IOC president hopes for more change, unity in the Olympics

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IOC president hopes for more change, unity in the Olympics

Thomas Bach knew all along what it would be like to be the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). As a longtime power figure of the IOC, he was more than ready for the job when he was elected in September 2013 at the Buenos Aires IOC session. He took the presidency by calling for an “evolution” of the IOC, and spent a “busy and pleasantly surprising” year as its president. In Korea last week for the Incheon Asian Games, he sat down with the JoongAng Ilbo, the first and only one-on-one interview with a Korean news outlet since he became president, and shared the story of his first year.

President Bach is no stranger to Korea, which is to host the 2018 Winter Games in its eastern city of Pyeongchang. He met with President Park Geun-hye for the second time, among the 83 heads of states he has met during presidency. He is best friends with a number of leading figures in the sports. Plus, he has played a behind-the-scenes liaison for the joint march of the two Koreas in the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, a moment he and many Koreans call historic to this day.

Q. The two Koreas marched together during the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Do you expect this to happen again at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang?

A. First of all, this is up to the two Koreas. Then we would be happy to help, to assist and to accommodate. We will be flexible on any possibility, but it’s a choice that must be made by both Koreas. The only advice I can give is to have a dialogue as soon as possible. And the IOC is ready to support that dialogue and any kind of action the Koreas see as appropriate.

You were in Pyongyang some years ago. What was your impression of the process and how the dialogue was made?

It was a different time. It was two years before the joint march in Sydney in 2000, so I know it takes time. This is why starting a dialogue as soon as possible is important. At that time, the political situation was different. To try to present our ideas in North Korea was an interesting experience, but I think it would be inappropriate to go into the details now. But the result was good. It was a joint march with a very special flag. I had tears in my eyes, because even the day before it wasn’t clear what would happen. It was such an intense experience to see such a great moment. I was very emotional.

Korea and Japan have not always had the best relations. The leaders of both countries refuse to meet, but maybe sports could be another contributor in this respect?

I definitely think so. Sports can be an icebreaker. When it comes to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, we can contribute to building bridges.

There could be a lot of inconveniences if there is still friction between the two countries.

But it is not about avoiding inconveniences. Sports is about bringing people together. By bringing people together, we can solve some inconveniences. But the most important thing is to bring people together and have them talk to one another. Then reasonable people will reach solutions. This is what sports can do and what we are good at.

Regarding the bidding process for the 2022 Winter Olympics among Norway, China and Kazakhstan, I heard China has the strongest chance. Do you think there is a possibility that the Games will circulate in Asia after the Olympics in South Korea and Japan?

I don’t believe in this kind of rotation system. It doesn’t have to be any continent. It has to be the best bid. And I think the members will make the right decision.

Regarding the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are still a lot of concerns and criticism about the preparations regarding sponsorship and construction. What is your assessment so far? Do you have any advice?

First of all, in the meeting yesterday [Sept. 18] with President Park [Geun-hye], it was very clear that she and her government were very supportive. And there is a clear will from the IOC, the government and the organizing committee to make these Games a success.

We also see that the organizing committee and the government know that some decisions have to be made now. I told the president yesterday that, on the IOC side, we are very flexible when it comes to decisions, and we should have very close consultations to come quickly to a decision.

President Park was also very appreciative of this and Mr. Cho [Cho Yang-ho, the chairman of the organizing committee] knows about this. So I am sure we will see some dynamism in decision-making. I am very confident because there is a great unity; we have the same analysis by the president, by the government, by the organizing committee and by the IOC, and the relationship is full of trust.

How do you feel about the 2020 Olympic Agenda? (The agenda is a strategic road map for the future of the Olympic movement that was initiated last year. In it, Bach encouraged flexibility among Olympic bid cities. The agenda will be finalized in December.)

We are making good progress. It is now September. This is why I can only be here over the weekend, because in September, we have IOC commission meetings. The IOC commissions will discuss where we are and where we want to go. This is a pretty decisive moment, but I’m confident because the commission meetings so far went very well. There was a lot of support for the agenda. I hope it will go well.

When you became the president, you called for the IOC’s evolution. What is your assessment?

Agenda 2020 is very much about change and evolution. Even in the first 12 months, we have already taken some steps. I think the most important thing was to open up the IOC, to open the windows and let the fresh air come in, and to be open to partnerships, for instance, by signing an agreement with the United Nations. Then hopefully you will see more changes and evolution with regard to the bidding process.

I also hope the project for an Olympic channel will be approved. This is what I meant by evolution.

What is surprising is the great support in the first year. Already after one year we are in a position to make changes. When I was elected over the five other candidates, I thought it would take at least two years to make the IOC more united. I am very grateful to its members and the stakeholders.

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