In the Olympics, the real power games occur off the field

August 25, 2013

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

The Olympics are a hotbed of fierce competition, but some will tell you the real action takes place off the field. It is the beginning of July, and sporting celebrities from across the globe have gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland, to attend an extraordinary session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The stakes are high, and the real contest begins after dark in the sprawling lobby of the five-star hotel where IOC members are staying. On your mark, get set, go!

First is the race to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. One of the entrants enters the room with a beaming smile. This is Masato Mizuno, 70, vice president of the Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee. With a "long time, no see!" here and a "how are you?" there, all delivered in English, he hugs and handshakes his way across the lobby. If schmoozing were a sport, Mizuno would be a gold medalist. He is followed by the Madrid bidding group, all decked out in matching red ties.

Next up is the sprint to secure a place on the list of Olympic events. Serbian Nenad Lalovic, 54, the polyglot president of the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, has wrestled a few people to the bar to regale them in five languages about why his sport deserves a place.

Last up is the 100-meter dash to secure the presidency of the IOC. One man vying for the position is 49-year-old Sergey Bubka, a former pole vaulter and current world record holder. He stands in the middle of the lobby with both hands pressed together, as if entreating the gods to vault him into the top job.

These three electoral processes are taking place concurrently within the IOC. Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul are battling it out to host the 2020 Olympics, while wrestling, baseball/softball and squash are fighting for one available spot at the 2020 Games. Squaring up for the presidency, meanwhile, are six IOC members, all men. All three elections will take place at the beginning of September at the IOC session in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

IOC members have to grapple with the complicated equation of which combination of city, sport and governor best suits their interests.

Take the calculations facing Japan's only IOC member, 65-year-old Tsunekazu Takeda, for example.

The 59-year-old German Thomas Bach is the current favorite for the top job. If he wins, he will probably seek to bring the 2024 Summer Games to Europe, in which case he will likely want the 2020 Olympics to be held in a non-European city farther afield. So to secure the Games for Tokyo, perhaps it would be best to vote for Bach?

Conversely, the Asian candidates probably won't back Tokyo's bid because the IOC, as a Eurocentric organization, is unlikely to support the idea of both an Asian president and host city. Members with wrestling connections, meanwhile, will want to support a city where the sport is popular, namely Istanbul or Tokyo.

These are the kinds of conjectures and guessing games that go on behind the scenes, where the real bargaining for votes takes place.

The IOC has had eight presidents so far, seven of whom hailed from Europe. An Asian has never held the top spot, though this could all change with Ser Miang Ng, 64, a Singaporean currently serving as IOC vice president. The mild-mannered Ng is not prone to making enemies, which perhaps explains his position as second favorite for the top job, after Bach. With a background running Singapore’s largest supermarket chain, Ng cannot conceal his burning ambition to become the first Asian IOC president. "It would be strange if they chose yet another European, don’t you think?" he says.

The other Asian candidate is 66-year-old architect Ching-kuo Wu, the Taiwanese president of the International Boxing Association. This spring, he invited several IOC members to Tianjin, China, to attend the opening of a museum he had built to commemorate Juan Antonio Samaranch. Many IOC members owe a huge debt to Samaranch, who served as IOC chief for a whopping 21 years, from 1980 to 2001. Wu, who joined the committee in 1988, is one of these. He is certainly not shy about riding on Samaranch’s coattails, either. As someone who served loyally under the great man for so long, he declares, it is he, Wu, who is best suited for the honor of IOC governorship.

"I really wish I could have six votes," muttered Takeda after sitting through speeches by the six presidential candidates on July 4. But hard choices need to be made by Takeda and the other 103 IOC members. But what exactly is this body charged with making all these momentous decisions? It is time now to take a closer look at the IOC.

(The first part of this article was written by Ryusuke Hirai of Sports News Section.)


The IOC is the body in charge of the world's largest sporting festival, the Olympics. It decides which cities will host the event and which sports will make it into the Games. The organization has 204 member nations and regions, more than the 193, which comprise the United Nations.

The Olympic movement consists of three main pillars; the IOC, international sports federations and national Olympic committees. This inner kernel is surrounded by a wider family of organizing committees of the Olympic Games, media organizations, sponsors, judges and referees.

A glance at the Olympic Charter, the IOC's constitution, reveals, however, that the Olympics itself is just one part of a wider mission, namely the promotion of "Olympism." The charter describes Olympism as "a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind."

The idea was first expounded by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics. Born of an aristocratic French family, Coubertin became obsessed with ancient Roman and Greek culture while at school. He embarked on a study trip to England and was strongly impressed by the higher education system over there. He became convinced in particular of the importance of sports for instilling discipline and producing individuals who are well-balanced in body and mind.

Coubertin was fired up with the idea of a holding an event that combined his twin passions of sport and ancient Greece. This led him to establish the IOC during a congress at Paris's Sorbonne University in 1894. Coubertin was 33 when the first Olympics of the modern era was held in Athens in 1896.

The sphere of the IOC's activities has grown over the past few years. The organization has long promoted the participation of women in sports, but it recently turned its attention to young people, too. Prompted by current President Jacques Rogge's concerns about obesity and a lack of sporting activity among teenagers, the IOC established the Youth Olympic Games in 2010. It has also tackled some of sport's more unsavory aspects, with campaigns to stamp out doping or root out illegal gambling, for example.

These activities won the IOC high praise and in 2009 the organization was granted "observer status" at the United Nations. This doesn't include voting privileges, but it does mean the IOC can attend all U.N. General Assembly meetings. This puts it on par with the International Committee for the Red Cross. Indeed, the IOC and the United Nations share similar philosophies, as these concluding words from the Olympic Charter would suggest: "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

(The second portion of this article was written by Kosuke Inagaki, senior staff writer of The Asahi Shimbun.)

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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Germany’s Thomas Bach, left, the leading contender for the IOC presidency (Shiro Nishihata)

Germany’s Thomas Bach, left, the leading contender for the IOC presidency (Shiro Nishihata)

  • Germany’s Thomas Bach, left, the leading contender for the IOC presidency (Shiro Nishihata)

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