Loth as I am to call the good men and women of the International Olympic Committee self-important, there was a time early in 2018, two years, one month, and several lifetimes ago, when some of them seemed quite convinced that their work running the world’s largest sports day was worthy of a Nobel peace prize. Angela Ruggiero, who was then the head of their athletes’ commission, said she thought it ought to be given to the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team that lost all five games it played at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The IOC’s former marketing director Michael Payne agreed, and sent a tweet soon after: “Nobel Peace Prize beckoning.”
Presumably it would have been split 36 ways, one share for each of the 35 players in the Korean squad, and the largest part the reflected glory that fell on the IOC president, Thomas Bach, who insisted the Games were “opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean peninsula”. In the end, the Nobel committee demurred, and Bach had to make do with something called the Cem Papandreou peace award, a prize that has never received so much publicity as it did from the IOC’s own website when Bach picked it up “on behalf of the Olympic movement and all the members of the International Olympic Committee”.
Six months after the ceremony, North Korea started missile testing again, and the dream of achieving peace and reconciliation in the Korean peninsula through the medium of Olympic ice hockey began to seem, again, what the cynics had always suspected it to be: a wonderful public-relations opportunity for everyone involved.
Bach isn’t the first IOC president to covet a Nobel. Back in the early 1990s his predecessor, and mentor, Juan Antonio Samaranch even hired an advertising agency to lobby the Nobel prize committee on the IOC’s behalf. And he felt pretty damn foolish about it when a Norwegian newspaper exposed the story, too. It’s an odd look, after all, that a man who’s supposed to be in the business of handing out gongs should be so keen on receiving them, but Bach grew up in West Germany and was a prominent spokesman against the political boycott of the Moscow 1980 Games, so really believes some of this stuff. And he has done most of his campaigning in public.
Just last year Bach persuaded the United Nations to pass a resolution promising to honour an “Olympic truce” during the Tokyo Games. “With the adoption of the Olympic truce resolution today, you are supporting the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as this true symbol of peace in our world,” Bach told them. “Today is therefore a welcome opportunity to reaffirm the commitment of the IOC to our shared values of peace, solidarity, and respect.” The resolution passed unanimously. Who, after all, was going to stand up and protest against world peace? Even the Russians were all for it, and they launched a five-day war with Georgia the day before the Beijing Summer Olympics started, then annexed the Crimea a week after the Sochi Winter Games had finished.
So the UN didn’t even need to vote on it. Which may have been a relief, given the IOC’s record in the recent referendums in Boston, Calgary, Budapest, Davos, Hamburg, Innsbruck, Krakow, Munich, and all the other potential host cities who have pulled out of bidding for the Games because the residents simply couldn’t see that they were worth the enormous cost of hosting them.
Which gets at the problem with Bach’s Hallmark card philosophy of peace through sport. It would be harmless enough if it didn’t seem so much like a thick coat of whitewash on everything that’s gone wrong with the Olympic movement in recent years. Little things, like the state-sponsored doping programme at Sochi 2014, and the endemic corruption and waste at Rio 2016. The IOC botched its handling of both.
Now, in 2020, the IOC finally has an opportunity to take on the sort of global leadership role that Bach has so often claimed for it. Because if the delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis for the IOC, it’s also an opportunity for it to prove the Games really do have a greater significance to us all. And its leaders being criticised for delaying the decision to postpone the Games so much longer than many of the competitors felt was necessary (as recently as three weeks ago Bach was still insisting that they would go ahead as scheduled) that will matter less, in the end, than what comes now, and whether the IOC gets its next steps right.
Rearranging the Games will be a hellishly complicated job, with myriad challenges, an unfathomable number of unforeseen snags and hitches. Get it right, and these Tokyo Games won’t just go down as a triumph of sporting logistics, but of the human spirit. Because after the 12 months we’re all in for, the world is sure going to feel ready for a party sometime next summer. And gloriously trivial as running and jumping and swimming and all the rest of it are, the Olympics will be something for millions of sports fans to look forward to at a time when there’s so little else for them to get excited about that half a million people are tuning in to watch marble races live on YouTube.
And they’ll be a sign, too, that normality’s back, that we’ve all come through it. In recent years it’s often felt as if the Olympics are the greatest show on earth despite the IOC, rather than because of it. If it pulls this off, it will prove otherwise. And it will deserve every credit, as well as, who knows, maybe a prize or two, too.