David Owen @ITG

To judge by the reaction of some of my colleagues in the mainstream British media, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may have scored another public relations own goal by voting, with one exception, to back the Executive Board’s handling of the Russian doping fiasco.

I don’t want to dwell on that today: as regular readers will know, I broadly agree that the principle of individual justice ought not to be abandoned, however flagrant the apparent abuses committed by a large organisation, governmental or otherwise.

I rather would like to explore why what appears to be a near blanket endorsement of Thomas Bach might not be everything it appears to the wider world beyond the Olympic bubble.

For one thing, this was a show of hands, not an electronic vote.

That means any decision by a member to rebel would inevitably be a very public act.

Given the IOC President’s growing reputation for suppressing dissent, and given the immense internal powers at his disposal, the potential downside of a No vote for members with ambitions to get ahead in the Movement, or most effectively to advance the Olympic cause of their countries and athletes, was very considerable.

It took significant courage for Britain’s Adam Pengilly to raise his hand in full view of his IOC colleagues, particularly as he turned out to be the only one to do so.

IOC President Thomas Bach received widespread support during the Session over the handling of the Russian doping scandal ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach received widespread support during the Session over the handling of the Russian doping scandal ©Getty Images

But without detracting in any way from his gesture, the complex web of motivations underpinning any such decision might have been influenced for him by the fact that he knows, as an Athletes’ Commission member elected in 2010, he almost certainly has only two more years as an IOC member.

The potential downside for him of casting such a prominent dissenting ballot, it might be surmised, is less for Pengilly than for most of his colleagues with long stints in the organisation ahead of them.

Let’s now think about some other factors in those motivational webs that might have had an impact on some other members’ eventual voting decisions, whether consciously or not.

First, the race for the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics: it would have astonished me had any member from a country with a candidate in this race - that is to say France, Hungary, Italy and the United States - done anything other than support the leadership.

Looking at those who put their heads above the parapet in the debate that preceded the vote, I would say that Mario Pescante (Italy) and Guy Drut (France) were indeed supportive, even if Drut, the former 110 metres hurdler, leavened his comments by citing a warning once given in different circumstances by his old political mentor Jacques Chirac: “Never again”.

For the US, Larry Probst combined what I would characterise as slightly qualified support with an uncompromising call for anti-doping reform, a cause close to US hearts at the moment.

“We have a doping problem; the current system is broken,” he said.

His compatriot, Angela Ruggiero, urged involvement from athletes in whatever future decisions are taken, a perfectly proper call from an individual who has just been elected the new head of the IOC Athletes’ Commission.

Now what about the elections that will take place later this week for two new IOC vice-presidents and as many as seven new Executive Board members?

British IOC member Adam Pengilly was the only one to openly vote against the Executive Board's decision on Russia ©Getty Images
British IOC member Adam Pengilly was the only one to openly vote against the Executive Board's decision on Russia ©Getty Images

I suspect if I were a candidate in such contests, I would have to feel extraordinarily strongly on an issue to contemplate public defiance of the leadership while the eyes of the world were upon me just two days before my election.

When Denis Oswald - whom I am led to believe looks set to run in both those contests - took the floor, I was expecting criticism: the former President of World Rowing had, after all, contested the IOC Presidency against Bach in 2013 and, at 69, has the greater part of his long IOC career behind him.

But no, as my colleague Nick Butler reported on our Live Blog, the Swiss national ended his contribution with a call for a “unanimous” show of support for the IOC decision - an ambition almost achieved, but not quite.

Nigeria’s Habu Gumel, widely expected to join the Executive Board this week, was similarly supportive.

The important point is this: the so-called “conflicts of interest” so frequently laid at the door of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and its leadership in recent times pervade the international sports movement.

At any given time, a significant proportion of members will have a primary goal - whether it be securing sport’s ultimate prize, the Olympic Games, or a humble committee membership - in mind.

WADA President Sir Craig Reedie came under a fierce attack from the majority of IOC members, who backed Thomas Bach in the row over Russia ©Getty Images
WADA President Sir Craig Reedie came under a fierce attack from the majority of IOC members, who backed Thomas Bach in the row over Russia ©Getty Images

It would be scarcely surprising if their decisions on other matters were coloured by assessment of the best course to steer to attain these various, frequently shifting, aims.

This kind of favour-trading has long underpinned most Olympic decision-making and, I have to say, has contributed to a reasonably strong track record over the years, particularly when it comes to the highest-profile decisions such as the choice of Olympic and Paralympic Games hosts.

It would seem to me wise to give at least as much weight to the quality of an organisation’s decision-taking as to the manner in which such decisions are made when considering whether the time for reform has arrived.

The other important point is that, as he must well know, support for Bach inside the IOC appears for now a good deal more fragile than outside observers viewing the outcome of today’s vote will probably suppose.