Nick Butler

Last week’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board meeting at the new location of the Lausanne Palace Hotel was a low key affair. 

It may have been due to the lack of other meetings going on in the lakeside town, or because most of the Olympic Movement had just returned from its first major gathering of the year in Lillehammer, or as a consequence of the IOC’s overbearing restrictions on bid city lobbying these days. Or maybe it was simply due to a lack of available hotel rooms because of overspill from the Geneva International Motor Show...

For whatever reason, a smattering of journalists aside, few of the usual hangers on were present as the IOC top brass took their first formal chance to dwell on an eventful opening two months of the year.

Each of the two days - three were scheduled but, as usual, they powered through with time to spare - was dominated by one headline announcement. The first by news that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will replace the IOC in making all anti-doping decisions at Rio 2016, including handing out sanctions. The basic premise of this change, namely increasing independence and avoiding potential conflicts of interest, is slightly flawed by the fact that CAS, like the World Anti-Doping Agency, is led by someone who is also a vice-president of the IOC in Australia’s John Coates.

It does appear a move that has been well planned and makes sense, however. Organisers must hope now that they have a laboratory in Rio de Janeiro to do the tests in after more dilly-dallying by Brazil in making their anti-doping system WADA compliant ahead of a March 18 deadline.

The second major decision concerned the introduction of a special Refugees Olympic Athletes team at Rio 2016. Over 40 stateless athletes have been identified,  with it expected that five to 10 will ultimately compete, marching second last behind the Olympic flag at the Opening Ceremony. Again, cynics have dismissed this as a good soundbite rather than a real change. Rumour has it that Raheleh Asemani, for instance, the Iranian-born taekwondo player working as a postwoman in Belgium who has already qualified, could probably have competed for the European nation if the refugees opportunity had not arose.

A refugees Olympic team was a major decision announced by Thomas Bach following the Executive Board meeting ©Getty Images
A refugees Olympic team was a major decision announced by Thomas Bach following the Executive Board meeting ©Getty Images

The IOC do deserve praise here, however. They have consistently provided opportunities for refugees to compete at the Olympics over the last century, as my colleague Philip Barker made clear in his excellent column, while, unlike most European Governments, they have not abandoned their plight once it became less of a vote-winner.

Using sport for wider development has been a key aim for Thomas Bach since he assumed the IOC Presidency in 2013. I still maintain his decision to recognise Kosovo as an IOC member despite the diplomatic challenges is his greatest achievement so far and he began the meeting last week by unveiling Philip French as the new IOC director of Public Affairs and Social Development through Sport Department, an appointment clearly with this role in mind.

Unfortunately for Bach, there are other issues going on in sport at the moment, many of them leaving a less savoury taste in the IOC mouth. Rio 2016, whatever platitudes are rolled out, remains a worry after a typically tough start to an Olympic year. Problems are mounting-up: from ticket sales to budgets, construction fears to subway delays, and from Zika virus to human arms floating in Guanabara Bay…

A good old fashioned press huddle with Rio 2016 President Carlos Nuzman following his presentation was my highlight of the week. Nuzman, surely now feeling the pressure more than most 73-year-olds should be, was getting increasingly irate, repeating over and over that, contrary to popular opinion, everything is in fact hunky-dory and going perfectly.

Guanabara Bay pollution is now just one of many concerns for Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Guanabara Bay pollution is now just one of many concerns for Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

Journalists were getting equally frustrated by his relentless optimism. “Really? So everyone is affected by the political situation except for Rio 2016?” cried a Brazilian journalist after one such denial. “This is the truth,” replied Nuzman. “It’s a pity you are not in Brazil to see for yourself.”

“He may have slightly misunderstood your question,” said Rio’s communications man afterwards. “Not for the first time,” smirked the battle-weary hack in response.

Bach also resorted to blind repetition when questioned about Rio, with the German, certainly not a man afraid of a good sound-bite, using the word “solidarity” over and over again to describe how every Federation was supposedly accepting the necessity of Brazilian budget cuts.

But I don’t think “solidarity” was the first word the International Rowing Federation thought of when Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes - who had already antagonised them by promising that the floating grandstand on the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas course would not be scrapped before it was, well, scrapped, earlier this year - suggested fans shouldn’t bother buying rowing tickets but should “pull up a beach chair” instead…

Bach also faced questions about Donald Trump, “My private opinion I do not want to divulge”, as well as the new FIFA President and the prospect of transgender athletes competing at the Olympics. He was also confident when dealing with questions on possible corruption in the Tokyo 2020 bid process, dismissing the allegations until evidence is produced.

But he was at his tersest, and least comfortable, when asked what kind of message the appointment of Russian Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov as head of the Beijing 2022 Coordination Commission sends out. "Neither the ROC nor Zhukov is under any kind of suspicion or investigation," he bluntly responded in an answer which, while strictly true, did not really address the question at hand.

Thomas Bach is in a very difficult position regarding the suspension of the Russian athletics team ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach is in a very difficult position regarding the suspension of the Russian athletics team ©Getty Images

And this brings us on to what is fast becoming a major challenge for Bach and the IOC.

Last night’s ARD documentary, showing, as we had all assumed anyway, that rhetoric aside Russia is actually doing little to truly address its doping problems, makes it even harder for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to lift its ban on the All-Russia Athletic Federation.

Bach claims it is not up to him but a decision for IAAF President Sebastian Coe to make. Yet, he has aligned himself so close to Vladimir Putin and the Russians that everyone is assuming he is firmly in the Russian corner. And answers like his one about Zhukov don’t help with this image.

Aside from the latest documentary, yesterday also brought another rumoured doping failure, involving Turkish 1500 metres Olympic silver medallist Gamze Bulut. Her case means four of the first five across the line in the London metric mile final have now been implicated, and six of the top 10. Furthermore, it also emerged that doping cheat turned whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova, the athlete whose revelations led to Russia’s ban, is hoping to compete independently at Rio 2016, possibly as a member of the IOC’s refugee team.

“That would be a masterstroke if Bach allowed that,” I suggested without really thinking it through. “Don’t be silly,” replied a colleague. “Antagonising Putin by picking a Russian citizen for a refugee team? That could trigger a boycott.”

Whatever happens, the IOC have a long few months ahead, seeking this precarious balance between ensuring political stability and a positive public image.

Ideas like the refugees team reminded us last week that sport can still be a force for good. But it would appear other issues are going to be dominating both the headlines and the meeting-agendas before the Games get underway.