David Owen ©ITG

On Wednesday afternoon (March 10), a freshly-barbered Thomas Bach will be reinstalled as President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for four more years.

The tributes will be fulsome and unstinting. Passing Martians will presume that this Great Leader must have guided his flock through a gilded age overflowing with milk, honey, untold riches and universal acclaim.

It would be closer to the mark to say that the 67-year-old German lawyer has kept the show on the road during an unexpectedly turbulent eight years which have seen the IOC - like the rest of us - struggling to cope with forces far beyond its control.

Nothing encapsulates this better than present circumstances. Bach should have been luxuriating in the paeans of his underlings in the Greek capital Athens, site of the first Modern Olympic Games in 1896 - with a day-trip to Olympia, cradle of the Ancient Games, thrown in. Instead, the predations of an unruly pathogen mean we are once again "meeting" via videoconference.

Much more seriously, with the death-toll attributable to COVID-19 now a terrifying and utterly tragic 2.5 million or so, the IOC President's first, second and third priority has been condensed to doing everything possible to ensure that the organisation’s showcase event can take place - a year late - this summer, safely and in conditions that make it recognisable as the joyous festival of human attainment it would normally have been.

The unpredictability of the fight our species is currently waging means that, for all the blood, sweat and tears being expended, one cannot be altogether certain that the Tokyo 2020 show will go on. If it does not, my own estimate of the possible cost to the sports movement is some $3 billion (£2.2 billion/€2.5 billion) in forfeited fees for media rights. I would think that is equivalent to something like 40 per cent of the IOC’s anticipated revenues over the entire Pyeongchang 2018-Tokyo 2020 quadrennium.

In light of this, it is more than a touch ironic that management of the IOC business is probably the closest thing to an unalloyed success-story in Bach’s first eight - actually seven-and-a-half - years at the tiller.

His early sealing of a $7.65 billion (£5.5 billion/€6.4 billion), three-cycle, broadcasting deal with NBCUniversal, locking the US network into broadcasting the Games until 2032, has come to look more and more astute with the passage of time. This is as the traditional media rights model that enriched sport has come to look ever more precarious.

Thomas Bach is set to be re-elected as IOC President unopposed ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach is set to be re-elected as IOC President unopposed ©Getty Images

With that foundation-stone in place, the IOC’s commercial team has turned its mind to boosting the value of the flagship The Olympic Partner (TOP) worldwide sponsorship programme. Prior to COVID-19, this looked well on course to generate more than $2 billion (£1.45 billion/€1.7 billion) in cash and value-in-kind goods and services over the 2017-2020 cycle, against fractionally in excess of $1 billion (£724 million/€839 million) in 2013-2016.

A clear hallmark of the Bach era to date, indeed, is that the IOC has come to bear a much closer resemblance to a multinational corporation, with all the good and bad which that implies - with the German himself cast very much in the role of executive chairman.

If securing the future was the aim of that giant United States broadcasting rights deal, it was also the reflex behind the momentous decision to rip up the traditional bidding process and award the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games simultaneously to Paris and Los Angeles.

This double award has had the benefit of ensuring that the Summer Games will have A-list hosts throughout the decade of the 2020s - even though the whole concept of the Olympics has been under fire from many quarters for much of Bach’s spell in charge. It also, by the way, has meant that the 2028 campaign has not been waged in the shadow of coronavrius.

The downside of killing off traditional Summer Games bidding in this way - and the low-key installation of Brisbane as red-hot favourite for the far distant 2032 event would seem to confirm that the stake has well and truly been driven through the heart - is that it makes it much more difficult to keep Olympic affairs in the public eye in the long interludes between the actual sports events.

Even when some of the bid-related stories were negative, the underlying dynamic of household-name cities and instantly recognisable politicians and celebrities straining every sinew to win the honour of hosting the ultimate multi-sports event worked well for the IOC, certainly in comparison to the rote of doping controversies, governance defects and political spats that passes for the Olympic news agenda in more recent days.

The Olympic Channel, for whose launch Bach also deserves some credit, might yet furnish the Movement with a tool for plugging the inter-Games gap; but the battle for young eyeballs is ferociously competitive and is only going to become more so.

In turning to the less successful aspects of the German’s record to date, it makes sense, I think, to recall the state of play when he took over on September 10 2013 towards the end of a bustling and eventful Session in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Tokyo, bless, had just won the right to stage the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics after an absorbing and fluctuating tussle with Madrid and Istanbul. Jacques Rogge, the outgoing IOC President, had presided with great integrity over a golden age for the Movement’s financial affairs, but seemed to be out of energy and ideas. Concerns were just starting to mount about Rio 2016, but, a year on from London, the mood remained unmistakably buoyant.

Thomas Bach is yet to oversee a blemish-free Games, and may have to wait some time to do so ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach is yet to oversee a blemish-free Games, and may have to wait some time to do so ©Getty Images

The time was right for a change, and while there was already scope for doubt about his human touch, Bach appeared supremely well-qualified to take over at the top. An IOC member since 1991, he was extremely familiar with the body’s idiosyncratic inner workings and had developed a raft of wide-ranging proposals over, one suspected, a lengthy period.

Had the background environment remained as benign as it was throughout the Rogge era, many of the German’s subsequent difficulties would not have materialised.

In that sense, Bach has been an unlucky President. It is sobering to reflect that, having completed a full term, he has still to preside over a truly unblemished Games - and given the darkening political shadows hanging over Beijing, Paris 2024 might represent his final chance to do so.

It is to his misfortune that Bach’s term has coincided with the chickens from the 2007-2008 financial crisis coming home to roost, with electorates in the wealthy western democracies growing increasingly grumpy in the light of years of stagnation. This has meant that when indulgences such as the prospect of hosting multi-sports events were dangled before them, the question of "What’s in it for us?" would tend to crop up with increasing urgency.

This has proved particularly problematic for the Winter Olympics, which Bach has so far failed to revive. Early hopes that Beijing 2022 would ignite a vast new winter sports market may yet provide a tonic of sorts, though neither the pandemic nor mounting political tensions over China and its increasingly assertive policies in many fields are likely to help matters.

The rising tide of grumpiness also meant that by the time the much-vaunted Agenda 2020 reform package was ready to go in late-2014, it already looked hopelessly inadequate for a climate in which many of the fundamental principles underpinning the Olympic concept were coming under question more seriously than for a generation or more.

If Bach has ever acknowledged this, it has somehow escaped my attention; the appearance of a follow-up - Agenda 2020+5 - suggests the opposite.

Agenda 2020 did enable the new IOC President to stamp his authority on the organisation. Under what might be styled as "the doctrine of Thomas knows best", power has now been concentrated to a tremendous extent in the hands of Bach and a few trusted lieutenants, some of them IOC employees.

Thomas Bach is poised to lead the IOC until 2025 ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach is poised to lead the IOC until 2025 ©Getty Images

While some undoubtedly welcome this as the harbinger of snappier, more corporate-style decision-making, it does rather beg the question of why a costly cadre of 100-plus IOC members is necessary, other than as part of the extensive patronage network that helps to assure an adept IOC President of largely unquestioning in-house support.

The centralisation of power also, I think, relativises what is widely - and rightly - viewed as another positive aspect of Bach’s Presidency: the push towards gender equality. While women are more and more numerous in commissions and other IOC bodies and roles, one wonders how many of the really big decisions of the past eight years have been taken by women. No doubt this too will come. 

And for all the talk of greater transparency in sports governance, secrecy seems to be another characteristic of Bach’s management approach. It was evident in the early days in the way that the landmark NBC broadcast deal was arrived at and it is certainly evident in the way that host bidding has been taken almost entirely under the radar.

Doping still casts as big a shadow over sport as at any time I can remember. The long-drawn-out Russian doping saga is largely, but by no means entirely, responsible for this.

Bach’s record in this extraordinary tale has been patchy to say the least. Too often he has appeared to me to be prioritising turf wars or the IOC’s interests as an event owner and leading funder of the anti-doping apparatus rather than how to counter this form of cheating most effectively.

You might argue that, as IOC President, it is his job to do this. But unless sports leaders see the big picture and act accordingly on a consistent basis, it is hard to see how this scourge, which still poses an existential threat to some Olympic sports at a time when video games and other keyboard-focused delights are competing strongly for young people's attention, is ever going to be defeated, or even adequately controlled.

I remember being particularly dismayed when, in early 2018, just ahead of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, he reacted to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)'s in my view justifiable decision to overturn sanctions against 28 Russian athletes by describing it as "disappointing and surprising" and talking about an urgent need for reforms of CAS's internal structure.

Rightly or wrongly, the impression given was of a sore loser - a useful quality perhaps in the Olympic athlete Bach once was; less so, I would argue, in an IOC President. The IOC then compounded matters by lifting a suspension imposed on the Russian Olympic Committee, which had obliged Russian athletes to compete neutrally, albeit under the less-than-opaque Olympic Athletes from Russia team name, just three days after the Pyeongchang 2018 Closing Ceremony.

At one time or another, this protracted and painful saga can be said to have opened up gaping breaches between the IOC and, in no particular order, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the International Paralympic Committee, the International Association of Athletics Federations - now World Athletics - and the CAS.

When Olympic Athletes from Russia won a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, there was little doubt what nation was cheering ©Getty Images
When Olympic Athletes from Russia won a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, there was little doubt what nation was cheering ©Getty Images

Three more years have elapsed since Pyeongchang, yet still the affair rumbles on like something out of Kafka, continuing to top our insidethegames news-lists on a regular basis.

Ultimately, I suppose, Bach will be judged on doping according to whether sport appears closer to removing this spectre hovering menacingly over its affairs when he departs office than it was when he took over the IOC reins.

Just as WADA was the child of the Festina affair of the late-1990s, so the most obvious legacy of the Russian doping crisis so far has been the International Testing Agency (ITA), or Independent Testing Authority, as it was initially called.

If, come 2025, it can be shown convincingly that the ITA has been instrumental in a marked improvement in the anti-doping regime’s effectiveness, then Bach will be able to claim vindication for his efforts in the field.

Actually, Bach’s record on doping partly, I think, reflects a major governance issue that is set to loom large as this so far remarkably bad-tempered decade rolls on. This is the mounting tension between the IOC's multiple roles as event-owner, financier and regulator.

National Governments are acting more and more assertively on all manner of issues at the moment, and if sports bodies do not begin to display a much-improved capacity to govern themselves effectively, calls for the imposition of outside regulation are set to grow and grow.

I would expect this to be one of the big recurrent battlegrounds of Bach’s second term and beyond.