Nick Butler

We have written this before on plenty of occasions in recent months, but the last week has been an immensely difficult one for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Amidst all the concerns about bidding apathy and Russian doping, the ugly spectre of internal corruption has raised its head again as a French police investigation reportedly uncovered evidence of suspicious payments linked to voting IOC members shortly before the 2009 Session at which Rio de Janeiro was awarded the 2016 Games.

According to reports published in Le Monde, French police are probing an alleged $1.5 million (£1.23 million/€1.42 million) payment made by Matlock Capital Group - a British Virgin Islands based holding company linked to Brazilian business magnate Arthur Cesar de Menezes Soares Filho - to Pamodzi Consulting, a firm set-up by Papa Massata Diack, the son of Senegal's former International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President and voting IOC member Lamine Diack.

This payment is said to have been processed on September 29, just three days before the vote in Copenhagen at which Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Games over Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago.

On October 2, the day of the vote itself, Pamodzi Consulting allegedly transferred $300,000 (£245,000/€284,000) to a Seychelles-based offshore company called Yemli Limited, linked to Namibian sprinting legend turned IOC member Frankie Fredericks.

It marks the latest in a series of sordid allegations surrounding the Diacks. Papa Diack is already linked to a similarly suspicious "consultancy fee" paid by Tokyo 2020's successful bid to Singapore-based Black Tidings. This is the same Black Tidings alleged to have been at the centre of funds paid by Russian athletes to IAAF top brass in return for the cover-up of doping failures.

Former IOC member and IAAF President Lamine Diack, left, was linked to more corruption allegations last week ©Getty Images
Former IOC member and IAAF President Lamine Diack, left, was linked to more corruption allegations last week ©Getty Images

Fredericks denies the payment from Pamodzi Consulting had anything to do with the Olympic Games and claims it related to a series of marketing contracts for IAAF events.

But the timing is heightening suspicions and, while he remains innocent until proven guilty, his role as the IOC's chairman of the Evaluation Commission for the 2024 Games is looking increasingly untenable.

He has already handed himself in to the IOC Ethics Commission. The IOC, for the record, remains "fully committed to clarifying this situation, working in cooperation with the prosecutor". The IAAF also have questions to answer about whether they were aware of the payment made to Yemli Limited, and whether it was permitted given their exclusive marketing rights contract with Japanese company Dentsu.

Paris is one of two cities bidding for the 2024 Games, of course, so would Fredericks even be willing to enter France as the investigation continues? The capital city's sole challenger Los Angeles is also the first United States Olympic bid to make it to the startline since Chicago was so humbled by Rio in the 2016 vote.

This all makes me recall the 2015 IOC Session in Kuala Lumpur when British IOC member Adam Pengilly interjected to bring up the then-fresh allegations surrounding the IAAF and Russian doping. IOC President Thomas Bach denied the timing of the German documentary, which was broadcast during the ongoing IOC meeting, signified a "vendetta" against him before breaking protocol to pass the floor to Lamine Diack. As an honorary IOC member, Diack would not usually have been permitted to speak, but he preceded to deliver a lengthy address in which he played down the problems and attempted to pin the blame on a British and German media plan to "redistribute medals".

IOC figures criticised Pengilly afterwards to us for his "unhelpful" comments, and this revealed a lot about how the organisation functioned. Pengilly, for echoing what the press and public were saying, was the difficult outsider while Diack was the loyal ally rewarded by being allowed to speak.

The reputation of the IOC has been compared unfavourably with that of football body FIFA after more allegations emerged this week ©Getty Images
The reputation of the IOC has been compared unfavourably with that of football body FIFA after more allegations emerged this week ©Getty Images

The IOC has faced similar scandals before, of course, and the example of FIFA shows us how the public usually separate institutional corruption from the actual sporting event these organisations represent.

But, given our economic unease and increasing opportunities for successful protests in our age of social media and online petitions, the latest reported allegations add to a podium’s worth of problems all making it harder and harder to justify the appeal of an Olympic Games.

It also makes you wonder how much more the French probe will ultimately unearth.

It was therefore unfortunate that Bach also chose last week to mount his most detailed defence yet of the Olympics' credentials following the withdrawal of Budapest from the 2024 race.

His interview with the Stuttgarter Nachrichten appeared more an exercise in denial and excuses than a genuine admission of problems.

The most interesting section was when Bach claimed that the Hungarian capital failed due to local political issues rather than any genuine opposition to the Olympic project. The interviewer then brought up another failed referendum this year in the Swiss canton of Graubünden for the 2026 race.

"This is even a very good example [of opposition being due to local politics]," Bach, who formerly played a key role in Munich’s unsuccessful bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics, replied. "The possible candidature of Graubünden has been supported by the Government, all but one party, the business and tourism association, as well as the entire establishment. Then it was voted down. In Budapest it was similar. There, a referendum was not even held. And we, the Olympic Games and the IOC, are also seen as part of the establishment. You cannot go through with facts and arguments."

One sports official joked to me on the phone last week that we should consider a comparison of leadership styles between Bach and United States President Donald Trump.

But the principal difference between the two is that, while Trump’s appeal lies in how he sits outside the political system, Bach is unashamedly a pillar of the establishment. 

Thomas Bach's predecessor Jacques Rogge awarded Rio de Janeiro the 2016 Olympics over Tokyo, Madrid and Chicago in 2009 ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach's predecessor Jacques Rogge awarded Rio de Janeiro the 2016 Olympics over Tokyo, Madrid and Chicago in 2009 ©Getty Images

Bach here seems to be resenting how people outside the corridors of power are now able to influence decisions. But, rather than automatically criticise them for supposedly ignoring facts and arguments, should he not accept that they have a point? And, as he alludes to but does not seem to quite grasp, the future success of the Olympics depends on being able to resonate outside these walls.

The IOC told us that the formal cost of bidding is currently $250,000 (£203,000/€235,000) across the three candidature stages. My twitter feed has since been inundated with people pointing out how they invariably shell out millions more than this, much of it on international consultants and advisers.

Once the Games begins, we then have this confusing discrepancy between the "operational" budget and the wider infrastructural costs. The IOC constantly complain that this difference is ignored when people claim how the Sochi Winter Games costs $50 billion (£40 billion/€47 billion), but the fact is that this money would not have been spent otherwise.

It was perhaps significant that Bach did not here mention his plan to award both the 2024 and 2028 Games to Paris and Los Angeles this year. After public opposition from many of his closest IOC colleagues, has he quietly shelved this plan for the time being? We will find out more during next week's Executive Board meeting in Pyeongchang.

The only solution proposed this time was to reduce costs for repeat-bidders. "We cannot expect candidates from the second time to start the whole process again from zero," he said. "We have to reduce the planning costs. What we will do, starting from the 2026 Winter Games bid process, is that every venue that has hosted a World Championship or a World Cup event will be considered as approved."

This appears strange considering how cities usually change many things within their bids when launching a second or third attempt. Paris, for instance, have a completely different Athletes' Village concept from their 2012 bid one, and claim they would have to fundamentally alter it again if they were to play host in 2028. Given that this would reduce only a fraction of the overall bidding costs, it seems more akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

He also implicitly criticised Pyeongchang for ignoring the IOC's plea for them to use a existing sliding track outside South Korea, such as in Japan. "We have even advised them: do not build, go to another country," he said. "This almost led to an insurrection." To me this appeared naive given the vast political tensions between the two countries.

Thomas Bach reiterated how he asked Pyeongchang 2018 to use an existing bobsleigh track outside South Korea rather than develop a new one in Alpensia ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach reiterated how he asked Pyeongchang 2018 to use an existing bobsleigh track outside South Korea rather than develop a new one in Alpensia ©Getty Images

Bach and the IOC, clearly, must do more.

My colleague Michael Pavitt delved into this yesterday, suggesting how they must consider reducing the programme and consequent load on bidders. Without wanting to come over too Norwegian here, might I suggest they also ease back on some of the VIP demands and paraphernalia which comes with the Games.

But more than that they must be honest. They must admit that the IOC has institutional problems with its reputation and message - not to mention its governance - and begin a genuinely open and transparent series of reforms. Agenda 2020 was, at best, a limited first step and, at worst, public relations rhetoric which changed very little. Bach has attempted to claim that no cities would have bid for 2024 if it was not for these reforms. This always sounded absurd, but does to an even greater degree in the wake of Budapest’s withdrawal.

When Bach first came into power he constantly spoke about how the IOC must "change or be changed".

"If we do not address these challenges here and now we will be hit by them very soon," he declared at the Opening Ceremony of the Extraordinary Session in 2014 in Monte Carlo. "If we do not drive these changes ourselves others will drive us to them. We want to be the leaders of change, not the object of change." It was a way to justify reforms at a time when everything appeared to be going pretty well.

Now, two-and-a-bit-years on, everything is clearly not going pretty well.

And if the IOC now fail to introduce real and profound change then, if the French investigation and the lack of bidders for the 2022 and 2024 Olympic contest are anything to go by, rest assured they will be changed.