This weekend's Olympic meeting will shape the Games' future
This weekend's Olympic meeting will shape the Games' future (cont.)
This weekend in Buenos Aires, the International Olympic Committee will gather to conduct three votes that will shape the future of the Olympic Games. The committee's 101 members will choose the host city for the 2020 Olympics; determine which sport stays on or joins the Olympic program for that year; and elect outgoing IOC president Jacques Rogge's successor for an eight-year term. Here is a look at the candidates in each of the three votes, along with the choices the members are likely to make.
Turn the clock back several months and Istanbul would be considered an early favorite to host the Games. Under Rogge's tenure, the IOC has looked for so-called value-added venues in choosing its hosts. The 2008 Games in Beijing enabled the Olympics to be a catalyst in further opening up China to the world and the world to China. The 2016 Games in Rio will mark the first time that a city in South America will host the Olympics. Turkey's largest city has bid before, each time improving certain aspects of its candidacy. IOC members often reward persistence. The Games have never been held in Africa, and Istanbul is a Southern European gateway city of sorts to both that continent and to Asia, and also contains a large Muslim population. There is the added value. Still, with political protests breaking out in the region, most notably in Turkey's Southern neighbor Syria, there is real concern about whether escalating hostilities could interfere with the Games.
Turkey's doping mess is another worry. More than 30 Turkish athletes failed doping tests last year, and IAAF president Lamine Diack warned that both athletes and sports officials were severely jeopardizing Istanbul's bid by not sufficiently cleaning house. Significantly, Diack, an IOC member from Senegal, holds great weight among African voting members. Nine Turkish athletes were handed two-year bans and several additional cases are pending. Asli Cakir Alptekin, the women's 1,500-meter champion in London, had served a two-year doping suspension beginning in 2004 and could face a lifetime ban. Attempting to ease criticism, Turkish Olympic Committee President Ugur Erdener said his country would adopt a zero tolerance policy towards doping, but offered few specifics about methods or timing.
Even when searching for more exotic locales in which to place Olympic Games, the IOC has continued to place a premium on economic security in its hosts. Madrid does not have that, even with a high number of finished venues. Unemployment last year was at a staggering 26.3 percent. Spain, however, still enjoys a great deal of political clout within the IOC, a legacy of Juan Antonio Samaranch, Rogge's predecessor as president. Samaranch's son, Juan Antonio Jr., is now an IOC member, himself, and will likely pull a number of votes from Europe and the Americas in Madrid's direction. After Sochi's runaway budget overruns, the Spanish capital is appealing on another front: Take all budget numbers with a grain of sand and salt, but the announced construction budget for Madrid stands at just $1.9 billion or roughly 20 percent of Istanbul's.
Two scandals threaten to soil Madrid's bid. The Operation Puerto doping scandal of 2006 revolved around cycling, but athletes in other sports were implicated in the discovery of doping equipment, including blood bags and needles. The case also involved athletes from other countries but it only went to trial in Madrid this year. Additionally, in a time of significant recession in Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy fought off demands that he resign over his ruling party's financing scandal in 2009 and 2010.
The Japanese capital is the strong favorite simply because it is the safest bid of the three. At a time when Sochi is piling on costs with construction overruns and Rio is falling further behind schedule with its plans, there is a sense among IOC members that they would breathe easier with the Olympics in the hands of the dependable Japanese. There is little infrastructure updating to do and in an era of emerging technological needs, the Japanese are leaders in the field.
Yet just as with Madrid's economics and Istanbul's proximity to political unrest, Tokyo still presents one concern, in this case, the radiation from the Fukushima plant that was damaged in the tsunami of 2011. On the one hand, the dignified resolve of Tokyo's citizens will earn sympathetic votes from some members, yet when reports surfaced last month that water leaking into the Pacific Ocean from the plant located 150 miles from the capital might be tainted with radiation, concerns were sparked that the crisis was not fully resolved.
The bid also breaks no new ground. If some IOC members do want some value added from their host city, the host of the 1964 Games won't provide it. In addition, the IOC awarded the previous Olympics to an Asian city, nominating Pyongchang, South Korea, to host the 2018 Winter Games. Although consecutive Olympics have been awarded within the same continent and even to neighboring countries before (see Albertville and Barcelona in 1992 or Athens in 2004 and Turin in 2006), the IOC has never put two consecutive Olympics in Asia before.
In February, the IOC's 15-member executive board voted to recommend wrestling for potential exclusion from the Olympic program starting in 2020. The decision sent a shockwave through the Olympic world, which esteems wrestling as one of its most venerable sports. Baseball and softball had already been removed from the program after 2008 and their respective federations reconstituted themselves as a single entity that would apply for reinstatement under one umbrella. Squash would be making its debut at the Games as a medal sport.
Baseball may be a major sport in the U.S., but it is minor in the Olympic world, and there are still several factors holding it back. There is no indication that Major League Baseball will be willing to break its season -- as hockey, for instance, has done -- to allow the best major leaguers to participate. And even if it did, judging by the limited appeal of the World Baseball Classic, would the tournament generate much buzz anyway? Baseball has also endured well-publicized steroid cases in recent years that could scare away the IOC. The committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency would no doubt have a tough time persuading MLB and its players association to make players available for testing far enough in advance of the Games.
The Olympic baseball tournament has also been oddly divided up by regional participants. When the eight-team tournament was held in Athens in 2004, three of the qualified teams came from Europe: Greece, as host country, Italy and the Netherlands. Which countries didn't qualify that year? The U.S., Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and South Korea, thus rendering the tournament a sham. Baseball's qualification criteria will need to make room for the best teams, rather than just certain numbers from certain regions. The sport is widely practiced in the Americas and Asia, where it should receive a number of votes.
While softball doesn't have the issue of drug use or top players being unavailable, the sport suffers from a lack of competitive balance at the top. Through four Olympics, the medal winners came from just four countries: the U.S., China, Japan and Australia. While the number of countries playing the sport is increasing, the number that can actually challenge for medals is too few. Don't expect many voters from Europe, about half the IOC membership, to be supportive.
Squash, which is seeking entry into the Olympics for the first time, is played in more than 185 countries. The international federation produced a slick, high-tech, high-definition presentation to the IOC's executive board. Malaysia's Nicol David, the current world No. 1 female squash player, said, "I would happily trade all my six world titles for an Olympic gold medal." Egypt's Ramy Ashour added, "What will playing at the Olympic Games mean to me? Everything."
Both players mentioned how the sport -- which has had world champions from every Olympic continent -- embraces change and innovation, with views of laser lights above courts. A handful of areas, such as North Africa, East Asia and the U.K. are strong in squash, but not necessarily in wrestling or baseball. Members from those regions may be likely to back squash.
The sport does not have the burden of having failed at previous Olympics, although it has been contested at major regional competitions such as the Asian Games and the Pan-Am Games. It is a sport that is hard to follow live in front of a large crowd, because of the enclosed court and small ball. The enhancement of flashing lights notwithstanding, many spectators at the venues watch the matches on scoreboards rather than on the court in front of them. It does translate fairly well to television because of the court's tight confines. Organizers have introduced glass courts to tournaments, instituted a three-referee system to reduce arguments and expanded camera positions to make the sport more TV-friendly.
After being part of the modern Olympics for a century, with roots that date back to the ancient Games, wrestling was dropped to the provisional list this year in an unexpected move by the executive board. If the IOC's general membership then votes to return the sport to the program without a hiatus of even a single Olympics, some feel it would be a slap in the face from the rank-and-file members to the executive board and its original recommendation. For that reason alone, wrestling is not free and clear, even though it has improved its chances in the intervening months.
Both domestic and international wrestling representatives have admitted they are not especially skilled at playing the political games other sports play for recognition, funding and so on. There was a sense in the wrestling community that the integrity of the sport was enough to keep its place on the Olympic docket. They certainly underestimated the rumblings that the sport had not done enough to modernize itself or try to become more viewer- and spectator-friendly, especially in Greco-Roman matches. The de facto response from wrestling officials is that nobody from the outside should alter the soul of the sport. Who is a non-wrestling official to say what is and isn't appealing to watch? In an era of emerging X Games-style sports, wrestling simply did not heed the universal call for all sports to modernize and did little to communicate with IOC officials and the broader Olympic movement about its progress.
In response to its wake-up call, the sport worked furiously in a short period of time to win back the IOC's support. It promised rule changes to liven the sport and increase scoring, especially in Greco-Roman matches. It added women's divisions to the Olympic program making six divisions in each category (men's freestyle, women's freestyle and Greco-Roman, which is a male classification). The new president, Nenad Lalovic, also promised that FILA, the international governing body of the sport, would name at least one female vice president. It got rid of some antiquated ways of breaking ties and promised a better governance structure within its organization.
The sport enjoys fairly wide ranging support among IOC members in Asia, the Caucasas, parts of Europe and the U.S., though not as much in Latin and South America. A unique scene played out earlier this year in New York City's Grand Central Station, within walking distance of the United Nations, when wrestlers from the U.S., Russia and Iran united for an exhibition to promote the sport's comeback. Several IOC members have openly supported the sport's inclusion. Presidential candidate Dennis Oswald has stated that the sport should never have been on the chopping block in the first place.
Six candidates, all men, are vying for the eight-year presidential term: Thomas Bach (Germany), Sergey Bubka (Ukraine), Richard Carrion (Puerto Rico), Ng Ser Miang (Singapore), C.K. Wu (Taiwan) and Dennis Oswald (Switzerland). The winner may also receive a second term of four additional years. Should Bach, Bubka or Oswald win the presidency, it would continue a tradition of European IOC leaders. Seven of the eight previous presidents have been European, with Avery Brundage of the U.S. (1952-72) being the only exception.
THOMAS BACH, Germany
Bach is the apparent favorite to win the position based on his constituency building in the various roles he has played over the years. He was an Olympic fencer, winning a gold medal in the team foil event at the 1976 Games in Montreal. He is the head of Germany's Olympic committee, a major responsibility as NOC posts go, and has been an executive board member and vice president at the IOC. The 59-year-old lawyer has served on committees involving doping and television rights. He is like a presidential candidate who has done his time as a mayor, congressman, senator and governor. If anything works against him, it may be the front-runner status that often fells various voting entities at the IOC, from bid cities to executive-board members. He is heavily scrutinized, aptly enough for one who has often served as an IOC scrutineer in previous voting sessions. He is respected by outgoing president Jacques Rogge, who has not openly claimed a preference in the race. Still, it never hurt Rogge that his predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch was said to prefer him. If the same is true for Bach, that will earn him a few votes. Though he headed a commission to investigate West German doping usage -- albeit tame compared to what took place in East Germany -- some athletes have surmised publicly that he knew more than he acknowledged at the time. Bach has said he wants to keep the size and cost of the Games manageable, so more cities have the chance to host them. IOC members from Africa and mid-sized Asian and South American countries will be glad to hear that.
SERGEY BUBKA, Ukraine
The active world-record holder, both indoors and outdoors, in the pole vault would be the most accomplished athlete ever to hold the position. Bubka is an Olympic gold medalist and six-time world champ. At 49, he is also the youngest candidate, giving him appeal to younger members who sometimes question the disconnect between older IOC members and active or recently retired athletes. Bubka is an executive board member and head of his country's Olympic Committee. He has spoken often about opening up the Games to the younger generation, easing the path to acceptance for newer X-Games style sports that would likely sit well with younger members and not as well with veterans. As the head of the IOC's newly created Entourage Commission, Bubka is strongly in favor of punishments for coaches and support staff who are accessories to athletes caught cheating. As this idea gains more traction, it will likely change the face of anti-doping initiatives.
RICHARD CARRION, Puerto Rico
The 60-year-old banker is an attractive alternative for those members who may feel oversaturated by talk of Bach. Carrion is first and foremost a money guy. He has negotiated humongous TV deals with NBC on behalf of the IOC. He is a confident interview, who impressed fellow executive board members with his instant off-the-cuff recall of facts and figures. Though few IOC members will say this openly, Carrion may be the candidate best suited to boost the bottom line of the committee and its related constituencies, ultimately benefitting its members. Working against him, he does not have overwhelming backing from any one voting bloc, mainly because he hails from Puerto Rico, which enjoys its status as an independent Olympic committee and team. He was not an Olympic athlete, himself. Additionally some of the members from areas in which Bach is strong may be hesitant to vote for Carrion, who may be less concerned at keeping down costs to open the hosts role to more cities. Of the candidates -- and the existing leadership -- he has spoken out most forcefully against Russia's anti-gay laws that have created controversy in advance of the Games in Sochi.
DENNIS OSWALD, Switzerland
At 67, Oswald is the oldest of the six candidates. The three-time Olympian in rowing won bronze for Switzerland in the fours event at the Mexico City Games in 1968. He was named president of the international rowing federation in 1989 and his tenure will end this year. He earned a reputation for sober fairness as an arbitrator on the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Oswald was chairman of the committee's Coordination Commission, its oversight arm, for the Olympics in Athens and London. The success of the Games last summer should serve him well. In an era when the Olympic world is trying to become increasingly relevant to younger generations, Oswald's age may hurt him. He is not considered nearly as progressive as Bach, who should garner most of the European votes.
NG SER MIANG, Singapore
The 64-year-old business leader brings a unique component to the race as his nation's ambassador to Norway. Ng organized the inaugural Youth Olympics in his home country, and the competition won raves from Rogge, whose approval boosted Ng's international stature. The executive-board member and Chinese native will certainly win his share of Asian votes, although he is almost viewed as too much of diplomat -- i.e. too gentlemanly -- to use his influence effectively and barter favors for votes as successful politicians often have to do. He has been involved in a number of entrepreneurial and charity ventures at home. He is known as an idealist and perhaps the candidate who would be most likely to hold the committee to its avowed goals. He is the most attractive alternative for those willing to vote for a non-European.
C.K. WU, Taiwan
The 66-year old is president of AIBA, the international governing body of boxing. Though Wu has cleaned up what was once considered a corrupt and disorganized federation, boxing no longer enjoys the status it once did among IOC members. Wu has insisted that he would push hard for the Games to go to an African city for the first time, preferably in 2028. For that to happen, the city would be selected in 2021, the final year of his initial term. He would also end the sporadically enforced ban on visits to perspective host cities by IOC members, something the membership would certainly welcome. Wu also wants to increase the maximum number of IOC members from 115 to 130 and says he wants to lower the age of participants at the Youth Olympics from its present range of 14-to-18. Wu's candidacy faces tough interference from the powerful lobby of China, since the Chinese do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. The country is officially known as Chinese Taipei at Olympic Games and IOC meetings. His chances are slim.
PREDICTION: Thomas Bach