Whichever way it goes, the upcoming elections to elect the new president of the International Olympic Committee will be conditioned by the alliances that are being reshaped at the international level and that are the result of the new cold war that is underway. The candidatures of Sebastian Coe, Kirsty Coventry and Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr.

by Guido Talarico

The elections for the next president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), scheduled for 2025 during the 142nd IOC session in Athens, will be very much influenced by the outcome of the Ukrainian conflict. What will happen in the coming months on the international political chessboard will in fact also decisively influence the election of the president of the world’s top sports organisation, which could even be brought forward from the normal deadline. But let’s go step by step and try to understand the different possible scenarios in both the geopolitical and sporting spheres. Let us start with the latter.

The International Olympic Committee is grappling with one of the most complex and delicate issues in its history of almost 129 years. It has to decide whether or not to admit athletes from the two nations that triggered the war in Ukraine, namely Russia and Belarus, as neutral athletes. To tell the truth, this is not an entirely new situation: since it was founded in Paris in 1894, the IOC has faced two world wars, boycotts, scandals and the cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, later postponed by a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The issue to be addressed, in essence, concerns the readmission to competitions of athletes from the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus, the two nations that militarily invaded Ukraine on 22 February last year. The decision should take into account the Olympic Charter, which promotes peace, unity and respect among peoples, and the UN resolution on the unifying and conciliatory nature of international sporting events. But there is not only this aspect to take into account. The beliefs and political sensibilities of individual IOC members, continental Olympic associations and international federations must be considered. Finally, there is the not insignificant question of the possible boycotts of results that, in the event of disagreement, could be put in place by various nations, some even European ones, with the inevitable loss of consensus and, above all, of sponsors on the part of the Olympic movement. In short, never before have war conflicts and geopolitical tensions had such an impact on the choices of the sports world.

Thomas Bach and Xi Jinping 

The current IOC president, Germany’s Thomas Bach, has announced a worldwide ‘path of exploration’ to find ways to readmit Russian and Belarusian athletes in a neutral form, without flag, anthem or national colours and respecting different criteria. The aim is to allow their participation in the Paris 2024 Olympics through the qualifiers that have already begun in some sports. In short, Bach’s seems like a classic compromise solution.

In justifying it, Bach emphasised the importance of the Olympics’ neutrality and rejected the idea of excluding athletes on the basis of citizenship alone, also arguing that the Olympics can promote dialogue especially in times of tension such as the current ones. This approach, however, did not please Kiev who would like to see Russia and Belarus condemned and excluded from the games. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, openly criticised the IOC for this approach, but Bach stood his ground, reiterating the importance of the Olympic principles of neutrality and peace.

As can be easily guessed, this choice by the IOC risks being dramatically divisive and splitting the International Olympic Committee. This is already happening in other major international organisations such as the United Nations or the World Bank. This stems from an obvious fact: the world order is changing rapidly in recent years. The new activism of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the closer cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, and the peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran are examples of how the world order is evolving towards a polarisation that targets the United States and its allies (Europe, Australia, South Korea and Japan). In such an opposing and tense scenario, where the war in Ukraine is yet another serious episode in a new cold war that is dividing the world, it is clear that even the IOC is forced to play the battle of its life. A battle that will have to be played inspired more by the principles of von Clausewitz than those of de Coubertin.

It is equally clear that this battle, as we said at the beginning, will decide the next IOC presidential election. It still takes a long time to decide who will be the replacement for Bach, who has been president since 10 September 2013. But in Lausanne, according to tradition, the games start much earlier. And then there is, as we mentioned, an uncontrolled and unconfirmed rumour that Bach is ready to resign if his mediation on the Ukrainian dossier fails. Let us also try to clarify here, starting with the forces in the field.

Let us start by examining the rumour about Bach’s early exit. History teaches us that nobody resigns two years in advance. But this time there is a decisive issue on the table, which is the very existence of the International Olympic Committee as we have seen it in recent decades. In other words, if his mediation proposal was not accepted, Bach, who is a serious executive with a high sense of institutions, could in fact feel forced to read the rejection as a clear sign of mistrust of his work and therefore, precisely to protect the IOC itself, he would have no choice but to give way early.

It is for this reason that among the members of the International Olympic Committee, an elite made up of varied personalities who nevertheless constitute a true international diplomacy parallel to the official one, the rumour of a more imminent change of the guard runs through a thousand phone calls and more or less official meetings. The hypotheses overlapping on the possible candidates to replace Bach in the end are not many. Let us look at them.

We start with the most fascinating hypothesis: a female candidate. Among the names in the running are Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Youth and Sports and two-time Olympic gold medallist in the 200 backstroke, and Nicole Hoevertsz, 58, from Aruba, a former synchronised swimming champion and chairwoman of the IOC coordination commission for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

After this female duo comes a big name. We refer to Lord Sebastian Coe, the British two-time Olympic gold medallist in the 1500 metres, president of the London 2012 Olympics and current leader of World Athletics. A great athlete who has also developed excellent managerial skills and, above all, who has a name of weight in the Anglo-Saxon Olympic family.

Other possible successors to Bach include Morinari Watanabe, 63-year-old president of the International Gymnastics Federation, and Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs, 63-year-old son of the former IOC president, the legendary Don Juan Antonio Samaranch, who led the organisation from 1980 to 2001. As we said, we are only talking about rumours, those rumours that typically arrive at times of difficulty or transition. However, another element, this one more objective, can be added. A defeat for Bach, and his possible early exit, would be a defeat for Europe and the United States. Which, given the air in the air, would be consistent with the growing anti-American sentiment internationally.

Juan Antonio Samaranch

This must suggest that Bach’s replacement, whether he arrives in 2023 or 2025 matters little, will have to take into account the new international balances. Which means that it will take personalities of great balance. Men, or perhaps women, less tied to the United States (which objectively weakens Coe) and characterised by great diplomatic skills, a trait that would help a great diplomat like Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs and Kirsty Coventry, as a woman and an African. Another element that Lausanne takes for granted is that in the new Executive Council the vice-presidents will certainly have more delegations and thus more power. We shall see, for now we are only at the beginning. What is certain is that this race for Olympic power is not a sprint but a marathon. The Olympic race par excellence.

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