David Owen

What a week it has been: after the better part of a year of unremitting gloom, the United States election result and the vaccine news have revived spirits.

If it were possible to trade shares in the International Olympic Committee (IOC), they would have bounced for the first time in ages.

Suddenly, the prospect of something not too far removed from a "normal" Olympic and Paralympic Games in Japan next summer seems less remote.

During the latest Los Angeles Olympic bid, we speculated at insidethegames about how likely it was that a California-born politician might be US President by the time of the Games in 2028.

The odds on that will now have shortened; only while we were alluding to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, you would have to say that the California-born politician who now looks likeliest to be working from the Oval Office in just under eight years’ time is vice president-elect Kamala Harris.

That said, the course of human affairs is frequently messier than we allow, with events of the past six to eight months alone enough to discourage rash predictions.

My colleague Michael Pavitt is surely right to suspect that the IOC would have breathed a discreet sigh of relief at President-elect Joe Biden’s seemingly clear-cut, if still disputed, victory.

History, though, would suggest that caution should be Lausanne’s watch-word as it reflects on how to begin mapping out a relationship with a new Biden-Harris administration.

To cut to the chase: some of the bumpiest bumps in US/Olympic relations seem to come when there is a Democrat in the White House.

The US-led boycott of the Moscow 1980 Games, which directly affected current IOC President Thomas Bach, came under Jimmy Carter’s Presidency.

It was another Democrat - Barack Obama – whose nose the IOC put out of joint in 2009.

This was when they booted out US candidate city Chicago in the first round of voting to select the 2016 Games host, even though the then US President had jetted to Danish capital Copenhagen (albeit briefly) to support the bid.

A week later, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The International Olympic Committee may be breathing a sigh of relief at the news that Joe Biden is the new President elect of the United States ©Getty Images
The International Olympic Committee may be breathing a sigh of relief at the news that Joe Biden is the new President elect of the United States ©Getty Images

Biden, of course, was Obama’s vice-president – though, more encouragingly, as Pavitt also noted, the new President-elect was prepared to drop in on the 2015 Association of National Olympic Committees’ (ANOC) General Assembly when it was held in Washington DC.

Democrat Presidents have had the honour of opening the Games.

But the Atlanta 1996 event declared open by Bill Clinton was criticised for over-commercialisation and marred by a bombing.

When perhaps the most-admired President of all from Democratic Party ranks, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, did the honours at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1932, meanwhile, he was doing so in his then capacity as Governor of New York State.

By the time Los Angeles 1984 came around, Carter had given way to the Republican Ronald Reagan, and it was this former Governor of California who performed the official opening.

Against all odds, given the problems caused by the continuing Cold War with the Soviet Union, these have come to be seen as among the most successful of all Olympics.

This is for both laying the foundations of the sports business model that has enriched the Movement and drumming home the message that political boycotts were usually counterproductive.

The first Los Angeles Games in 1932 were also opened by a Republican, then vice president Charles Curtis, who was almost half Native American on his mother’s side and had been an accomplished prairie jockey in his younger days.

The 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games were not only opened by a Republican, George W. Bush, but the Organising Committee was headed by Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Presidential election nominee.

In spite of the scandal with which these Games are associated, the event itself, and certainly Romney’s role in it, is regarded as a success.

A decent rapport with Biden and his advisers will be important for Lausanne.  

Boycott talk is gathering momentum again, after a generation in abeyance, and is focusing in particular on the new Cold War adversary Beijing, host of the next Winter Olympics and Paralympics in 2022.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti could emerge as a useful bridge between the IOC and the Oval Office in the United States ©Getty Images
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti could emerge as a useful bridge between the IOC and the Oval Office in the United States ©Getty Images

Bach and his colleagues, though very much consumed at present with preparations for Tokyo, would presumably appreciate any assistance Biden is prepared to give to efforts to nip this talk in the bud and offer assurances that a full US team will participate.

Bear in mind that US comportment in 2022 might well be reciprocated six years later by China, whose decision to participate in 1984 was, remember, a key feature of the prior Los Angeles Games’ success. 

On these and other matters, one imagines, Garcetti may emerge as a more than useful bridge between Lausanne and Biden’s Washington.

The IOC’s own China conundrum has, meanwhile, just become even more fascinating with the apparent falling out of favour with the Beijing authorities of Jack Ma, an IOC commercial ally via Alibaba, the giant e-commerce and cloud computing company he founded.

Such things are notoriously difficult to read from the outside, but that too will be well worth keeping an eye on.

In Olympicland, other Presidencies have been up for grabs in recent days.

Last Friday, the Italian Ivo Ferriani was elected President of the Association of Winter Olympic International Federations (AIOWF).

On Monday, his veteran compatriot Francesco Ricci Bitti was re-elected to a third and final term as President of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF).

Bear with me while I stir the sludgy alphabet soup of the international sports movement, but since these two bodies were established by former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch in order to undermine a third body, GAISF, the then General Association of International Sports Federations, they have clocked up a combined 76 years of institutional existence – 39 for AIOWF; 37 for ASOIF.

During all that time, ASOIF was headed for a bit more than three months, as acting President, by a Chinese administrator Lu Shengrong.

With the exception of that brief interlude, I think I am right in saying, both bodies have been presided over throughout this time, the equivalent of three-quarters of a century, by an administrator from either Italy or Switzerland.

And, yes, since you asked, they have all been men; of course they have.

Chaps, dare I suggest, as gently as I may, that it might soon be time to contemplate a touch of diversity – both of nationality and of gender.