Nick Butler

When Tony Blair became leader of the British Labour Party in 1994 he realised that, while his two predecessors had gone some way towards modernising the party from its socialist roots, too few people believed there had been genuine change.

His remodelled “New” Labour Party thus introduced some substantial measures, but was more than anything else a rhetorical device to hammer home this symbolic break from the past.

Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 reforms are rather similar.

Although the process was ostensibly completed last December, barely a minute went by during the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Kuala Lumpur in which it was not mentioned, and we can expect it to dominate proceedings for the next five years until, presumably, some sort of sequel or revamped version is rolled out.

“The President understands the value of a good soundbite,” I was told, and the German’s address at the Opening Ceremony of the Session, for example, contained 32 specific mentions of Agenda 2020 and many other indirect ones or references to other buzzwords like “sustainability” or “credibility”.

Yet there is a danger of getting too carried away by this.

For me, Agenda 2020 arose for three primary reasons. Firstly, to set the stall for Bach’s Presidency and to establish change with the past. Secondly, to find a pragmatic response to changing economic circumstances meaning most nations could no longer afford to spend so freely for major sporting events. And thirdly, to make it more clear to the world that the toning down of IOC extravagance which had largely occurred during Jacques Rogge’s time at the helm had taken place, i.e. the Tony Blair rhetorical device to hammer home the perception of change.

But at times last week, it was being treated with all the eulogising fervour of a profound philosophy, a religion even.

“This is what Agenda 2020 means for all of us,” said Bach on seven occasions in his Opening Ceremony speech. “This is the spirit of Agenda 2020.”

Thomas Bach speaking at the Opening Ceremony of the IOC Session ©IOC
Thomas Bach speaking at the Opening Ceremony of the IOC Session ©IOC

What does this even mean?

For so many of the 40 recommendations are vague, probably deliberately so, or a re-commitment of approaches already taken, like a “zero-tolerance approach to doping”. The Olympic TV Channel is seen as the most concrete change proposed, although we feel no further in knowing how it will appear than we were six or 12 months ago.

The other break outlined in Kuala Lumpur was to the bidding process. The application stage has been scrapped in what appears an attempt to toughen it all up so less changes are required and less money has to be spent when organising the Games, although it all remains typically ambiguous.

Rather than events being shaped by Agenda 2020, Agenda 2020 is itself increasingly being shaped and fitted around events.

The two 2022 Winter Olympic bidders each reflected “different pillars of Agenda 2020", claimed Bach. “Almaty the sustainability pillar and Beijing the youth pillar.”

Let’s not beat around the bush. Having been to both cities on the Evaluation Commission trips, there was only one that was a true projection of Agenda 2020, and it didn’t win.

Yes, Beijing are recycling various 2008 Olympic venues for the ice sports and they do hope to use the Games as a catalyst to get more young people into winter sport, although the “300 million new participants” figure was seemingly clutched out of thin air. It is hard to see any sustainability when ski resorts would depend entirely on artificial snow, while Bach’s enthusiasm when asked if changes could be made deems it likely mountain events could be shifted even further away, thus moving many athletes further still from the heart of the Games.

I do not necessarily think the IOC made the wrong choice in picking Beijing. Almaty’s bid had style, lots of it, but was less strong on substance and doubts remained about the Kazakh ability to deliver on their promises. Beijing meanwhile was a choice that made huge financial sense, a safer choice and one of huge benefit to the Olympic Movement.

But surely it won due to making pragmatic sense rather than for its ideological conformity with Agenda 2020?

Photos taken in January show a distinct lack of snow in Beijing's Yanqing Cluster ©IOC
Photos taken in January and included in the IOC Evaluation Commission Report show a distinct lack of snow in Beijing's Yanqing Cluster ©IOC

To continue the Tony Blair comparisons, the former British Prime Minister dominated his Cabinets, famously briefing the press of decisions taken before a consensus had even been reached. I don’t think Bach has yet done this but in both Monte Carlo and Kuala Lumpur you got a sense that he is increasingly at the heart of every decision.

Since then, we have seen him fight-off the attacks of Marius Vizer and then play a key behind-the scenes role as his opponent was pushed ruthlessly out of the picture.

With Vizer gone, officials were almost falling over each other to be the most positive about Bach, repeatedly praising both him and his work achieved. Other areas, the lack of tweeting from members during the 2022 presentations  and the lack of questions following the Rio 2016 presentation, for example, also suggested a greater desire to toe the line.

The danger here I feel is that a lack of internal scrutiny means Bach believes too much of his own hype, something suggested by his reaction to a press conference question to Boston’s withdrawal from the 2024 Olympic race. Rather than magnanimously accepting that the local people had not wanted a Games, Bach criticised the “confusing” nature of the bid and accused organisers of “not delivering” on promises made to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).

Okay, he was probably protecting USOC in public here, who clearly made the wrong choice, but the comments did not go down well in Boston, where he was decried as “out of touch with reality”.

There is just a sense that he is beginning to face a little bit more resistance than in Monte Carlo. A greater role for International Federations in the bidding process is perhaps a concession following their loyalty against Vizer, while the 2022 race may have been a little bit too close for comfort.

Are further changes now required?

The one change proposed, by many commentators as well as by Prince Imran of Malaysia during the Session, is the revival of Host City visits. Something not considered as part of Agenda 2020, this is not going to happen any time soon, and seems to have been automatically blotted out almost because of the memory of previous Salt Lake City scandal era problems.

Yet this doesn’t say a great deal about the IOC’s trust in its members and surely some official trip with strict regulations over gifts and timing could be possible? It would certainly have made a difference in the 2022 race you feel, with insidethegames being told of an informal poll by Evaluation Commission members which favoured Almaty by eight votes to one.

Beijing's victory was greeted with much excitement in China but in a more lukewarm sense elsewhere ©Getty Images
Beijing's victory was greeted with much excitement in China but in a more lukewarm sense elsewhere ©Getty Images

All hypothetical, of course, but one other change which may be needed concerns the Athletes’ Commission. Three members were not present in Kuala Lumpur, two of which, Hayley Wickenheiser and Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, were specifically nominated to represent winter sports and were also not present at June’s Candidate City Briefing.

If applicants were allowed to campaign for a spot on the Athletes’ Commission, would this not mean a better quality of candidate gets selected, rather than the current system in which the most famous names often appear to be the most successful?

All food for thought anyway and it needs to be said that there has been much progress under Bach, with the recognition of both Kosovo and South Sudan in time for Rio 2016 among the biggest successes so far.

Yet there is also room for improvement and, as Bach himself often says, they cannot afford to rest on their laurels now and presume that Agenda 2020 has solved all of the problems within the Olympic Movement.