Germany’s Thomas Bach, a long-ago fencing medalist, gets to the point and is used to foiling problems.
SOCHI, Russia — Vladimir Putin isn’t the only president with a lot riding on the Sochi Olympics.
Thomas Bach will be presiding over his first games as head of the International Olympic Committee: For the first time in 12 years, someone other than Jacques Rogge will be in charge.
It’s a daunting debut for Bach, a 60-year-old German and former Olympic fencing gold medalist who was elected the IOC’s ninth president in September in Buenos Aires.
Rather than easing into the top job, Bach is being thrown straight into the fire, starting his term with one of the most contentious Olympics in years. If that wasn’t enough, he’ll then face another major challenge: the delay-plagued 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
With Sochi, Bach has to tread a fine line of supporting the host country and being attuned to the uproar over the law against gay “propaganda” and allegations of corruption in the $51 billion Olympic project. The threat of terror attacks by Islamic insurgents from the North Caucasus has added to the volatile mix.
Bach knew what he was getting into when he sought the top job. And, despite all the concerns swirling around Sochi, he says there are no worries keeping him awake at night.
“I’m sorry to tell you I’m sleeping very well,” Bach said. “Fear is a very bad adviser. It is not a category in which I think. I knew about the challenges of this office before I decided to run. I’m really looking forward to this first Winter Games under my presidency and I’m very confident they will be successful.”
Bach checked into his room in the athletes’ village on Sunday, continuing a tradition started by Rogge. The presidents sleep in the village as often as possible, though they also stay in a nearby luxury hotel where the IOC holds meetings.
Bach chairs a one-day IOC executive board meeting in Sochi on Sunday and then convenes a 21/2-day session of the full IOC general assembly beginning Wednesday. A global television audience will get a close look at the diminutive, bespectacled president when he speaks at Friday’s opening ceremony.
While the buildup to the Olympics has been dominated by negative headlines, Bach believes the tone will change once the competitions begin.
“We always have before the games political discussions — we have concerns,” he said. “But the people around the world know that this is, first of all, about sports. I’m really confident that we will have a very good Olympic atmosphere.”
Rogge, an orthopedic surgeon and former Olympic sailor from Belgium, was credited with keeping a steady hand and bringing stability to the IOC after the turmoil of the Salt Lake City bidding scandal. But, in the final stages of his presidency, Rogge looked weary, slow and out of steam.
The contrast has been dramatic with Bach’s arrival. He’s had a whirlwind first few months in office, traveling around the globe to meet world leaders and Olympic officials.
Having served at the top levels of the IOC for many years and holding several high-profile positions, Bach — winner of team foil gold at the 1976 Montreal Games — didn’t require much of a transition period or learning curve. He has quickly taken charge and moved to chart his own course.
Bach has gone to the United Nations to speak to the General Assembly and has met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. He was in Brazil last week, urging the government and Olympic organizers to speed up the troubled 2016 preparations.
One of Bach’s first trips was in October to Sochi, where he met with Putin and checked out the Olympic venues.
Behind the scenes, Bach has been just as busy. He convened a four-day “brainstorming” retreat of the executive board in December.
In Sochi, Bach will make a big push for “Olympic Agenda 2000,” his blueprint for the rest of the decade. The program includes possible changes to the bidding process, sports program and 70-year age limit for IOC members.
The issues will be put up for debate among the 100-plus IOC members at the general assembly next week. Afterward, proposals and recommendations will be drawn up and submitted for approval at a special IOC session in December in Monaco.
Bach has espoused a more flexible system for deciding which sports are in the Summer Olympics. Rogge imposed a cap of 28 sports and 10,500 athletes for the games. IOC leaders are considering whether the 28-sport limit should be scrapped, reducing disciplines and events within existing sports to allow for new sports to come in.
The move is driven by the fallout from last year’s surprising decision to drop and then reinstate wrestling, defeating the original plan of adding a new sport for 2020. Baseball-softball and squash were left out.
Bach has said that baseball-softball could still be included in the 2020 Tokyo Games because of the popularity of those sports in Japan. That will require changes in the Olympic rules.
A hot topic promises to be whether to reinstate member visits to bid cities. Those were banned in the wake of the Salt Lake City scandal, in which 10 members resigned or were expelled for accepting inducements. Many members feel it’s time to bring back visits in organized groups and paid for by the IOC.
For now, though, Bach’s focus is on making Sochi a success.
“So far he has dealt with all the pressures in an exemplary fashion,” IOC vice president Craig Reedie of Britain said. “While there inevitably will be more pressures on him the next 16-17 days, I’m sure he will come through it with flying colors.”