Interview conducted by Lukas Eberle and Maik Großekathöfer
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committe, talks to SPIEGEL about anti-gay laws, Hamburg’s 2024 bid and the association’s limited responsibility for human rights.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Bach, when’s the last time you visited a German gymnastics festival or watched a game in the soccer district league?
Thomas Bach: To be honest, it’s been a very long time. It’s not that simple for me to watch district league games.
Bach: First of all, because I don’t have that much time. And when I stop by a club, all of this stuff starts. Then people from the neighboring town ask: Why is he visiting them? Why isn’t he also visiting us?
SPIEGEL: Shouldn’t the president of the IOC be interested in what the base is doing?
Bach: What makes you think that I’m not? In late April, there was a 20-km race in Lausanne that I took part in. I didn’t run the entire race — I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. In May I was in the Fiji Islands, coming out of the presidential residence, when I saw a rugby pitch nearby on which a team was training. I walked over, watched and asked a player how things were going. Then they invited me to play.
SPIEGEL: Thomas Bach sprinting over the pitch with a rugby ball under his arm.
Bach: Not exactly. They didn’t let me make a goal, but there is the line-out, a throw-in during which the team lifts up the player so that he can catch the ball from the air. I was supposed to take over this role. I first had to kneel on the ground, kneeled and kneeled, and the players stood around and gave commands which I didn’t understand at all. My thighs were already burning. At some point they realized that I don’t understand any Fiji, and one of them then said in English: Hey, you need to jump too! And so I jumped, and was lifted up, caught the ball and passed it along. It worked wonderfully.
SPIEGEL: The first European Games started in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on June 12. Do you look forward to these tournaments?
Bach: I’m always glad to see sports and athletes.
SPIEGEL: Some people see things differently. In Azerbaijan, there are activists and civil rights campaigners who are in jail because they criticized the European Games.
Bach: The European Games are not being organized by the IOC, but from the European Olympic Committees. But I don’t want to talk my way out of this by being technical.
SPIEGEL: That’s good.
Bach: When members vote for a host, they’re not declaring that they agree with the laws of the country. It’s not a vote for a political system. The IOC isn’t a world government.
SPIEGEL: But it often acts like it is. Before the start of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the IOC emphasized that it was helping open China to the world.
Bach: No, we don’t do that. The Games are a way for us to set an example of an open society that is free of discrimination. We want to create an atmosphere in the Olympic Village in which all athletes can meet in an unprejudiced environment. And if, in the process, this leads to contemplation in the host country, then that’s entirely a good thing. But we have to respect the laws of a sovereign country. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia recently made a measured effort towards the Olympic Games. My reaction was: As long as women cannot have the same access to sports as men do in Saudi Arabia, as long as women can’t even enter the stadium there, we won’t accept an application.
SPIEGEL: You’re making it easy for yourself by taking up sports as an issue. Why don’t you just say: As long as bloggers are whipped in Saudi Arabia, the country will not receive the Games?
Bach: Once more: The IOC is a sports organization. We cannot change what generations of diplomats and a series of UN resolutions have not been able to.
SPIEGEL: Since 2014, paragraph six of the Olympic Charter also bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. For the 2022 Winter Games, there are two candidates: Almaty and Beijing. If you were serious about your charter, you would need to reject both cities.
SPIEGEL: In Kazakhstan, politicians have been pushing a Russian-style anti-gay law for years. And in China there are clinics in which gay men are tortured with electric shocks.
Bach: The responsibilities of the IOC, as well as the opportunities, are tied to the Olympic Games and the processes that are directly related to them. We can only provide an inspiration for the development of societies and countries, not instructions.
SPIEGEL: Then we’ll put it differently: Can you give me an example in which the IOC feels responsible?
Bach: Happily. In Sochi, there were problems with the payment of the construction workers that were being hired to work around the sporting venues. We stepped in on their behalf and spoke with the Russian organization committee. In the end the workers received a back payment of $7 million (€6.2 million). And now, in advance of our selection of the 2022 Games’ host, we are talking to groups like the International Trade Union Confederation and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Two months ago, I visited Human Rights Watch in New York. We also commission our own reports on the situations in Almaty and Beijing.
SPIEGEL: Are we wrong to have the impression that the Olympics are becoming increasingly appealing to dictatorships and pseudo-democracies who are looking to polish their image?
Bach: I often hear the preconceived notion that democratic countries are no longer interested in the Olympic Games. On this issue, I ask myself how “democratic” is being defined. Look at the list of countries that have either hosted the Summer Games or are slated to do it soon: Sydney, Athens, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo …
SPIEGEL: … and Doha in 2024.
Bach: Where are you getting that from?
SPIEGEL: Qatar is considering applying.
Bach: We don’t have any application of theirs in front of us. At the moment Boston, Hamburg, Paris and Rome have declared their intention to apply. So, you can see that your thesis is pretty polemical.
SPIEGEL: In the future, the IOC will allow a host country to relocate sporting events to another country if it doesn’t have the required competition venues. That sounds good, but not great.
Bach: What don’t you like about that?
SPIEGEL: In South Korea, where the next Winter Games will take place, there is no ice track at the moment. The IOC suggested hosting the bobsled and luge events in Japan. The South Koreans decided to build their own facilities.
Bach: Our reform concept, the Agenda 2020, doesn’t yet apply to PyeongChang, because we are limited by our contracts there. But it is true, we made the Koreans the offer. But it wasn’t specific to Japan, they could select a country of their choosing. The Koreans turned it down and we cannot force them. But I cannot conceal that I find that decision regrettable.
SPIEGEL: Why haven’t you trusted yourself to truly streamline the Olympic Games? Who has any idea, for example, which disciplines make up the modern pentathlon?
Bach: Putting together the Olympic program is like trying to square a circle. You’ll never come up with a program that works for everyone. Not even a program that works for everyone in Germany. I feel there are two key issues: Universality and striking the balance between tradition and progress. People have such deeply-rooted feelings about certain sports, some of which are so entwined with the history of the games, that you can’t just simply dispense with them for commercial reasons. The Olympic Agenda 2020 makes the program more flexible. The host country can now propose a sport it would like to see.
SPIEGEL: The Japanese love baseball, so there’ll be baseball in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Baseball was a sport from 1992 to 2008 but it wasn’t exactly a resounding success.
Bach: Just a minute. The Japanese have applied to include 25 sports. At the 2014 Summer Youth Games in Nanjing last year, there was a Sports Lab where we showcased inline skating, skateboarding, wushu and climbing.
SPIEGEL: Do you think skateboarding belongs in the Olympics?
SPIEGEL: Golf will be included in the Rio 2016 Olympics. Not exactly a fashionable sport among young people.
Bach: The decision was made in 2009. And in fact, I do think that golf is popular among young people. Perhaps not on every continent, but that applies to a number of sports.
SPIEGEL: Do you know how much the golf course in Rio is costing?
Bach: I don’t know. But it will be the first public golf course in Rio. So far, all the golf courses are private.
SPIEGEL: It’s costing €20 million. A nature conservation area was destroyed to make way for it. Has the IOC not learnt anything?
Bach: I spoke to the mayor of Rio and he told me that to compensate for the use of the nature conservation area, a new area has been afforested that’s 17 times as big. Moreover, 625,000 seedlings have been planted on the golf course – plants that were there before the golf course was built. The city’s clean water reserves aren’t being used for the irrigation, which uses a revolving system. I’m no hydrotechnician but I know that the golf course doesn’t have any adverse effects on the quantity or the quality of water reserves.
SPIEGEL: Sounds complicated.
Bach: Not everything in life is straightforward.
SPIEGEL: 60,000 trees have been felled to make way for slopes for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Bach: For a start, we proposed to the organizational committee that another slope could be used, but that’s not what they wanted. Secondly, the South Koreans told us that everything was being done in accordance with national rules and regulations.
SPIEGEL: But the law is one thing, common sense is another thing entirely.
Bach: Let me remind you of the first part of my last answer.
SPIEGEL: The IOC boosted transparency in the wake of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games bid scandal. How come the IOC succeeded where Fifa failed?
Bach: The IOC implemented sweeping reforms. For example, it limited the term of office of executive members and the president and reduced the age limit to 70. IOC members are also barred from visiting countries that are bidding.
SPIEGEL: Fifa president Joseph Blatter announced his resignation. But what does Fifa need to do to regain its lost credibility?
Bach: Fifa needs to do two things: First, it needs to launch an extensive investigation into the allegations and establish exactly what happened, and secondly, it needs to introduce major structural reform.
SPIEGEL: Can you understand why the IOC also has an image problem?
Bach: I don’t see that it does. I have met over 120 heads of state and government since assuming office. Everywhere I go, I encounter enormous interest and often, considerable good will. The IOC is an official United Nations General assembly observer. Moreover, no business, no television station would sign deals with us that are valid until 2031 if they didn’t trust the IOC. Consolidating ties to us that are long-term and financially valuable is the best evidence of trust there is.
SPIEGEL: The bids to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Graubünden, Cracow, Stockholm and Munich failed because of public opposition. A referendum will be held in Hamburg this fall that will determine whether the city will bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. Are you worried about the result?
Bach: No. I’m not an opinion pollster but based on everything I’ve heard, there is broad support in Hamburg. There were serious communication problems in Graubünden and Munich, which is why the local referenda failed. For example, it was not made clear that the IOC earmarks $880 million for the organizers.
SPIEGEL: The Euro 2024 looks set to be held in Germany. Could this pose a problem?
Bach: No. A country such as Germany, which is both economically robust and enthusiastic about sport, will be able to cope.
SPIEGEL: You have been a sports official for over 30 years. You were vice president of the IOC when Leipzig’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics failed. As head of the German Olympic Sports Confederation you tried in vain to bring the games to Munich. Now you’re president of the IOC and Hamburg is in the running to bid for the 2024 Olympics. Will your career only be complete if Germany gets to host the Olympics?
SPIEGEL: You’re not saying anything….
Bach: Despite the fact my position demands I remain neutral, I would be delighted if Germany hosted the Olympic Games.