WELT exclusive: Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, on the postponement of the Toyko Summer Games to 2021, the coronavirus pandemic as a time for solidarity, and the harsh criticism he has faced.

Olympic House in Lausanne is empty. Most of the 500 or so staff at the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have been working from home since 16 March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. IOC President and 1976 Olympic fencing champion Thomas Bach is one of them. The most important man in world sport is not currently receiving visitors and has also cancelled all travel.

The 66-year-old Franconian is running the Olympic Movement from his private retreat on the shores of Lake Geneva by means of video and telephone conferencing. The postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games to the summer of 2021 (23 July to 8 August) has created a unique challenge for the movement.

Nothing like it has ever happened before in the 124-year history of the modern games – the most important sporting event in the world – and as a result, the head of the IOC has just experienced the most turbulent weeks of his seven years in office. And his crisis management has not been universally applauded. 

WELT AM SONNTAG: Herr Bach, how does it feel to be the bogeyman of world sport?

Thomas Bach: You could perhaps get that impression from a certain section of the German press, but in reality I think it’s far from being true. When you consider that the postponement of the Games was supported by all 206 National Olympic Committees, all the Summer Olympic Federations, all IOC members and the athletes’ representatives elected by their peers, then the situation is pretty clear. It took us just three days to get agreement for the postponement of the Olympic Games and another six to announce a new date. That speaks for itself.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Worldwide, though, you have been severely criticised for being so slow to reschedule the Olympic Games. You were even accused of stubbornness and arrogance. It was said that you refused to listen to advice and were out of touch. That must surely have got under your skin?

Bach: „Worldwide” simply isn’t true. There was very broad support for our approach. Even the heads of state and government of the G20 countries praised us in a statement. The World Health Organization supported our approach, as did the IOC Athletes’ Commission and the athletes’ commissions on all five continents. There was a very positive response from influencers within the Olympic Movement. Yes, there was also some criticism, especially in some countries, such as Germany. But we need to see that in perspective. I have had a lot of support from my home country too, though these voices haven’t often been heard in the media.

WELT AM SONNTAG: How do you explain the especially harsh criticism you’ve received in your home country?

Bach: As ever, we can’t speak of „the” German media, since there have also been examples of balanced reporting. It’s a well-known fact, though, that there are a handful of people in the media who make no secret of their personal animosity towards me. So far as they are concerned, I haven’t made a single good decision in over ten years. This animosity finds particularly forceful expression on social media, with the people in question sometimes even resorting to defamatory statements in their attempts to intimidate those who express a different view. 

WELT AM SONNTAG: They claim you treat the Games like your own private property. That you alone make the big decisions.

Bach: There have been all kinds of conspiracy theories. The facts paint a completely different picture. We started addressing the way the coronavirus was spreading back in mid-February, when we set up a special task force that included the World Health Organization. Since then we have continually adjusted our approach and our planning in line with the recommendations of that task force. On 17, 18 and 19 March we held numerous telephone conferences to consult on the way ahead. Yet again, we made it clear that the number one priority driving our decisions must be the health of the participants and the battle to prevent the spread of the virus. The vote, which involved all 206 NOCs – including the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) – and the Summer Olympic Sports Federations, was unanimous. Nor were our principles seriously challenged during a telephone conference with 220 athlete representatives from all five continents. On 21 March, when we were informed about the massive spread of the coronavirus in South America and Africa, I called an emergency meeting of the IOC Executive Board for the next day. Because until then, the main question had been whether Japan could be a safe host, but now the question facing us was whether the world could be a safe guest.

WELT AM SONNTAG: What courses of action did you consider at that point?

Bach: There were only two options. The Games would either have to be cancelled – as some people were demanding, for partly understandable emotional reasons – or postponed. But giving into those emotional demands and cancelling the Games would have meant destroying the Olympic dream for 11,000 athletes from 206 NOCs and the ICO Refugee Olympic Team, as well for all their trainers, mentors, families and friends, and for the people of Japan too. So cancellation was not really an option for anyone involved in the decision.

WELT AM SONNTAG: So postponement was the only option?

Bach: Yes. But, unlike cancellation, this was not a decision the IOC could take on its own. And to counter the conspiracy theories on this point, too, I want to make it clear that the IOC’s insurance would have covered cancellation, but does not cover postponement. But postponement required the agreement of the Organising Committee, which needed to be prepared to carry on for another year; and the Japanese government also had to be willing to go on supporting the preparations. We tabled the postponement on 22 March but, given the sheer scale of the Olympic Games, our Japanese friends obviously could not give an immediate Yes or No to the idea. We weren’t dealing with the postponement of a football match or city marathon here. We were dealing with 11,000 athletes from all over the world; 50 world championships in 33 different sports, all in the same place and within the space of 16 days; as well as partners in the worlds of sport, business and politics, all of whom had to be brought on board.  Two days later, I reached agreement with the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzō Abe, that the Games should be rescheduled. I would ask people to remember that, at that point, there were still discussions going on about an April date for the Bundesliga and Champions League to start up again. Wimbledon was still in the calendar. Even now, the Tour de France has still not been cancelled.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Didn’t you also bow to increasing pressure from the athletes themselves? The Canadian ice hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser – four-times Olympic champion and member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission – called the IOC’s tactics “insensitive and irresponsible”. On 21 March sabre fencer Max Hartung, chairman of the DOSB Athletes’ Commission, became the first athlete to announce he would not be taking part in the Olympics, in order to take a stand. Yet on 22 March you were still saying you would make a decision within the next four weeks.

Bach: We really cannot be accused of either undue hesitation or a lack of consultation or transparency. The process was simply the result of consultations with our Japanese partners, which progressed much faster than our initial discussions on 22 March had led us to expect. Of course every athlete who has qualified for the Olympics has the right to decide for themselves whether to take part or not. Max Hartung himself said on 17 March that there shouldn’t be any hasty decisions.  And during our conference call the next day with 220 athlete representatives from all over the world, he said nothing to suggest he would not be taking part. On the contrary, he even advocated a relaxation of the qualifying criteria for marathon runners.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Before the postponement was announced, the Canadian Olympic Committee went so far as to decide it would boycott the Games if they went ahead on the original dates.

Bach: Under the terms of the  Olympic Charter, every NOC is obliged to send a team to the Olympic Games. This rule was put in place in the wake of the boycotts of 1980 and 1984.

WELT AM SONNTAG: So an athlete who has qualified for the Olympic Games can take part even if their NOC chooses not to send a team?

Bach: It is our view that no group, however constituted, can override the right of the individual athlete to decide. We would even take any necessary steps to assist individual athletes in the exercise of this right.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Can you understand the criticism expressed by a lot of athletes who wanted the IOC to be more open in its communications, to enable them to better understand the issues involved in the decision?

Bach: I can understand the emotions involved very well. The coronavirus situation was really coming to a head that weekend, both in Germany and around the world. I can also understand it on the basis of my own experience of the boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow. I know how focused and stressed athletes are immediately before the Olympics, and that they don’t want anything or anyone to distract them. So I totally understand the occasional emotional statement or criticism. But when you’re in a position of responsibility, you can’t base your decisions in these emotional situations on your gut feelings. At the end of the day, it’s about the long-term survival of the Olympic Games and their cultural heritage. The only decision we could possibly have taken sooner would have been to cancel, and none of the athlete representatives from around the world who took part in our conference call wanted that.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Dagmar Freitag, Chair of the Sports Committee in the Bundestag, has said this is the second time your actions have raised doubts about your leadership – the first being your response to Russian state doping, which she says fell short of the duty of an IOC president to represent and protect the Olympic values  – and has also said that „The athletes are taking their Games back”.

Bach: When you have the support of all 206 NOCs and all the Summer Olympic International Federations, when you don’t just have the agreement of the IOC Athletes’ Commission elected by the participants at the Olympic Games, but also of the continental athletes’ commissions, all the IOC members and your Japanese partners, then you really don’t need to worry about that kind of comment. The athletes are at the heart of the Olympic Games, they are involved in every IOC decision and have both a seat and a vote on the Executive Board. 15 of them are IOC members, elected by Olympic athletes to represent their interests at the IOC. The Games have always been for the athletes, and they always will be.

WELT AM SONNTAG: There was also a huge outcry about the boxing qualifiers that took place in London in March. They were held under the auspices of the IOC, since the International Boxing Association (AIBA) has been suspended, and had to be called off after two days. Afterwards, several of the participants tested positive for the coronavirus.

Bach: The first and most important thing to say is that all those we have heard from directly have either recovered or are on the road to recovery. No one can say whether they acquired the infection in London or not. The tournament complied strictly with all the rules then in force in Great Britain. And it wasn’t the only sporting or cultural event still being held there at that time. There weren’t yet any coronavirus-related restrictions in place. As soon as we saw that the situation was deteriorating, we called the tournament off, even before the British government imposed new measures.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Do you regret not making the decision to postpone the Olympic Games sooner?

Bach: No. I am convinced we made a considered, rational decision, thereby saving the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which is in the interests of everyone involved.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Some sceptics are already claiming the pandemic could prevent the Games taking place next year too.

Bach: Here, too, we are being guided by our task force and the WHO. The WHO supported our choice of summer 2021 as the new date and has assured the Japanese Prime Minister of its assistance in making the Games a success. Our number one priority of course remains the health of the athletes and everyone else involved in the Games, as well as the containment of the virus. This will continue to guide all our decision-making.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Why not just reschedule the Games for 2022? 

Bach: Both our Japanese partners and the Prime Minister made it very clear to me that Japan could not manage a postponement beyond next summer at the latest. It’s a mammoth undertaking, both for the Organising Committee and the country as a whole. It’s hard for outsiders to imagine. First of all, you need to secure the availability of the Olympic Village, since that’s at the heart of the Games. The same applies to all the sports venues. Thousands of people will need to carry on working. All the partners, sponsors, and regional and local governments need to pull together. You can’t postpone all that indefinitely as you could with a tennis tournament or a football match. Postponement will involve restrictions and compromises on the part of everyone involved. There is no blueprint for postponement, but I am very confident that all the complex parts will come together and give us a marvellous Games.

WELT AM SONNTAG: How much will the postponement add to the costs?

Bach: That is impossible to say for now. We agreed with the Prime Minister that Japan will continue to cover the costs it would have done under the terms of the existing agreement for 2020, and the IOC will continue to be responsible for its share of the costs. For us, the IOC, it is already clear that we shall be faced with several hundred million dollars of additional costs.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Was there ever a point when you just wanted to give up?

Bach: No. 

WELT AM SONNTAG: Do you view this first-ever postponement of the Olympic Games as a personal defeat?

Bach: No. I don’t consider myself responsible for the coronavirus outbreak.

WELT AM SONNTAG: What makes it so very much harder to reschedule the Olympic Games than it would be for a European Football Championship, for example?

Bach: Firstly, the European Football Championship has been rescheduled before now to make it possible for the national leagues and the Champions League to finish their season. Secondly, there are only 24 teams involved in the European Football Championship, playing in a dozen stadiums across 12 countries, whereas there are 206 national teams involved in the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games all take place in the same location over 16 days: so that’s 50 world championships in 33 different sports, all at the same time. The venues are not spread out across 12 different countries or cities. The Olympic athletes aren’t distributed across various hotels, they all live together under one roof in the Olympic Village. There are well over 20,000 media accreditations for the Olympics. I could go on and on …

WELT AM SONNTAG: Many sports federations and NOCs would have gone bankrupt long ago without their IOC funding.  The IOC is providing 590 million dollars for each of the Tokyo Games, but now there’s going to be a one-year delay. How are these organisations – already on their knees financially – supposed to survive in the meantime?

Bach: We are in talks with the NOCs and international sports federations and have already put some immediate measures in place. All Olympic grants to the NOCs to cover their preparations for the Games will be extended by a year, and this also applies to the grants for the 1600 athletes worldwide and the IOC Refugee Team. The total IOC grant package, which now runs from 2017 to 2021, amounts to some 110 million US dollars.

WELT AM SONNTAG: In this respect, too, the athletes are demanding more financial transparency and direct grants from the IOC.

Bach: Financial transparency is absolutely assured. The IOC publishes an annual report, audited in accordance with the highest international financial reporting standards (IFRS). These reports can be viewed by anyone at any time. In addition, we recently held a multi-day athletes forum attended by athlete representatives from more than 185 NOCs, 50 international federations and all five continental athletes’ commissions, at which we discussed our financing and cashflow with the athletes.  In response, the forum called for our solidarity model to be strengthened so that, as with other sports, the teams can share in the economic success of the Olympic Games. The German Olympic Sports Confederation, for example, will receive around 30 million euros for its participation in the Winter and Summer Games of this Olympiad, some of it from the IOC direct and some from the marketing rights granted by the IOC. This money is intended as support for the German athletes.

WELT AM SONNTAG: There is one big winner from the postponement, at least – the dopers have never before had it this easy. How powerless does this make you feel?

Bach: No one should feel confident that they won’t get caught. The measures that have been introduced by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) with the support of the IOC will be effective, as will the steps being taken by the IOC in association with the International Testing Agency as part of the Pre-Games Testing Program. We will be taking a range of approaches, one of which is that samples taken during pre-Games testing will be frozen and kept for ten years. As soon as improved testing methods become available, these samples will be re-tested. In addition, the Pre-Games Testing Task Force is analysing in detail which sports and which athletes are most involved, and which substances are most commonly used. As soon as the coronavirus restrictions have been lifted, we will be building on this with a new, targeted Pre-Games Testing Program that will continue right up to the start of the Games. The extra time now available will give us the opportunity to use and validate new testing methods.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Russia has been excluded from the 2020 Olympic Games because of doping offences. If the ban were lifted next year, would the country be permitted to take part, even though it has been decided they will still be the Tokyo 2020 Games? And what about individual doping offenders who would not have been permitted to take part this year, but whose suspension will have expired before the Games open on 23 July 2021?

Bach: The Russia question is currently under consideration by the CAS, the independent international Court of Arbitration for Sport, so it wouldn’t be right for me to comment on it. WADA, the responsible body, has clarified that under the current rules doping bans are chronological and not event-specific. The IOC has tried on several occasions to introduce rules that would exclude athletes convicted of doping from the subsequent Olympic Games. Unfortunately, CAS has never allowed this. 

WELT AM SONNTAG: Who would you have hoped would be more supportive in the biggest crisis ever to face world sport?

Bach: In critical situations like this, you can’t expect universal support. You can’t satisfy everyone. The support that really counted was the trust that the Olympic Movement placed in its leadership. This support never wavered, even when some of the critical voices were at their loudest and most public. The many personal messages I have received from all over the world in the last three or four weeks have also been very uplifting. And the many supportive messages from countries that have been hit hardest by the virus – Italy and Spain, for example – have been especially moving.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Why do you believe the second Olympic Games in Tokyo will be successful despite the historic handicap of the postponement?

Bach: It’s not about the Games being successful despite the postponement, it’s about them being held after the coronavirus emergency has ended and therefore being an opportunity for people from all over the world to come together again and celebrate our resilience and our emergence from a terrible crisis. I am hoping that the socio-political discussions about the crisis are clearly showing that we all need to stand together more firmly, right across the world, and that we need to show even more solidarity than before. That we need less egotism, both in our societies and in our nations. This crisis is demonstrating yet again that no one can solve the great challenges facing our world on their own.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Will the postponement of the Games also affect your possible re-election as IOC President next year?

Bach: I haven’t yet decided whether to stand for re-election or not. We don’t even have a date for next year’s IOC Session as yet. It had been planned for next June, in Athens, but the postponement of the Games will make that impossible. For now the priority is to devote all our energies to leading the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games through this crisis, and to ensuring that we emerge from it in a strong position to take on the role that sport and the Olympic Games will play in future in a changed society.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Have you set a deadline for your decision?

Bach: The deadline is set by the Olympic Charter. The decision must be taken six months before the election. So there’s still plenty of time.

WELT AM SONNTAG: How many years have you aged in the course of dealing with this unprecedented challenge?

Bach: We have just released a video with a message from the Olympic athletes and myself urging people to stay active, stay strong, stay healthy and keep doing sport, even during this crisis, and I have been getting quite a few compliments about it. So the feedback rather seems to point in the other direction!

WELT AM SONNTAG: To what extent is the pandemic affecting your daily life? 

Bach: It’s been turned upside down, as it has for everyone. All decisions are now made over the phone or in video conferences. I don’t have my morning walk to the office or the familiar routine of being with colleagues. Just very occasionally there is an absolutely essential meeting at Olympic House, and then a small group of IOC staff get together, though always staying well apart from one another. That’s a huge change. On the other hand, there is also an up-side, since these necessarily very rigidly timed telephone conferences mean I can find the time to get out into the fresh air and do some sport for an hour or two to keep myself physically and mentally fit. I can’t do that when I’m in the office. 

WELT AM SONNTAG: How many kilometres do you do every day on your exercise machine or when you’re out jogging?

Bach: I don’t count kilometres. The mountains around Lausanne provide plenty of opportunity for increasing my pulse rate and working up a good sweat within a short space of time. Rather like the athletes of ancient times.

WELT AM SONNTAG: Doesn’t the lockdown apply to you in Lausanne too? Especially since your age puts you in the higher risk group?

Bach: We’re allowed to go outside for exercise provided we’re alone and comply with all the restrictions.

WELT AM SONNTAG: How will you be spending Easter?

Bach: I shall be on my own, unfortunately. My wife is in Germany. For me that means developing my househusbandry skills: cooking, cleaning, washing up. Other than that, I’ll be doing IOC work and also intensifying my physical exercise in the Swiss mountains a little. No Easter egg hunt for me, though.