Nick Butler
Nick ButlerOn a recent long haul plane journey back from Asia, I watched an entertaining film called Belle, concerning a girl, Dido Elizabeth Belle, brought up as Britain's first mixed race aristocrat. Set in the late 18th century, it is a must-watch for anyone who likes a Downton Abbey-style costume drama, exploring the themes of romance, class-systems and a society defined by racism.

But it also had a very intriguing political subplot.

William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield who is Belle's uncle and guardian as well as the Lord Chief Justice of England, so the effective head of the judiciary, is battling with a court case holding profound historical implications.

It concerned the killing of around 130 Africans by the crew of the slave ship Zong, after which the owners had taken out insurance on the lives of the slaves as cargo. They claimed to have thrown them overboard to save the lives of the rest of the crew due to a lack of provisions, but evidence is found suggesting this was not the case and it was actually a way to rid themselves, and cash in, on a disease ridden group of slaves.

But it put the Earl of Mansfield in the most difficult of positions. He must either rule the claim as valid and effectually enshrine the killing of slaves into British law, or he must make a decision which goes against the powerful commercial interests of the Empire.

This is a rather fastidious comparison and I am in no way meaning to compare the sports world with slavery, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is also currently facing a series of decisions with profound historical consequences.

The IOC Executive Board meeting in Montreux this week, 30 kilometres along Lake Geneva from their headquarters in Lausanne, is a crucial staging post in the Olympic Agenda 2020 decision-making process, before final decisions are confirmed by the membership-at-large during the Extraordinary Session in Monte Carlo on December 8 and 9.

The IOC Executive Board Meeting this week in Montreux, on the edge of Lake Geneva, is another key staging post in the run-up to December's IOC Extraordinary Session  ©AFP/Getty ImagesThe IOC Executive Board Meeting this week in Montreux, on the edge of Lake Geneva, is another key staging post in the run-up to December's IOC Extraordinary Session
©AFP/Getty Images

When Thomas Bach announced Agenda 2020 last December, it was seen in some quarters as a slightly unnecessary process. At a time when the Olympic Movement was riding a wave of two successful Summer Games, was change really required or was it more a step to consolidate the new Presidency?

Nine months on, and following the withdrawal of four of the six candidates in the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic race, no one is saying that any more. With huge apathy from most European cities in bidding for major sporting events, steps must be taken to convince them of the advantages of bidding and, if that does not happen, there really are huge problems for the future of the Games.

My colleague Alan Hubbard has described Oslo's withdrawal from the 2022 race at the end of last month as a slap in the face for an "out of touch" IOC, focusing on the list of "suggestions" -ranging from members meeting the King of Norway prior to the Opening Ceremony to having "special entrances and exits to and from the airport" - that provoked so much outrage in Norway. While in the modern age this extravagance is perhaps a step too far, I felt that many of these suggestions were less excessive and outrageous than they first appeared. Is, for example, being "greeted with a smile" when arriving at a hotel really that over-the-top?

For me, the bigger problem was the way the IOC dealt with the withdrawal.

In a statement afterwards, the IOC Executive Director of the Olympic Games, Christophe Dubi, criticised Oslo 2022 for not briefing senior politicians on the process and supposedly leaving them to take their decisions on the basis of "half-truths and factual inaccuracies". Bach, meanwhile, described the decision as mainly "a political one" in what came across as a slight dismissal of the validity of the decision.

Coming just weeks after Bach spoke in Incheon during the Asian Games about how we can "no longer afford" to pretend that sport and politics are not related, I found this quite surprising. Of course, it was a political decision, but that was the reality which the IOC and Oslo 2022 had to face.

As for Dubi's words, there may have been room for improvement in some of the actions of the Bid Committee, but for me United States President Harry S Truman's line that the "buck stops here" springs to mind. If the IOC want their image to improve, it is ultimately their responsibility to take steps to improve it.

With regard to Oslo, this could have involved courting newspaper editors and other figures of influence, reminding them more directly of the benefits of bidding and the fact that the IOC contribute themselves to the process. More visits to Norway, particularly involving younger members - IOC Athletes' Commission chair Claudia Bokel, perhaps - who would have projected a different image to the musty, male and "out of touch" one that they were, wrongly in my opinion, associated with, would also have helped. 

Utilising younger members, such as those in the IOC Athletes' Commission, including chair Claudia Bokel would be one way to improve the image of the IOC ©IOCUtilising younger members, such as those in the IOC Athletes' Commission, including chair Claudia Bokel would be one way to improve the image of the IOC ©IOC

In a more general sense, improving communication is perhaps the most important issue that Agenda 2020 must address. Most significantly, they must make clear the difference between operating and development budgets that has dogged perceptions of the benefits of hosting an Olympic Games as far back as Montreal 1976.

I've lost count of the number of times I have read about how Sochi 2014 cost $51 billion (£26 billion/€32 billion) when actually the operating budget, the amount of money it cost to run the Games themselves, was roughly $2.2 billion (£1.3 billion/€1.6 billion).

They must also make clear how much the IOC really help those hosting the Games. Turning back to 2022, the IOC will provide an estimated value of $880 million (£538 million/€684 million) in support, while a promise to not add new sports to the programme once the Games are awarded further reduces the risk of the cost rising.

Yet, while both these points were stipulated in the updated version of the Host City Contract sent out to the bid cities, it was not communicated strongly enough to the rest of the world.

Like with the budget difference, this should be shouted from the rooftops in future.

The operating budget for Sochi 2014 was far lower than the amount publicly claimed  ©Getty ImagesThe operating budget for Sochi 2014 was far lower than the amount publicly claimed
©Getty Images

As for other more profound changes which result from Olympic Agenda 2020, there are many possible directions which could be pursued. A more flexible sports programme, like that being adopted by the European Olympic Committees with regard to the European Games, would be one approach, where if a host does not have a venue for a certain sport then rather than expensive construction, that sport will not feature. With regard to the Winter Olympics, moving away from the recent trend of having ice events taking place so far away from the snow ones, would be another way to reduce costs and the ever-increasing scale of the Games.

There are many other potential possibilities which will be discussed at the meeting this week and over coming months, and there is no obvious solution for what is clearly not a simple process.

But if they make the right changes and get it right, as the Earl of Mansfield ultimately did when he rejected the insurance claim and set a chain in motion towards the abolition of slavery a generation later, it will be a major moment in the illustrious history of the Olympic Movement.

And if they get it wrong, it will be hard to recover. 

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