SBJ/Feb. 10-16, 2014/Opinion

Bach’s history a signal that his leadership will be proactive

The Sochi Olympics have started, and the world is holding its collective breath. Will these Games come off safely?

We’ll know for certain in the next fortnight, but the guy we bet can hold his breath longest is new International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. These are his inaugural Games, so it’s the first time he has stood in front of billions to open an Olympiad. He’s a global visionary, but we’re guessing you still don’t know much about this lawyer, businessman, politician and competitor.

In a word, he is fiercely competitive. We know this because he won gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games for West Germany in the team foil competition. He’s also a two-time world champion, which means he likes a good individual duel. Just ask the U.S. Olympic Committee. It learned the hard way in its negotiations over broadcast revenue as it related to U.S. bids to host the Summer Games. The USOC sent New York (2005) and Chicago (2009) out to fight, and both were sent home quickly.

So have no doubt Bach came to Sochi ready for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ring of Steel (as it relates to terrorism) just as much as he arrived ready to deal with any slight associated with gay rights.

“Fear is a very bad adviser,” Bach told the media recently. “It is not a category in which I think.”
What does Bach’s presidency mean for sports in North America? Will the results mirror those of former Olympic sailor Jacques Rogge, whose 12-year IOC term was characterized by organizational stability, increased revenue, heightened focus on anti-doping and the launch of the Youth Olympic Games, but also a pronounced fatigue at the end of his presidency?

Our guess is no.

“Fear is a very bad adviser. It is not a category in which I think,” Bach said in the run-up to Sochi.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
In all likelihood, sports history will remember Rogge as an effective manager who followed the tumultuous reign of Juan Antonio Samaranch with a cool hand on the tiller. Bach won’t seek the same approach to consistency and stability. Instead, we think he’ll attack the big issues that concern him.

Bach knows the IOC’s quirks and politics having served as a board member since 1996, earning roles as vice president from 2000-04 and 2006-13. Before 1996, he served as a member of multiple IOC commissions. He also was a supervisory board member for Germany’s FIFA World Cup in 2006.

According to the IOC’s Dick Pound, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency and longtime vice president of the IOC’s marketing efforts, “Bach will bring a whole new level of energy to the IOC and Olympic movement and ultimately try to energize the IOC into something more than a rubber-stamp process for approval of executive board decisions. There are many new issues and challenges he will face, and I expect until Sochi is behind him, he’ll spend his time assessing the nature of the team he wants to put together.”

Here’s where we think Bach’s foil is pointed:

The Soviet gay propaganda law appropriately received major attention in North America, where gay rights are important and influential. And while IOC monitoring of Russia’s human rights initiatives was expected, Bach placed some very public pressure on Russia’s Putin at the end of January, when he made clear Olympians could champion equality and inclusion in press conferences, but the Olympic charter ban on making political statements during competition or medal ceremonies would stand. Given Germany’s open culture toward homosexuality, we expect Bach will privately support athlete anger associated with this issue. For Bach, inclusion will not be a cliché.

More efficient bidding. Bach led the second-place Munich 2018 bid and was quoted as saying he wants to reduce process costs and time. Given the two recent failed U.S. bids and the significant costs incurred, this may help more U.S. cities to consider hosting future Games … but only if the USOC and IOC have truly patched up their differences over broadcast revenue sharing.

Bach just finished presiding over his first initial bid process — for the 2022 Winter Olympics — and knows Oslo, Norway; Beijing/Zhangjiakou, China; Almaty, Kazakhstan; Krakow, Poland/Jasna, Slovakia; and Lviv, Ukraine, want to host the world. Interestingly, voters in Stockholm (January 2014) and Munich (November 2013) rejected bidding, citing projected costs. This must have stung Bach, since he is from Würzburg, north of Munich, and knew Stockholm, which hosted the 1912 Summer Games, would have become the first city to ever host both the Summer and Winter Games. How Sochi unfolds will influence Bach’s management of 2022’s winner.

Bach’s engagement of the USOC should matter to league commissioners Adam Silver (NBA), Gary Bettman (NHL), Don Garber (MLS), Laurel Richie (WNBA) and Bud Selig’s MLB replacement (projected for early 2015) because the U.S. has not hosted the Olympics since 2002 and won’t before 2024 at the earliest. Stated simply, basketball, hockey, soccer and baseball are part of the international sports landscape and influenced by their respective international federations relative to competition, drug testing and seasonality. If North American leagues wish to expand overseas or showcase their athletes in global competition on U.S. soil in 2024 or 2026, they will have to play ball with Bach and the international federations.

American sports practitioners may not yet care about the new IOC president, but we think they soon will. Bach’s coronation and ascendency continues a trend of growing European clout when it comes to charting the growth and global visibility of America’s domestic sports leagues.

And Bach will not fear the USOC or its big leagues. He’ll come right at them.

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former CMO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Norm O’Reilly (oreillyn@ohio.edu) is professor and chair of the Department of Sports Administration at Ohio University.



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For further information on guest columns in Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, please contact Betty Gomes at (704) 973-1439 or bgomes@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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