David Owen ©ITG

Home again from sweltering Lausanne after a series of meetings that I ended up feeling taught us quite a lot about how the modern International Olympic Committee (IOC) operates.

I am not talking here about the culmination of the race for the 2026 Winter Olympics, which I wrote about on the day of the vote that saw Milan Cortina triumph. What I mean is rather what you might term the organisation’s "inside baseball".

Let me start - and I have not written this for a few years - with Marius Vizer.

On June 19, the IOC Executive Board confirmed the Austrian as one of four officials added to a taskforce established to deliver qualification events and the boxing tournament at Tokyo 2020. This follows the suspension of the International Boxing Association (AIBA).

When talking about these appointments at the IOC Session a week later, Morinari Watanabe, the taskforce chair, explained simply that Vizer, the International Judo Federation President, was "coming from contact sports".

What he might also have seen fit to mention was that Vizer has one of, if not the most impressive Russian contacts book of anyone in the international sports movement.

Solid cooperation from Russia would, you feel, significantly enhance prospects of delivering a successful Olympic boxing tournament next year.

Yet, I would think there can be no shortage of influential Russians who are probably itching to give the sports movement a bloody nose over what they may perceive as the humiliation of the interminable doping crisis, or at least to use the boxing process as some sort of bargaining-chip.

So Vizer will be a key figure in keeping the taskforce jalopy moving forward and clear of potholes - arguably as much so as Watanabe and Kit McConnell, the IOC sports director.

Now consider that the IOC is in the market for new IOC members from International Federations.

For whatever reason, IOC President Thomas Bach - or should I say Princess Anne? - has not so far seen fit to propose Sebastian Coe Coe or Gianni Infantino, Presidents of respectively the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), for IOC membership, although Bach hinted that they might be soon. Julio Maglione, President of another big Summer Olympic International Federation, the International Swimming Federation (FINA), is 83-years-old and has served his time.

Marius Vizer, left, has been bought back into the fold by Thomas Bach, right, after he appeared to be set to spend the rest of his career in the wilderness following an attack on the IOC President ©IOC
Marius Vizer, left, has been bought back into the fold by Thomas Bach, right, after he appeared to be set to spend the rest of his career in the wilderness following an attack on the IOC President ©IOC

And what about Vizer? Prior to this week, I would have considered his induction beyond the pale. Why? Because of another aspect of the Black Sea resort of Sochi’s toxic legacy for the Olympic Movement: not the notorious anti-doping laboratory; or the "$51 billion Games"; but the 2015 SportAccord General Assembly.

This was where a frustrated Vizer launched a surprise broadside on the IOC, alleging that it lacked transparency and that the Agenda 2020 reform process had brought little benefit to sport. This with Bach sitting alongside Blackberry-wielding delegates in the audience.

Not long afterwards, with International Federations queueing up to suspend their SportAccord memberships, Vizer resigned the organisation’s Presidency. Eventually the late Patrick Baumann, a dependable and able Bach ally, was brought in to replace him.

So the 60-year-old Vizer has been wandering for four years in the Olympic wilderness, while all the time running judo with competence and vision.

Seen in this context, membership of such a sensitive body as the boxing taskforce might be construed as an opportunity to draw a line under the past and through his name in Bach’s little black book.

If the Romanian helps to ensure the boxing competition is a success - bearing in mind, as was pointed out in Lausanne, that the eyes of the world will assuredly be on the tournament - perhaps Bach will graciously conclude that his one-time ambusher can be trusted after all to fill one of those International Federation slots in sport’s most prestigious club.

I would still have to pinch myself if this actually happened. Yet Bach, for all his autocratic tendencies, and in spite of seemingly valuing loyalty above just about any other virtue, has shown a capacity, generally after some time has elapsed, to let bygones be bygones.

A senior IOC figure once confided to me that he had backed the loser in every single vote at the landmark 2013 Session in Buenos Aires where Bach himself was elected. Yet this individual is now firmly ensconced on the IOC Executive Board.

Ser Miang Ng, who ran against Bach, has returned, quite rightly, as a respected member of the IOC Executive Board and is chair of the key Finance Commission. Even Richard Carrión, Bach’s main rival for the Presidency and a man steeped in the realities of international finance more thoroughly than almost anyone else at the IOC, has been found since 2017 on the IOC Digital and Technology Commission, besides serving on the IOC’s three-member AIBA Inquiry Committee led by wrestling’s Nenad Lalović.

In addition to his personal magnanimity, there are two main reasons why, it seems to me, Bach has displayed such an attitude. First, the Olympic Movement is a vast, complex and delicate organism; you simply have to make judicious use of all the talented, influential, experienced people you have if it is to run smoothly. Second, the German one-time fencing champion is at present completely and utterly in control.

Close Thomas Bach ally John Coates did an excellent job selling the proposed new Future Host Commissions to the IOC membership, although in reality it will place greater power in a smaller amount of people ©IOC
Close Thomas Bach ally John Coates did an excellent job selling the proposed new Future Host Commissions to the IOC membership, although in reality it will place greater power in a smaller amount of people ©IOC

Commissions such as those mentioned above, for example, are very much in his gift. The President establishes them "whenever it appears necessary". Except where expressly provided otherwise, he establishes their terms of reference, designates all their members and decides their dissolution "once he considers that they have fulfilled their mandates".

Once again, except where expressly provided otherwise, no meeting of any Commission may be held without his prior agreement. Not only that, the Olympic Charter spells out that he is a "member ex officio" of all Commissions and working groups and "shall have precedence" whenever he attends one of their meetings.

This brings me to the reform of Host-City selection procedures agreed at the Lausanne Session.

John Coates, who chaired the working group that devised the changes, is a master salesman, as well as a vigorous and tactically-astute advocate. Presenting the proposals, he made much of how they would enhance the role of rank-and-file IOC members in the selection process.

This was on the grounds that the two new Future Host Commissions will be advisory bodies to the IOC Executive Board. They would hence consist of non-Executive Board members, since "you cannot advise the body that you sit on, or you shouldn’t".

All fine and dandy, but one of the slides that accompanied Coates’s presentation made clear that, as with other Commissions, the Future Host bodies will be appointed by Bach.

So if he doesn’t like what the new bodies come up with, he will be quite within his rights to, er, refresh the personnel.

In the nearly six years since the German’s election, it seems to me that the culture of the IOC has changed radically.

Nowadays what we observers mainly witness at meetings like last week’s is the President and his kitchen cabinet firstly pumping out the messages and images that they want to pump out and secondly going through the motions of seeking validation for decisions they have taken from a docile membership whose career-paths within the Movement can be very heavily influenced by that same leadership group.

This is far removed from the culture under Jacques Rogge, Bach’s Belgian predecessor, when one frequently felt one was watching the machinations of a genuine international parliament of sport.

Thomas Bach's predecessor as IOC President, Jacques Rogge, had a very different style ©IOC
Thomas Bach's predecessor as IOC President, Jacques Rogge, had a very different style ©IOC

It could certainly be argued that the transformation is a form of modernisation; that a body as cumbersome as the old IOC needed to learn to move more nimbly in a bewilderingly fast-changing world. The potential for corruption under the old system also carried a reputational risk that was far from ideal.

But the old ways also had their strengths, especially when it came to big decisions.

With a hugely diverse and distinguished (yes, really) electorate voting for a multiplicity of different reasons (albeit some very bad), such decisions tended to be well-grounded. Not only that: with the main issues being chewed over from so many different perspectives, prospective elephant-traps could be spotted and avoided.

A relatively independent-minded electorate of this type is also well-equipped to sift genuine paradigm-shifting changes from cycles and fads. The most experienced IOC member of all, Canada’s Richard Pound, articulated this last week by pointing out simply that "what we are calling the 'new reality'…may change too". For the Summer Games of 1984, Pound remembered, there had been only one bidder; yet by 1986, "we had so many candidates that we hardly knew what to do with them".

When, by contrast, a small coterie pulls all the strings, yes, things run more tidily and efficiently, but there is an ever-present danger of blunders because the courtiers cannot bring themselves to tell the emperor that he is wearing no clothes.

A small example of this is Agenda 2020, which I note has started to be referred to in-house as a "revolution". Such a designation would, I am sure, astonish most inhabitants of the outside world - and no, this is not because they fail to understand the niceties and need "education".

Another example is the frequency with which the mantra, "We need to avoid having too many losers", or words to that effect, crops up in the context of host selection. This attitude was summed up rather eloquently to me by one member in the margins at Lausanne as "nonsense", except he used an altogether earthier and more agricultural term.

Yes, there are benefits to nimble, technocratic decision-making. Yes, the IOC has lost ground to cherry-picking commercial sports bodies in recent times. Yes, you might even argue that one wall of the Olympic edifice - the Winter Games - faces an existential crisis, for all we are hearing about the Beijing 2022-inspired Chinese winter sports boom.

The IOC is unique. It needs to sit in its own space, somewhere on an axis between Multinational Corporation and Parliament of Sport.

I left the Olympic capital feeling more than ever that the current pendulum swing is carrying it too close to the former and too far away from the latter.