Bach is helping to rid the Olympic Movement of ambiguity and consequently position the Games all the more centrally in the 21st century world order.

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