Michael Pavitt

"We want to listen to society and to understand how the world sees us, rather than us telling the world how they should see us," – IOC President Thomas Bach in a press release previewing the Olympism in Action Forum.

"There was one person with no experience with organising the Olympic Games claiming to know it all better," – IOC President Thomas Bach following the Forum.

One of the overarching views of NoOlympics campaigners is that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) say one thing and mean the other. If you are a campaigner, who has continually been telling people not to trust the IOC, you could not have asked for two better quotations to put side by side.

Bach was right in the sense that No Boston Olympics co-chairman Chris Dempsey had no experience in running the Games. However, he was not on the panel examining perspectives on hosting the Olympics to provide that insight, but offer why local populations are torpedoing their city’s bids with regularity.

Dempsey had presented his view that he had seen no evidence from the IOC’s Agenda 2020 and New Norm reforms that the organisation’s approach with host cities had fundamentally changed. He highlighted the "incentive structure" of the IOC, referring to cities providing a taxpayer guarantee which would make them responsible for cost overruns, as his main evidence. The American also suggested the Games distracted from important things that citizens want improved in their city

Yet, Dempsey did not appear entirely as anti-Olympic Games as you might have initially expected from someone who successfully led efforts to force Boston to shelve their 2024 ambitions.

Lord Paul Deighton, the former chief executive of the London 2012 Olympics, claimed the views of critics like Dempsey needed to be taken on board. He did, however, offer a defence of the Games by highlighting both their unifying qualities and the catalyst they can provide to major projects which would otherwise be left to stall for potentially decades.

Just as Dempsey was opposed to the Olympics in Boston, the remaining four panellists were likely to be in favour of the Games, having worked to deliver them. Bach’s suggestion the majority of the panel highlighted the merits of the Games is therefore a moot one.

IOC President Thomas Bach dismissed criticism of the IOC's Agenda 2020 and New Norm reforms ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach dismissed criticism of the IOC's Agenda 2020 and New Norm reforms ©Getty Images

While Bach might not consider Dempsey to be the general public, he is far closer to being it than the IOC President. If you were an uncertain voter in Calgary listening to both their viewpoints this week, Bach is more likely to have swayed you towards opposing the Games than Dempsey.

The IOC President’s comments were night and day when compared to Christophe Dubi’s approach when speaking to the public in Calgary.

"It is all about partnership, it is all about flexibility and finding the right solution for the hosts, the Games cannot impose to a city any more, the Games adapt to a city," Dubi said in July.

The open approach was praised by critics No Calgary Olympics as Dubi tackled to "direct and challenging" questions. By contrast, you could make the case the Bach’s comments showed the face of the IOC that campaigners have accused the organisation of being in the past. Aloof and arrogant.

That is a shame in many ways. Just as Dubi was impressive in Calgary, Tokyo 2020 Coordination Commission chair John Coates has been vocal on the need to drive down costs in the Japanese capital on each visit.

IOC vice-president Juan Antonio Samaranch was the same in Beijing last month and here in Buenos Aires, when highlighting that the level of investment required for Erzurum’s Olympic bid would have been "very high", as part of the reason the Turkish city was cut from the 2026 process.

The cutting of Erzurum, I would suggest, shows that the IOC believe they have reached something of a position of strength with the 2026 race rather than weakness. While the organisation claim no plan B is in place, I suspect the opposite is true and assurances have been given - likely from the United States - that they would step in should the Canadian, Italian and Swedish bids falter. Rather than allowing Erzurum to form a candidacy, it would be easier to switch to a preferred option if they are no longer in the race.

Perhaps that, coupled with the multiple expressions of interest being paraded for 2032, has allowed Bach to be more dismissive of critics.

Struggling, we’re not struggling.

Thomas Bach's approach to dealing with criticism of the IOC differed to style of Christophe Dubi in Calgary ©Twitter/Calgary Chamber
Thomas Bach's approach to dealing with criticism of the IOC differed to style of Christophe Dubi in Calgary ©Twitter/Calgary Chamber

There is still clear battle for the IOC to be had regarding hosting. The organisation will crow about $4.3 billion (£3.2 billion/€3.7 billion) being saved at Tokyo 2020 due to their Agenda 2020 and New Norm reforms, while critics point out costs more than trebled in the first place.

Costs are of course central to the arguments around hosting, but embracing criticism rather than dismissing it would be a good way for Bach to win hearts and minds of populations.

If Bach believes Dempsey is unable to opine on hosting the Olympic Games due to having never organised one, perhaps the German would listen to David Millar’s views on doping and anti-doping as the Briton clearly has greater expertise in the field.

"You need to trust the powers that be, that they have got your back," Millar said on a panel on the subject.

"The IOC are in a position to make the world a better place, they are the bastion, they sit at the top of the pyramid, they should be the paragon of moral excellence.

"The IOC need to lead by example and give the athletes hope, that they are doing their best to help the athletes, I am not sure that is the case at the moment."

Given that Millar, a former athlete, stands outside the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency on this debate, you could argue the Briton comes from a neutral yet expert position on this subject. Clearly, the former cyclist has identified the disparity in opinions being expressed at this moment in time.

Rather than acknowledging the disquiet from athletes and opening the door to them to discuss concerns, Bach opted to dismiss them.

His view that the "democratically elected athlete representatives" should be respected was taken by many as a jibe at the appointed WADA Athletes’ Commission. Given that the IOC Athletes Commission consists of 13 elected members and seven appointed ones, notion that it is democratically elected is a bit of a stretch.

The Forum provided several interesting discussions, including on the topic of women in sport ©IOC
The Forum provided several interesting discussions, including on the topic of women in sport ©IOC

Just as Bach suggested those athletes had misinterpreted the WADA decision on Russian as Richard Pound had indicated, you could also suggest Bach may have misinterpreted Pound. The Canadian claimed criticism of WADA had been misdirected, stating that they had been denied power by its stakeholders to sanction anyone. He appeared to suggest the IOC, International Federations and Governments should have taken the heat instead for failing to effectively sanction.

Would Bach be willing to admit the IOC may have made mistakes in their handling of the Russian doping scandal? Perhaps opening the door to critical athletes, rather insisting the IOC Athletes’ Commission is backed might heal some wounds.

The Forum itself did provide an opportunity for the IOC to take on board new and fresh ideas, as was its purpose.

While several of the discussions would have merited more time, the mix of topics and diverse panellists certainly offered food for thought.

Among the most interesting was the discussion of women and sport, with recognition of the IOC’s efforts to improve being noted, yet highlighting the challenges still faced.

It still seems remarkable that International Triathlon Union President Marisol Casado is the sole female head of one of the Summer Olympic International Federations. Casado called for greater transparency in measuring the progress of efforts to boost gender equality within the sports movement.

The benefit of hearing voices outside of sport was also important on the panel. Assertions that "we have hardly seen a situation in the world were women move forward without special measures" and that quotas are considered to have had a positive impact in the business world are certainly something that could be considered.

As I posed a few months ago in a blog, I still wonder whether structured targets to grow the number of women in sporting roles could be a way to go, with funding attached to add a further incentive. A long-term, yet structured target, could perhaps prove a way ensuring a better balance going forward, whilst ensuring appointments are not simply token gestures.

There are many other areas that I could have easily explored from the Forum, which suggests its first edition was a useful exercise. Whether it is a success depends on whether those in power are prepared to take on board the views expressed and act, rather than dismiss them.