David Owen

Never underestimate the capacity of an organisation to say one thing and do another.

The unwieldy size of the Summer Games - gigantism - has been recognised as an issue since long before I started covering the Movement.

According to Christopher Hill, author of Olympic Politics - Athens to Atlanta, various methods of reducing the number of athletes were discussed all of 64 years ago, at the 1952 International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Helsinki.

Yet still the Olympics keeps growing.

Even between London 2012 and Rio 2016, when change was essentially frozen, the addition of rugby sevens and golf means the number of events is set to rise from 302 to 306.

Jog on another four years to Tokyo 2020 and I would not be surprised to see this total reach 330, maybe even more.

How can this be? Perhaps like me you have a vague recollection of the Olympic Agenda 2020 reform package - approved with ostentatious unanimity - establishing limits of 10,500 athletes, 5,000 coaches and 310 events.

Given that Olympic Agenda 2020 has the approximate status of the Ten Commandments in Thomas Bach’s IOC, surely this must be the last word on the subject?

And would this not imply that some things in the existing Olympic programme will have to give in order to make room for the 18 new events and 474 new athletes from five additional sports that the IOC Executive Board last week recommended be added to the Tokyo 2020 schedule, subject to approval by the membership in August?

Apparently not.

Basketball 3x3 is one new event that could be added to the programme at Tokyo 2020 ©Nanjing 2014
Basketball 3x3 is one new event that could be added to the programme at Tokyo 2020 ©Nanjing 2014

When I asked IOC sports director Kit McConnell whether he still expected to come in under the 10,500-athlete/310-sport limit at Tokyo, he replied as follows:

“The Olympic Charter specification of approximately 10,500 athletes and approximately 310 events applies to the events of the existing 28 Olympic sports.

“The five new sports put forward by Tokyo 2020 and now being presented to the IOC Session are separate to this and not included in this framework.”

While grateful for the answer, I must admit it surprised me and sent me scurrying back to both the Olympic Agenda 2020 background document and the Olympic Charter itself to see if I had misremembered what they stated.

First the backgrounder, where the limits are spelt out in two distinct Recommendations: numbers 9 (“set a framework for the Olympic programme”) and 10 (“move from a sport-based to an event-based programme”).

Let me quote the relevant bit of Recommendation 9: “The IOC to limit the number of athletes, officials and events for the Games of the Olympiad to approximately: 10,500 athletes; 5,000 accredited coaches and athletes’ support personnel; 310 events.”

These numbers are repeated as “restrictions to be respected” in Recommendation 10, although this does then go on to say: “The IOC to allow the [Organising Committees] to make a proposal for the inclusion of one or more additional events on the Olympic programme for that edition of the Olympic Games.”

So this background document seems to me at best ambiguous, with regard to McConnell’s clarification; but then who would have imagined that the phrase “one or more” would, in Tokyo’s case, be interpreted as “five”?

Kit McConnell ((pictured, left, during the IOC Executive Board meeting) seems to be adopting a more liberal approach towards the maximum number of Olympic events ©ITG
Kit McConnell ((pictured, left, during the IOC Executive Board meeting) seems to be adopting a more liberal approach towards the maximum number of Olympic events ©ITG

Turning to the Olympic Charter itself, however, and the Bye-law to Rule 45 which deals with this matter, the intention seems much clearer.

“3.1 The [Organising Committee] of a specific edition of the Olympic Games may propose to the IOC the inclusion, for such edition only, of one or more additional events; all decisions relating thereto shall be taken in full compliance with this Rule 45 and its Bye-law, and with any further specific conditions set forth by the IOC.

“3.2 Unless agreed otherwise with the relevant [Organising Committee], the following approximate numbers shall apply: - with respect to the Games of the Olympiad, ten thousand five hundred (10,500) athletes, five thousand (5,000) accredited coaches and athletes’ support personnel and three hundred and ten (310) events.”

Yes, the “unless agreed otherwise” bit affords wriggle room, but the spirit of the Charter seems to me to require, as I had understood since the Monaco Session, that any additional events would not escape this ceiling.

Otherwise you would expect, at the very least, the order of the paragraphs to be transposed and a clause specifically exempting the additional events from the approximate limits to be inserted.

In fact, thanks to the clarity of McConnell’s reply, we now know that the Games will almost certainly continue to grow - and, so far as the 2020 event is concerned, probably at rapid pace.

To be fair, Bach’s IOC has been proactive about clamping down on another, more damaging, aspect of gigantism – the large number of permanent facilities, with sometimes ill-thought-through long-term prospects, that Summer Games plans can call for.

There seems little if any risk of the quintet of Tokyo sports – baseball/softball, karate, surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding - leaving white elephants in their wake.

To be fair too, IOC bigwigs may have felt somewhat cornered into accepting as many as five additional sports for 2020, since the two with the most obvious appeal to Japan’s domestic audience - baseball/softball and karate - are not the first that come to mind in terms of prosecuting the youth agenda that the body, probably correctly, feels it needs to prioritise more urgently.

Having gone for as many as five additional sports at the first time of asking though, the IOC may find it hard to back away from the precedent in future editions of the Games.

Skateboarding is among the five new sports due to come in at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
Skateboarding is among the five new sports due to come in at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

And even if big economies have been made against the initial Tokyo blueprint in terms of suppressing new facilities that were desired rather than needed, these decisions will have some concomitant costs.

These are likely to include athletes and, more particularly, hangers-on like us charging around the country to far-flung venues and, I would think, a reduction in the proportion of Olympians able to base themselves thoughout their stay in the main Olympic Village - one of the experiences that underpin the distinctiveness of the Games.

I suspect part of the explanation for the IOC’s apparent readiness to countenance a 330-event, 11,000-athlete Olympics in 2020 might lie in a calculation that, with acute problems such as Rio and dwindling confidence in the anti-doping system demanding immediate attention, now is not a good time to be picking fights with the International Sports Federations (IFs).

If I am right, then part of the blame may in turn be laid at the door of our old friend the former President of SportAccord.

As I wrote last year, in a piece called How Marius Vizer Saved the Triple Jump, the former SportAccord boss’s stinging verbal attack in Sochi handed IFs a perfect opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to Bach in his hour of need.

How could the IOC President conceivably now, having been the beneficiary of such a favour, look to cull sufficient traditional Olympic events to make space for the five additional sports without expanding the Games? 

Frankly, I doubt IF Presidents would be queueing around the block to offer sacrificial lambs to make way for skateboarders and surfers at the best of times; but these are the worst of times.

There were one or two other signals from last week’s gathering in Lausanne that I thought suggested Bach is being inordinately careful not to pick a bun-fight with existing Summer Olympic IFs at present.

One was the ruling, as reported by my colleague Nick Butler, that the five additional sports will receive no share of the revenue from Tokyo 2020.

The other was the absence of Summer IF representatives among the eight new nominees for IOC membership.

At his press conference, Bach explained this in terms of the elections at important IFs which had either recently taken place (athletics and football) or were soon to happen (gymnastics and swimming), and said that proposals for candidates would be made next year when a full picture was available.

Personally, I would have found this more persuasive had the International Swimming Federation (FINA) not last year scrapped an age limit that leaves its octogenarian President Julio Maglione - who has already served 19 years as a full IOC member, but retired last year on age grounds - free to contemplate running in 2017 for a third and final term.