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Ten years of Thomas Bach: How has the Olympics evolved during his IOC presidency?

Thomas Bach has just reached a decade as IOC president, a period that has been defined by a series of reforms and unprecedented challenges. Less than a year out from Paris 2024, SportsPro speaks to individuals across the Olympic movement to assess the German’s tenure so far and the impact his leadership has had on the Games.

8 Sep 2023 Ed Dixon

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A general rule of life is to play the hand you’re dealt. In the case of Thomas Bach, the last decade has seen the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president stick, twist and, in some cases, go all in.

For every brand added to The Olympic Partner (TOP) programme and new sport integrated into the Games, there have also been a series unprecedented challenges, ranging from a global pandemic to a state-sanctioned doping scandal. For Bach, a former foil fencing gold medalist who then became a lawyer, being the face of the IOC’s response to those tests has on occasion made him the subject of unwanted controversy and criticism.

“I think he’s had the most challenging IOC presidency in history,” says Terrence Burns, an Olympic marketing veteran who has worked on numerous winning bids, including Beijing 2008, Sochi 2014 and Los Angeles 2028.

“Thomas hasn’t gotten a break. In many ways, he’s been well suited for those challenges because of his background. He’s very organised, focused and strategic. He’s done a very admirable job of handling those challenges.

“One can agree or disagree on how he approached it, but he has handled them well.”

Bach was elected as the IOC’s ninth president on 10th September 2013, defeating five other candidates to succeed Jacques Rogge. Having long coveted the role, the German came to power with the promise of ensuring a smooth delivery of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, which had been weighed down with delays, budget overruns and concerns about the warm weather.

Since then, Bach has sought to be a transformative president. Bidding process reforms and the Olympic Agenda 2020+5 strategic roadmap are among a number of significant changes made under his leadership in an effort to breathe fresh life into the Games. For every grand plan, though, unforeseen circumstances and intense scrutiny have also been regular features of a tenure that has ebbed and flowed over the last ten years.

Bach succeeded Belgium’s Jacques Rogge as the IOC’s ninth president in its 129-year history

Growing the TOP programme and multibillion-dollar TV deals

Bach has been judged on a lot of things, chief among them his ability to drive revenue for the Olympic movement through the IOC’s TOP programme and lucrative broadcast partnerships. The number of brands involved in the Olympic body’s top-tier sponsorship programme, which was created in 1985 during Juan Antonio Samaranch’s presidency, has risen to 14 during Bach’s tenure, with the likes of Airbnb, Alibaba, Allianz and Intel all signing up since his election.

Another is Deloitte which, according to the IOC, will support the advancement of the organisation’s Olympic Agenda 2020+5 goals in areas such as sustainability, diversity, inclusion and career support for athletes. Coca-Cola also reupped its commitment in partnership with Chinese dairy producer Mengniu in 2019, agreeing a 12-year deal worth a combined US$3 billion, according to the Financial Times.

Dick Pound, an IOC member since 1978 who has held various high-profile roles at the organisation, which have included negotiating TV and sponsorship deals, says the TOP programme has remained “essentially the way we designed it back in the mid-1980s” and is “in pretty good shape”. Burns, though, believes it should have evolved.

“It is not an MLS, NBA, NFL or Formula One deal,” he explains. “It’s not a transactional investment, it’s a brand investment.

“People are now quite different in how they participate, how they imbibe the Games. It’s not just about TV anymore, even though that’s where the money is. 

“Younger consumers, today, support brands that are about more than profit. They’re not into jingoism. If you look at the Olympic brand, and what it really means, it’s tailormade for them. It is a brand that is there to help the world be better. It’s something [the IOC] don’t really understand how to market in that way.”

The multi-billion dollar broadcast deal with NBC in the US is the IOC’s largest under Bach’s tenure 

On the media side, the multi-year contract in the US with Comcast-owned NBC, which was signed in 2014 and runs until Brisbane 2032, is the standout. It was hailed by Timo Lumme, who retired as managing director of IOC Television and Marketing Services (IOC TMS) at the end of 2022, as a “standard bearer” for the Lausanne-headquartered Olympic body. Aside from being worth a massive US$7.65 billion, it cemented the Games as global sport’s flagship occasion and gave the IOC confidence to strike long-term rights deals in other markets.

“Bach had a very, very good first year and part of that was the NBC deal,” says David Owen, who has covered several Olympic Games as a journalist and is now the chief columnist for Insidethegames.

“At the time, I thought maybe he’d undersold the value of the rights a bit for the sake of locking someone in. But it’s now clear he did exactly the right thing, even if he might have possibly got more money in the short term.

“Long term, it’s been fundamental to [the IOC] to have this huge contract given the way that the media landscape is almost unrecognisable since 2013.”

A year after the NBC deal, Discovery, now Warner Bros Discovery (WBD), inked a €1.3 billion (US$1.4 billion) agreement covering 50 territories across Europe from 2018 to 2024. In January, WBD’s joint bid with the European Broadcast Union (EBU) landed the pair all Olympic media rights in 49 territories on the continent until 2032.

As streaming became more prevalent in the 2010s, Bach also oversaw the launch of the IOC’s Olympic Channel over-the-top (OTT) platform in 2016, which Lumme believes is vital to ensure year-round interest in Olympic sports between the summer and winter Games.

“Young people, particularly, won’t wait four years now to look at the Games on a cathode-ray tube in the corner of a room like I did,” he told SportsPro’s StreamTime Podcast in January.

“It’s also incredibly important for our TOP partners who’ve been very clear we have to develop these types of assets and reach and platforms so that they can properly utilise through their sponsorships the Olympic brand as part of their overall engagement.”

Hosting headaches and political neutrality

Upon taking office, Bach set out to change the Olympic bidding process, which he felt asked “too much too early”. The Olympic Agenda 2020 subsequently followed at the end of 2014, which included a requirement for potential host cities to present an Olympic project that best matched their sports, economic, social and environmental long-term planning needs.

If nothing else, Bach has pushed to make the Games a more attractive, economically viable proposition for potential hosts in an attempt to avoid situations where the IOC has been left with only one bid to choose from. Whether he has succeeded in that regard is up for debate, but the true impact of the strategy he has put in place may still reveal itself in the years to come.

Yet those reforms have been overshadowed by wider issues at recent Games. Sochi 2014, which was selected six years before Bach came in as president, was eye-wateringly expensive and went down as one of the most controversial events in history after it emerged that the hosts had been engaged in a state-run doping programme. Rio 2016 was labelled a financial disaster, PyeongChang 2018 put a spotlight on tensions between North and South Korea, and Tokyo 2020 eventually took place without spectators under the shadow of Covid-19.

All three of those were named as hosts prior to Bach’s election. However, he was at the helm in 2015 when Beijing was confirmed as the destination for the 2022 Winter Olympics – a Games that was dominated by conversations around China’s alleged human rights violations and even saw some countries declare diplomatic boycotts.

Bach may not have picked the majority of Olympic hosts that have staged the Games in his time as president, but the manner in which he has responded to criticism has proved divisive. For Owen, that stems from the IOC becoming “much more akin to a multinational company” under Bach’s leadership, rather than the “United Nations of sport” he says it had previously been. 

“I think the problem now is nobody outside the loop really understands how they choose hosts anymore,” continues Owen. “Bach is very much the man in control. People are certainly cowed from voicing public views against him. He’s basically taken the decision that his view is far more important than anyone else’s.

“With Brisbane, the one Summer Games that they’ve chosen under the new process, it may be very good. But it seems to me there’s been far less public scrutiny of what they’re actually going to do. Is that really how you want future Summer Games hosts to be chosen?”

Pound says Bach has “a very clear idea of where he wants to go”, describing him as “high energy, highly organised and well informed”. He also credits Bach with “keeping the ball up in the air” for Tokyo 2020 long enough until Japan suggested postponing the event.

Still, Pound acknowledges the hostility Bach has received in some quarters, particularly in Germany, but believes there is “a pretty good understanding of how the world works” and “the limits of what the IOC can do”. He adds that it has been necessary for the president to strike positive relationships with national governments and world leaders, despite the IOC outwardly maintaining an apolitical stance.

“You’ve got to find a way to negotiate through the shoals of political diplomacy,” says Pound.

There were protests over China’s alleged human rights violations ahead of Beijing 2022

“I would say in this increasingly polarised media world, tell me a single global leader that doesn’t take a lot of flak,” adds Michael Payne, who served as the IOC’s director of marketing and broadcast rights from 1988 to 2004.

“What is perhaps somewhat unique is that [the IOC] is truly a global organisation with a global mandate and responsibility. You cannot view that just through the Anglo-Saxon or Latin perspective. Your mandate there is to manage from a global standpoint, which probably makes it even harder at times because, with one or other culture, you might be off base.

“One of Bach’s very legitimate legacies is an acknowledgment that the bidding process was no longer fit for purpose in the environment of what the hosts and the politicians needed, how the media was dealing with it. He completely restructured it and created this dialogue phase, which I think has successfully rebooted the bidding.

“But saying ‘the Games shouldn’t be there because of this human rights record’. You can turn around and say, ‘well, where should they have been? Who was bidding for them?’

“If your mandate is to take the Games around the world and to spread the Olympic ideal, how do you balance that with certain issues that in a given culture or country’s perspective may not be perfect?

“You want to, at all costs, try and avoid public embarrassment. That doesn’t mean that behind the scenes you’re not being a lot more direct and blunt.”

Coincidence or not, less than seven months after Beijing 2022, the IOC approved a strategic framework on human rights, designed to inform the selection of future hosts.

“Human rights are in fact firmly anchored in the Olympic Charter,” Bach said last year. “We will be strengthening this even further in the future.

“Our mission, to put sport at the service of humankind, therefore goes hand-in-hand with human rights.”

Bach, though, has stated that the IOC is not a “super-world government” and has stressed that there is only so much it can do. Be that as it may, the IOC’s new human rights framework does at least show that the organisation accepts it cannot be totally silent on the matter.

Bach has worked to foster strong relationships between the IOC and world leaders

Athlete welfare, activism, and Rule 40

To the frustration of many Olympians, their ability to promote their own sponsors has been restricted by Rule 40.3 of the Olympic Charter, which warns that ‘no competitor, team official or other team personnel who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games’.

The rule effectively acts as a marketing ban for athletes during what should be one of the most defining – not to mention lucrative – moments of their career. The law may be there to protect official IOC sponsors, but it has sparked discontent amongst competitors.

Something had to give and, four years ago, it did. A major ruling in Germany significantly scaled back advertising limitations placed on athletes and prompted the likes of the British Olympic Association (BOA) and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to reach a compromise with their athletes on Rule 40. Even so, the issue has not gone away.

“It’s not even a token gesture,” says Rob Koehler, director general of athlete-led advocacy group Global Athlete.

“The IOC was forced to do that based on the ruling and a decision in Germany. It wasn’t the IOC saying ‘we want athletes to enhance their earning potential’. They were forced to do it. It was pretty soft in terms of the allowances.

“OK, athletes can thank their sponsors on Twitter. Well, thank you very much. These sponsors promote them year round, they get them to the Games. But when it comes to the marquee event, they have to be quiet. To us, that’s totally wrong.

“It’s so bureaucratic, it still requires the IOC approval. There’s still control. Because it is a little bit ambiguous, athletes are always afraid of what they should and shouldn’t say. If you break the rules, you are hammered by the IOC and you have no representation, no legal support.”

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya claimed she received no support from the IOC after defecting to Poland at Tokyo 2020

Koehler is also critical of Rule 50, which governs political expression by athletes in order to ‘protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games’. He believes it should be a basic right for competitors to be able to stand up for social justice, speak out during a Games and be supported by the IOC if there are any ramifications – something he says was sorely lacking when, for example, Belarus’ Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to fly home from Tokyo 2020, citing fears for her safety after criticising her coaches.

Though Bach described the incident as “deplorable” and the IOC expelled two coaches, Koehler does not think enough was done.

“Krystsina was kidnapped and brought to the airport in Tokyo,” he says. “The IOC did nothing. The Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation is the one that got the lawyers, we were working with them and managed to get Krystsina a safe passage out.

“The fact [the IOC] didn’t take immediate action to suspend the Belarus National Olympic Committee at Tokyo 2020 sends a message that they are not going to act swiftly on sport organisations that make wrong decisions. But if an athlete does something wrong, they will act very quickly.

“It’s a double standard. It leaves athletes as second-class citizens.”

Pound, however, who competed in swimming at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, believes wider athlete welfare has “absolutely” improved under Bach.

“Now you’ve got contemporary athletes who know more about what’s going on,” he says. “If you do the numbers on a representative scale, you’ve got an equal number of folks with an [international federation] background, [national Olympic committee] background and now the athletes, it’s 15 members each. That’s a huge step forward.

“I think the welfare is good, the voice is strong and the IOC pays attention to that”.

Koehler is unconvinced, asserting that Bach has failed to take proper responsibility and been forced into changes, rather than proactively seeking them out for the benefit of athletes.

“It’s a dictatorship, I would say,” he adds. “Athletes have had to fight really hard to get what they are looking for in terms of a better positioning and being respected in the Olympic movement. [Bach] seems to be more interested in cosying up with leaders of countries, heads of sports that agree with him, than athletes that are looking for reforms and change.

“I think he’s taking a position more of as a politician than a multi-sport leader and has used headlines to defuse the issues and confuse the public. The fact that [the IOC] are not treating athletes as equal partners has left them discouraged and upset with the way the IOC is running its operations.”

The powers of the IOC’s Rule 40 to restrict advertising limitations on athletes were reduced following a ruling in Germany

Addressing the Russian elephant in the room

Bach’s presidency has been so eventful that it is a challenge to pick out one single defining moment. That said, Russia has loomed large throughout his tenure.

After a state-sponsored doping programme at the Sochi Games was uncovered in 2015, Russia was banned from the Olympics starting in 2018, although its athletes have been allowed to participate as neutrals.

Pound, who led the 2015 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation into Russian doping, has openly criticised the IOC’s response to the scandal.

“I don’t think we handled that as well as we could have,” he concedes. “It makes it look like Russia is too important to be excluded.”

Any hope Russia had of being officially included at Paris 2024 was seemingly ended when the country invaded Ukraine. The IOC has still not officially invited Russia or Belarus to participate in next summer’s showpiece but Ukraine has made clear it is “ready to boycott” the Games if they compete.

“The Russia-Ukraine issue and Russian participation at Paris is absolutely the number one item [for Bach] and will continue to be so probably until Paris,” says Nick Varley, the founding partner of LookUp Communications who worked on the bid campaigns for London 2012, Rio 2016, Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024.

“Has [Bach] got every decision right? I would say most of them, yes. I think the war in Ukraine is the one where he is on the wrong side of public opinion.

“He’s probably had more difficult decisions to make than any IOC president in history. I think it’s an incredibly difficult job. It’s not like being the CEO or the chairman of a global businesses. It’s completely wound up in sports politics.”

Yelena Isinbayeva was among the Russian athletes banned from Rio 2016 after revelations of a state-sponsored doping programme came to light

For Payne, Russia has been “the elephant in the room” throughout Bach’s presidency.

“Clearly, everybody thought this was going to be over a lot quicker,” he continues. “The situation today might be very different in nine months’ time. So [the IOC] are going to take their final decision in nine months’ time, not today.”

Indeed, the IOC has already issued recommendations for the gradual return of Russian athletes to sports after many IFs banned them from competing in their competitions following the invasion of Ukraine. But the Olympic body has faced some criticism for delaying a decision on Paris 2024. Burns believes that Bach is “doing his best” to “maintain unity”.

“He’s got to somehow get Russia sorted,” Burns adds. “There’s so much that’s out of his control. Everything he does pisses off somebody.

“He’s trying to keep the Olympic movement together, all federations together, all [national Olympic committees] together. His timeframe for decisions is in decades ahead. He’s trying to make sure that the Olympic movement is around in 50 years or 100 years.

“That’s different and it needs to be respected.”

Ukraine’s prime minister Denys Shmyhal has warned of a Paris 2024 boycott if Russia and Belarus compete 

What next for Thomas Bach?

On paper, Bach is nearing the final stretch of his tenure. It is due to end in 2025 and the IOC’s rules limit a president’s term to eight years with one renewal of four years.

Before that, Bach must come to a firm decision on Russia and deliver a successful Paris 2024 which, for now, looks like it could be relatively incident-free compared to previous Games he has overseen.

But there is much more still to do. Keeping the many Olympic stakeholders happy remains a daily challenge, as does clinging to a position of political neutrality in an increasingly fractured world. Beyond that, there are concerns about the health of the Winter Olympics, which is hardly spoilt for choice with bids for future editions and is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. There is also pressure to make the Olympics more relevant in the Indian market.

And what about breakaways? In May, Russia and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to increase cooperation in sport, fuelling speculation that they could explore rival events to the Olympics.

“All of those political certainties that allowed the IOC to thrive in a sort of peaceful, prosperous, rule-based world have gone,” notes Varley. “The IOC is probably seen by some people as being part of an old system that could be overdue a shakeup.”

Assuming Bach doesn’t push for an extension, focus will soon turn to his potential successor. Expect the current president to have a big say on who takes the reins, with Kirsty Coventry, who is chairing the IOC Coordination Commission for Brisbane 2032, believed to be in contention. World Athletics president Sebastian Coe and Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs, son of the IOC’s seventh president, have also been linked.

The IOC has never had a female president and Anita DeFrantz is the only woman to ever run for the job, finishing last in the 2001 election won by Rogge and in which Pound finished third.

Regardless of how long Bach stays in the post, it would be premature to think his legacy has already been decided given what is still to come. Whether the IOC and the Olympic brand have been strengthened or weakened under his presidency will be debated but both have, undeniably, changed. What seems more apparent is that his tenure is likely to split opinion when all is said and done.

Sebastian Coe and Kirsty Coventry are among the names touted to take over from Bach

“So much of [Bach’s] legacy is going to depend on Paris,” says Owen. “Let’s face it, he hasn’t yet presided over a wholly successful Games. It’s hard to imagine that Paris 2024, one way or the other, isn’t going to be overshadowed by Russia.”

Payne, however, suggests that Bach’s reign can already be considered a success.

“[Bach] evolved the IOC and the Games so that they were fit for purpose in where we now are,” he says. “That ranges from the transformation of the bidding process, the role of the athlete, the expanded role of the Olympic movement.

“[He’s been] incredibly successful on growing the marketing and media platform. One could argue possibly too successful because it’s a very high bar that his successor is going to have to maintain.

“He hasn’t hung about or let the grass grow.”

Burns’ assessment of Bach’s presidency leaves nothing to the imagination.

“Worst run of luck of any IOC president in history,” he says. “A very valiant and logical attempt to professionalise the IOC and its people in Lausanne. To make it more efficient and stopping the lunacy of the previous process where you would get cities to build billions of dollars of shit that they would never use again.”

Only Bach truly knows what his future holds. Whatever that may entail, there is a feeling amongst those close to him that he already has it fully mapped out.

“My guess is Thomas will have a plan B,” says Pound. “But the thing about plan B is you don’t tell anyone what it is until you have to. We have to see what that is likely to be and how it plays out.

“It’s an interesting four-dimensional puzzle.”

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