IOC elections remind us that Tokyo Olympics are much closer than we think

The vote for the IOC presidency provided plenty of the bitter rivalry and dodgy lobbying traditionally associated with the power of being the Lord of the Rings

New IOC president Thomas Bach (right) who succeeded Jacques Rogge (left). Photograph: Simon Hofmann/Bongarts/Getty Images

You would not believe some of the derision hurled my way from certain colleagues in Croke Park last Sunday, simply for spreading the news that Tokyo got the 2020 Olympics. Roy Curtis, a man known for his great big grizzly bear hugs, walked away in near disgust when told Tokyo must be the perfect choice.

“Here we are, All-Ireland hurling final day,” says Roy, “and all you want to talk about is some Olympics 6,000 years from now. Only from the son of ‘The Runner’.”

True, there is still some considerable family affection for Tokyo, although 6,000 years is a slight exaggeration. "You initially sit there thinking seven years is a long time," Sebastian Coe wrote on Monday, recalling the moment, in 2005, when London got the 2012 Olympics. "Believe me, it flies. Tokyo needs to put that bid into action – fast."

If anything there will come a point when Tokyo will start thinking that seven years is not long enough. But at least they have the imperial family on the side. Coe wasn't exaggerating when suggesting the one thing that probably swung last Saturday's vote in Tokyo's favour – over Madrid and Istanbul – was the presence of Princess Hisako of Takamado. Her speech, delivered in perfect English to the IOC delegates gathered in Buenos Aires, gently pressed all the right buttons. "This is the first time a member of the Japanese Imperial family has addressed you," she concluded, with perfect elegance and eloquence, "and I dare to hope that our paths may cross again."


One can only imagine how this must have agreed with the IOC delegates’ own sense of royalty, and even then, it was felt, Madrid and Istanbul realised there would only be one winner. In the end the whole vote proved a little tame, if not entirely predictable. Although that’s not saying the political beast that is the IOC is not alive and roaring. Indeed what followed three days later, back at the Buenos Aires Hilton, surrounding the vote for the ninth IOC presidency, provided plenty of the bitter rivalry and dodgy lobbying traditionally associated with the power of being the Lord of the Rings.

Powerful position
If the Tokyo vote was all about the there and then, the vote for the IOC presidency was all about the here and now, or at least the next eight years. It might be unpaid, albeit coming with an unlimited expense account, and a nice presidential pad at Lausanne's Chateau de Vidy, but it's still considered the most powerful position in world sport, and therefore the most carefully vetted. So, that it went to the 59-year-old German lawyer Thomas Bach was absolutely no surprise: Bach has been groomed for the position for the past 22 years, since first joining the IOC in 1991, and might as well have the five-ringed emblem tattooed onto his forehead.

It surely helped that Bach also has the original Olympic title next to his name: he won an Olympic gold medal in fencing, representing West Germany, in Montreal in 1976. That actually makes him the first Olympic gold medallist to hold the position (although IOC founding president, Pierre de Coubertin, also won a gold medal, for literature, at the 1912 Games, for his poem Ode to Sport).

Coe, coincidentally, has known Bach since 1981, when they were both part of the first athletes commission that addressed that year’s Olympic Congress: “The IOC,” said Coe, “and the wider movement, can be confident that in moving forward they have a new president who sees the Games through the eyes of competitors.”

Bach also maintains the safe and reliable European face, as eight of the nine IOC presidents in the 119-year history of organisation also have, including our own Lord Killanin, from 1972-'80, the only exception being the American Avery Brundage, who held the IOC presidency for 20 years, from 1952-72. In succeeding Jacques Rogge, the Belgian who held the role for the previous 12 years, Bach benefitted from Rogge's personal endorsement, just like Rogge had the personal endorsement of his predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch. This is how the Lord of the Rings is generally handed down.

His ties with the IOC also run deep, not just as current head of the German Olympic committee, but in his role on the executive board under both Rogge and Samaranch, helping to master their legal affairs and TV rights.

Devoid of controversy
It's also a pure given now that candidates for the IOC president, much more so than candidate cities, must be devoid of any controversy, potentially or otherwise. The IOC, they know, were saved from utter embarrassment in 2001, when Rogge was voted in, marginally so, ahead of Korea's Kim Un-yong: four years later, Un-yong was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for corruption, embezzling millions of dollars from the sporting organisations he controlled. That was a potentially fatal bullet the IOC narrowly avoided.

Bach, however, wasn't unanimously endorsed, not even by his own country. In the run-up to last Tuesday's election, German TV ran a largely shallow documentary which alleged that Bach had once cheated as a young fencer (by using a wet glove to disable the scoring system) and had agreed to illegitimate payments of star athletes when working as an Adidas executive, at a time when athletes were meant to be still amateur. Bach was able to brush all that aside as "nonsense", which essentially it was.

Tuesday’s vote, as it turned out, brought one allegation of greater currency, with talk of unfair lobbying from Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, from Kuwait – already regarded as one of the most powerful men within the IOC. The 50-year-old Sheikh Ahmad, who last year was named head of the world’s 204 national Olympic Committees, also lobbied hard for Tokyo to get the 2020 Olympics, and for wrestling to remain an Olympic, and that fact that all three were successful wasn’t just coincidence.

In the end Bach's election was straightforward, with just two rounds required before he had the necessary majority – with Puerto Rican banker Richard Carrion running him closest, getting 29 votes to Bach's 49.

Then, as if on cue, the first person to call Bach to offer his congratulations was Russian president Vladimir Putin, although needless to say, there was no talk of Russia's anti-gay legislation that is already hanging like a black cloud over the Sochi Winter Olympics, just four months away. Bach will very soon be hearing talk too of Rio's over-spending and construction delays ahead of the 2016 Olympics, not to mention that sponsorship in Brazil is proving a hard sell, all of which suggests that for Bach, if not for the rest of us, the seven years until Tokyo will indeed fly.