KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Thomas Bach will not admit it – indeed the president of the International Olympic Committee focuses only on the positive – but he is rapidly losing control of the narrative over the Olympic Games in Tokyo in July and August.
The approach to any major sports event, be it the Olympics or the World Cup, is always hedged around with media and public negativity, whether because of hidden costs or perceived organisational inadequacy. But that is child’s play compared with the shadow looming over the Tokyo Games, the shadow of a worldwide pandemic.
By mid-July most of the world may be emerging from the lockdown nightmare; or may not. No-one knows. The uncertainty fuels the concerns of both those who want the IOC to call a halt now and those who support Bach in his optimism that the Olympic ethos can be revealed in its ultimate glory in Tokyo this summer.
Usually the IOC and its president keep a tight rein on potential critics. They risk harming only themselves by daring challenge the self-righteous grandees of the Olympic family.
So the world has recognised that it must be serious when athletes, coaches and officials throw off the shackles of sporting self-interest to question the certainties evinced by not only Bach but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It all started earlier this week with Canadian Hayley Wickenheiser, a quadruple Olympic ice hockey champion between 2002 and 2014, and a member of the IOC athletes’ commission for the past six years.
She was infuriated by the latest expression of super-confidence after a video conference of the IOC exeutive board was followed by a meeting of the summer Olympics sports federations.
An IOC statement had said: “Just over four months before the opening of the Games, there is no need to take radical decisions and any speculation at this stage would be counterproductive.
“The IOC is confident that the numerous measures taken by the authorities around the world will help to contain the situation regarding the Covid-19 virus.”
Wickenheiser, via Twitter, responded: “Seeing the IOC insist with such conviction that things will go ahead is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity.
“This [coronavirus] crisis is bigger than the Olympics. We don’t know what will happen in the next 24 hours, much less in three months. Should the Olympics be cancelled? Nobody knows at this stage and that is my point of view.
“But to say with certainty that they will move forward is an injustice to the athletes who train and to the world population in general. ”
Commercial facts of life
Of course the IOC is under commercial pressure. Around three-quarters of its projected $4bn income from Tokyo is derived from media rights while the Japanese organisers have their own highly lucrative sponsorship programme plus domestic marketing and ticket riches.
Everyone understands that. But money is not supposed to be everything. Wickenheiser has proved no lone voice. Frustrated individuals in the main Olympics nations echoed her concerns as their training camps were cancelled and general sports facilities shut down.
Then criticism of Bach came even closer to home, from Clemens Prokop, former head of the German athletics association.
Prokop is no fan of the former Olympic champion fencer. This is no secret. He did not mince his words.
He told domestic media that “the IOC’s actions are not understandable from the point of view of common sense. It’s stupid to pretend that the coronavirus crisis may have been resolved worldwide in the next four months.
“Is there, today, almost three months after the Wuhan outbreak, any area in the world where the problem has finally been resolved?
No crisis manager
“The remaining qualification competitions can no longer be organised responsibly. For example: there will be no marathons anywhere in the next few months. So where should a marathon runner reach his qualifying time?”
“I consider Thomas Bach unsuitable as a crisis manager because he does not make the necessary decisions. The IOC is currently doing the opposite of responsible crisis management.”
Bach, simultaneously and conversely, told 220 athletes’ representatives in a conference call that there were still four months to go and “we will keep acting in a responsible way in the interest of the athletes.”
This is the mission statement of every IOC president, that “the athletes are at the heart of the Games.”
Fine words. But what about actions? Clearly, in the present climate of uncertainty, some athletes’ hearts are not in Tokyo 2020.