The 131st IOC Session: what will be discussed - and what won’t?

The International Olympic Committee meets in the Peruvian capital of Lima this week for a session which marks the culmination of a Summer Games bidding process that has already reached an amenable outcome, but there will be plenty of more contentious matters to discuss.

The 131st IOC Session: what will be discussed - and what won’t?

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) set the dates its members would meet in the Peruvian capital of Lima for what is now the 131st IOC Session, it likely had a week of frantic lobbying and precisely choreographed drama in mind. A year ago, the race to host the 2024 Olympic Games was rounding the top bend, with Paris and Los Angeles hitting the lead but Budapest and Rome still hoping to chase their rivals all the way to the line.

As has by now been comprehensively reported, Rome and Budapest have dropped out after a withdrawal of political backing and while the frontrunners are still upright there is now no race left to run. A tripartite agreement, described by its authors as a ‘win-win-win’, will be consecrated by a membership that has already approved it in principle. The French capital will stage a centenary Games in seven years’ time while LA, having undergone the utter formality of an evaluation committee report ratifying its suitability as a host for 2028 as well as 2024, will follow.

Those developments have fundamentally reshaped the identity of the meeting to come, even with the Paris 2024 and LA 2028 bid teams out in force to celebrate their respective coronations. However, there remain a number of live issues which, even if they cannot be resolved on the floor at the Lima Convention Centre, will provide plenty of fodder for those chattering in its hallways. 

 

Cash for votes

With the biggest decision slated for this IOC Session having essentially been taken already, the main focus in the days leading up to the event has been on votes past. More specifically, the vote that led to the award of the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro, after news emerged last week that police had searched the Rio offices of the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB) and the home of its president, Carlos Nuzman (right).

The 75-year-old, an honorary IOC member who sits on the coordination commission for the Tokyo 2020 Games, led the Rio bid and local organising committee and has been drawn into a probe linked to an earlier French investigation into the activities of Lamine Diack, the Senegalese long-serving former president of athletics’ IAAF and a one-time IOC member, and his son Papa Massata Diack. The Diacks have been embroiled in an ever-widening inquiry, which initially centred on their misdeeds in athletics but has since uncovered evidence that they bribed athletes, covered up positive doping tests and operated a cash-for-votes racket around several major events.

Nuzman has not been charged but is understood to have had R$480,000 (US$155,000) seized by the authorities. According to the Brazilian media, he is suspected of facilitating a US$2 million payment to the younger Diack from the Brazilian businessman Arthur Soares in the days before the 2009 vote in Copenhagen that gave the Games to Rio. The Federal Public Ministry is also reported to be investigating whether Nuzman was granted Russian citizenship in return for supporting Sochi’s successful bid for the 2014 Winter Games.

The optics, to borrow an American political expression, were not good at all for the Olympic movement. Nuzman is the administrative face of a Games with an already troubled legacy. His impassioned address at the Rio 2016 opening ceremony felt like a last defiant cry from a city battered by circumstance; now, he seems to be just another node in a network of domestic corruption which has claimed a litany of corporate and political careers.

But the tangible consequences are even more troubling, with reports suggesting that the award not just of Rio and Sochi but also Tokyo 2020, to which another Diack payment has been linked, and London 2012 might also be compromised. Frankie Fredericks, the Namibian who won a clutch Olympic sprint medals in the 1990s, will already be absent from Peru as he fights charges that he took an illicit US$300,000 payment from Papa Diack on the day of Rio’s win - money Fredericks claims was a legitimate consultancy fee.

The response from the IOC - which has confidently burnished its integrity credentials as corruption has engulfed the likes of world soccer’s Fifa, touting its own reforms in the wake of the Salt Lake City bribery scandal of the late 1990s - has been strongly worded yet defensive. An executive board statement issued on Monday said it was ‘fully committed to protecting the integrity of sport’ and reiterated that new governance measures were being introduced as part of the Agenda 2020 programme. It also said that further information would be sought regarding new developments in the investigation.

In a subsequent press conference in Lima, IOC president Thomas Bach sought to isolate the Diacks and their associates as he rejected any “collective responsibility” on the part of the wider organisation.

"Actions have been committed by individuals,” he said, “and this is why we will be sanctioning as soon as we have evidence."

He added: "We have taken a series of measures with regard to good governance. We have changed the candidature procedure. New rules and stricter rules have been adopted for the procedure for 2026.

"No organisation in the world is immune. No law is so perfect that it cannot be broken."

Following those comments, however, Canada’s IOC vice president Dick Pound suggested that the organisation had not gone far enough in protecting itself from corruption, admitting in remarks reported by the BBC on Tuesday that the body had “taken a severe hit in terms of credibility”.

“What are we doing taking all these hits and doing nothing about it?” he continued. “We've got to recognise that we haven't done enough.

"If your conduct has put the IOC into disrepute, you should be liable to at least vigorous investigation and potentially sanctioned for it.

"That has not happened."

IOC president Thomas Bach speaks to the media in Lima

Russian doping

A number of international journalists - both present and elsewhere - were struck by Bach’s admission on Monday that he had not watched Icarus, the Bryan Fogel documentary which became required viewing for the global sports news lobby on its Netflix release this summer.

It begins as a study into the effects of performance-enhancing drugs on an athlete’s body and ends up, almost accidentally, as a gripping and coruscating insight into the state-supported Russian doping programme exposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), with former Moscow laboratory director turned whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov proving a star witness and star turn in his unlikely bond with the filmmaker.

Bach may feel he has more time to catch up on the release given that the IOC has delayed any formal discussion of the Russian team until after it has received reports from its Oswald Commission into sample manipulation and its Schmid Commission into reports of an institutionalised conspiracy. Those are expected in October, with the IOC aiming to complete its investigations before the World Cup season begins in winter sport.

WADA, meanwhile, is conducting its own audit into the activities of Russian anti-doping body RUSADA this month. It has also cleared 95 of the 96 individual Russian athletes it has so far investigated, although The New York Times reports that there are fears that some evidence has been destroyed and that the current unavailability of Rodchenko, currently under protective custody in the US, may also be a factor.

Plans are in place for the creation of an Independent Testing Authority (ITA), which would eventually take over responsibility for administering drug tests from international federations and event organisers. The new body will act as a service provider to the IOC, which is set to be represented on the board alongside athletes and international federations. Specialist outlet Insidethegames reports that former French sports minister Valérie Fourneyron is in line to step in as chair.

Both the Oswald and Schmid Commissions will submit interim reports this week. Nevertheless, with the awkward compromise of the IOC’s pre-Rio 2016 response to the McLaren Report still clouding its reputation, this is very much a case of a challenge deferred rather than one evaded.

Last week the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) - which issued a blanket ban last year to Russia’s team for Rio 2016 - confirmed that the Russian Paralympic Committee (RPC) would remain suspended until November but said it would allow cleared Russian para-athletes to compete as neutrals in qualifying for PyeongChang 2018.

 

Progress in PyeongChang 

Events on the Korean peninsula have understandably garnered significant coverage and concern in recent weeks, with North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un, ramping up missile and nuclear testing and finding a willing accomplice in rhetorical escalation in US president Donald Trump. 50 miles from the heavily guarded border between North Korea and its democratic neighbour to the south is PyeongChang, which is now just a few months away from hosting the Winter Olympics.

There is no more the IOC can do than any of the rest of us to prevent the worst arising - though talks have begun on implementing the traditional Olympic Truce during the Games - but Bach insists that there is no contingency plan required for February’s event.

“There is so far not even a hint that there is a threat for the security of the Games in the context of the tensions between North Korea and some other countries,” Bach said on Monday.

“We are in contact with governments concerned. In all these conversations with the leading figures in the different governments we can see there is no doubt being raised about the Winter Games of 2018.”

Earlier plans for grand inclusive gestures will now be shelved but Bach insists that the IOC is “keeping the door open for the athletes of the DPRK” to compete next year, even as their homeland heads deeper into international isolation.

When it comes to matters more firmly within their control, the IOC and local organisers will be confident at this point of avoiding disaster but less certain they can push the event beyond the realm of the underwhelmingly passable. PyeongChang’s Olympics were sealed at the third time of asking in 2010, and the period since has been marked by frustration - from friction within the Korean business community to a high turnover in the bid leadership and last year’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye after a bizarre personal scandal.

Fireworks commemorate the 200 days to go mark for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games, whose operational preparations remain in good shape but whose ticket sales and promotion remain a concern

The signs now, though, are that the Games will be an operational success. Venues and infrastructure are either complete or comfortably on schedule at this stage - notwithstanding a push to ensure hotel rooms are ready and to alleviate a handful of legacy headaches.

Promotion, however, remains a concern. The sluggish start to the commercial programme has meant that activation around the Games has felt later than is ideal, while ticket sales to what is a relatively sequestered resort have not been strong thus far. Just 22.7 per cent of places had been snapped up at the last count. The first phase of sales between February and June reached just seven per cent of the overall domestic target - 52,000 of 750,000 - with overseas sales performing better to clear over half of the 320,000 goal despite lower than expected interest from China and Japan.

Organisers have pressed President Moon Jae-in into service in their latest ticket sales campaign, and continue to insist that Korean buyers will make what they suggest will be a characteristically late run of purchases to drive towards the pre-Games target of 1.07 million - 90 per cent of available seats. 

 

The future of bidding and 2026

The deal that will deliver the Games to Paris and Los Angeles has allowed the IOC to park the question of bidding for the Summer Olympics for a few years at least, but the chronic difficulty in attracting prospective hosts for future events is still likely to come under scrutiny with the race for the winter edition in 2026 about to begin. 

The IOC will be keen to use the 2026 campaign as a showcase for an Agenda 2020-inspired evolution in the bidding process to embrace a more consultative approach, with longer periods of contact, better tailoring and more accountability for candidate cities. There is good reason for such a shift: as plagued as the 2024 race was by a collapse in popular and public support, the situation has been direr in recent winter cycles and the prospective pool of hosts is considerably smaller. 

PyeongChang will be followed by 2008 summer host Beijing in 2022 - which overcame the Kazakh city of Almaty in a contest which gave pause to many in Olympic circles - and those two will sandwich Tokyo 2020. After that, the IOC will want to take the Winter Games back west but it will also be eager to end a run of resort-builder events featuring heavy capital investment.  

Denver and Salt Lake City - the latter a name whose return to Olympic-related headlines is unfortunately timed - have been reported by the Associated Press to be in preliminary talks about a 2026 bid, but that would be an outside bet with LA slated for 2028 and an expanded North American edition of the Fifa World Cup also looking likely in 2026. A return to Calgary, the host of the ’88 Games, may find Canada’s prospective role in the soccer tournament is also an impediment to its nascent bid. 

That leaves Europe, where the Winter Games will need to adapt to fit the needs of smaller mountain towns and resorts or develop a degree of flexibility that will allow sports to be spread across regions and bring major local cities into play.  

The influential Sheikh Ahmad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah will be one of nine IOC members absent in Peru

AOB

Patrick Hickey, the former Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) president who was arrested in Rio last year on charges of involvement in an illegal ticketing ring, resigned his membership of the IOC Executive Board last weekend amid his ‘self-suspension’ as he bids to clear his name. His seat is one of three on the Executive Board that will be filled in Lima, with one slot currently vacant and IOC vice president John Coates reaching the end of his term.

Candidates to fill those roles include Switzerland’s Denis Oswald, Ivan Dibós of Peru, Aruba's Nicole Hoevertsz, Nigeria's Habu Gumel, and Hungary's Pal Schmitt.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah - the Kuwaiti president of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and the Association of National Olympic Commitees (ANOC), who has wielded considerable power in sports politics in recent years - has chosen to sit out the session and travel instead to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan to oversee the final preparations for the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. He is one of nine members set to be missing in Lima, including the aforementioned Hickey and Fredericks, which means that 85 of the 94-strong voting body will be on hand to ratify the LA-Paris deal.

Sheikh Ahmad's absence is said to be unconnected to his apparent implication in an ongoing American fraud investigation into former Fifa official Richard Lai, who has admitted in a US court to taking US$950,000 in bribes. Though he denies any wrongdoing, Sheikh Ahmad surrendered his seat on the Fifa Council in April after seeming to be identified as a co-conspirator in Lai’s case.

The IOC has, however, been able to sanction the release of an altogether more welcome payment, confirming the creation along with Olympic Solidarity and the Pan-American Sports Organisation (PASO) of a US$1 million emergency fund to help rebuild sports infrastructure in the Caribbean after the devastation wreaked in recent days by Hurricane Irma. Further funding may be released after further assessment of the damage caused by the storm.