I organized a small luncheon yesterday for Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). A gold medalist in fencing and long-time activist in the Olympic movement, Bach is a German national who has dedicated his life to the proposition that sport is the ultimate unifying force in society. He believes in the original Olympic ideal of adversaries able to put down their arms in order to achieve the best of humanity through competition in sport. Here are a few of his comments from yesterday:
- Policy of Encouragement, Instead of Blunt Instrument of Sanction — “We will not sanction athletes for the wrongdoing of others. We believe in allowing all clean athletes to compete whatever their country or its officials may have done. Our Olympic Solidarity program enables participation by those even from countries that may be under fire from the international community or those that may find it hard to afford to send athletes to the Games.”
- Women in Sports — “We are pushing countries to train and bring an equal number of women and men. We are trying to create mixed gender events and encourage the Sports Federations to experiment with formats, such as the 4X400 relay with men and women runners.”
- Broad Number of Sports — “Ninety percent of the money that we make from sponsors and at the Games goes back into the sports and athletes - we support the less popular sports and those such as rowing, wrestling or fencing, which may not have the revenue to stage international competitions by themselves. This is the heritage of the Olympics. But we are also adding new sports. With baseball, sport climbing, skateboarding and surfing coming onto the program for Tokyo 2020.”
- Advocacy of Physical Education — “I went to Silicon Valley three years ago, to visit Google, Facebook and Apple. I asked the executives whether they believe there will be sports as we know them in 50 years, given the amount of screen time of today’s youth. We know that we need to deal with obesity and the associated diseases through more fitness. Somehow sport is considered a distraction from educational excellence; in fact it is the best way to excel in studies. We are having to go where the young kids are, but no way will we be adding eSports to the Olympic program in the immediate future. Many parents see eSports as a negative influence in terms of health and exercise.”
- Values-Based Organization — “We are a community of 206 National Olympic Committees. We invite at least six athletes to the Games from each of the smaller countries. We are the ultimate melting pot during the two weeks of the Games. We represent the best hope of mankind in proving that people of all nations can get along. We seek to unite, not to divide. We do not accept the new tolerance of discrimination based on populism. We know from history where that landed the world.”
- The Political Role of the IOC — Mr. Bach described the delicate dance with sovereign nations with parochial interests. “We are absolutely politically neutral. We made a big effort to attract North Korea to the Winter Games in 2018. We provided the North Korean teams with equipment, with training and coaching. When North Korea and South Korea walked together at the opening ceremony under the Korean Unification Flag, it was a big achievement for the world and opened the way for the political negotiations that followed.”
- The Ability to Inspire — One of the luncheon guests, Warren Fernandez, managing editor of The Straits Times in Singapore, talked about the weeks of celebration in his country after the victory of Joseph Schooling in the 100-meter butterfly, the first-ever such gold medal for Singapore.
- The Mission — “We want to be part of the solution to the world’s big problems, from climate change to obesity.”
I found Bach an impressive man, humble and dedicated to his mission. He understands the moral authority of the Olympic Movement, an essential contributor to the return to normalcy in our troubled world. We need heroes who exemplify the best of what we can aspire to. As I walked away from the lunch, I remembered a stirring line, an adaptation of a George Bernard Shaw quote that Bobby Kennedy used in campaign speeches: “Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” Thomas Bach, we need you to succeed.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.