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The Russia question: Coe and Bach are united in history, and divided by history

While World Athletics president Sebastian Coe sides with democratic nations, the IOC President Thomas Bach rejects their statements as uninformed and a violation of sport’s autonomy. Backed by China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the IOC paves the way so Russian athletes including military personnel can come back to the Olympics. But resistance is growing, writes investigative reporter Jens Weinreich.

thomas bach, sebastian coe, emir tamim bin hamad al-thani, doha, qatar, olympics, powerholders, ioc, iaaf
Leichtathletik-WM in Doha, IOC-Gipfeltreffen: Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani mit Thomas Bach und Sebastian Coe. (Foto: Amiri Diwan)

The two Olympic champions Thomas Bach and Sebastian Coe were once friends. They both have experience from an Olympic boycott: Bach, who is from West Germany, was deprived of his second Olympic participation in 1980 – the Briton Coe took part in Moscow and won his first of two gold medals.

A year later, both were selected by the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) president Juan Antonio Samaranch for the first IOC Athletes‘ Commission at the historical Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden that ended the amateur age and ushered in the large-scale commercialisation of the Olympic Games.

In spite of their shared experiences in the past, Bach and Coe, the president of the IOC and the president of World Athletics (WA), who once called each other Professor and Shakespeare, could not have acted more differently in recent years. This is demonstrated again these days, despite the fact that Sebastian Coe has also been an ex-officio member of the IOC since 2020.

The long-standing disputes over the appropriate responses to Russia’s fundamental crimes against sport and international law caused their friendship to grow cold. First the Russian state doping system, then the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine.

The IOC, led with an iron hand by German Thomas Bach, has been preparing the readmission of athletes from Russia and Belarus behind the scenes for months. To this day, they are just too tactical to tell the truth.

IOC criticism of Ukraine and its President Zelenskyy

Instead, the propaganda machine was fired up, tricks and deceptions, tactics and manoeuvring were used. In the IOC’s Questions & Answers, the war is condemned, at least a little, but the Ukrainians and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy are also criticised several times.

It almost seems as if the Ukrainians, who simply do not want to bow to the attacks of the Russian army and the Olympic plans of the IOC, are the real problem. When the Ukrainians refuse to take part in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris side by side with their aggressors, the IOC responds:

„It is extremely regretful to escalate this discussion with a threat of a boycott at this premature stage.“

But the boycott discussion will remain. It is already taking place after the pro-Russian decisions of the first Russian-dominated Olympic federations in boxing (IBA) and fencing (FIE). The sufferers are never Russian and Belarusian athletes.

The sufferers are always the Ukrainians and the athletes of other nations who are deprived of their chances – and who have to make individual decisions in which they are largely abandoned by their federations and also by their National Olympic Committees (NOC).

The question of individual boycotts has long been raised for athletes themselves. According to the rules books in fencing, for example, athletes who do not compete against Russians out of conscience and/or solidarity with Ukraine and their Ukrainian sports comrades are disqualified and face additional suspensions.

Dilution of IOC’s responsibility

The IOC has so far delegated the responsibility for allowing Russians and Belarusians to qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris to the current 32 Summer Olympic sports federations. A similar procedure to when the Russian doping scandal reached a climax in the lead-up to 2016 Rio Games: A dilution of own responsibilities.

These days, the final video meetings with athletes, National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and federations are underway, all following the familiar script:

Majorities are organised, dissenting opinions are marginalised, and there is no real open discussion. It all takes place behind closed doors, in internal video calls, last week with athletes‘ spokespersons, this Monday with the Olympic federations (IF) and the National Olympic Committees (NOC).

The IOC Executive Board will probably not announce some kind of decision at this week’s meeting in Lausanne, but whatever happens, the EB will wrap it up in propaganda. Let’s not fool ourselves: If the resistance in politics, among athletes, in IFs and NOCs, even in the media, does not become much greater and more decisive, then Russian and Belarusian athletes will participate in a broad way both in the Olympic qualification competitions and also in the Olympics in Paris. That and nothing else will be the message.

Invoking tainted UN experts

Bach and the IOC invoke supposed backing from United Nations (UN) human rights experts who in reality convey nothing more than their personal opinions. Other legal opinions are routinely wiped away.

The Greek Alexandra Xanthaki, UN special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, has already made it clear in which direction she will go: She would not exclude Russians, who enthusiastically go to war, from the Olympics.

„I don’t think that it makes sense to exclude Russian soldiers and all Russian military“, she has told athletes‘ representatives. She would only disallow Russians to participate in the Olympics „if they committed crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide or propaganda for war“.

In recent weeks, Xanthaki has presented her opinion in some of these IOC conference calls, and it is sold by the IOC as the only valid truth. She has taken dissenters to task. She brushes off legal opinions that come to a different conclusion, like that of German legal scholar Patricia Wiater.

However, Xanthaki could not answer detailed practical questions. She stunned not only athletes but also numerous leading officials with blatant lack of knowledge about the Olympic movement. And she has been conspicuous for months by an extreme whataboutism reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s troll factories.

Bach, on the other hand, has pretty much lost his composure in a difficult situation. One of his confused messages to politicians was: „We will see who does more for peace. The one who opens up for communication or those who want to divide and isolate.“

„Divide and isolate?“ He was not referring to his former Olympic business partner, mass murderer Vladimir Putin and his war of aggression. He meant all those political leaders around the world who do not share Bach’s stance.

Sebastian Coe sends clear messages

Unlike Bach, Sebastian Coe does not need many words. Above all, Coe chooses clear and unambiguous words when he talks about the current crux of sports politics. As president of World Athletics, he formulated the clear and unmistakable message on 23 March:

„The unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia and Belarus by countries and industries all over the world appear to be the only peaceful way to disrupt and disable Russia’s current intentions and restore peace,“ Coe said.

„The death and destruction we have seen in Ukraine over the past year, including the deaths of some 185 athletes, have only hardened my resolve on this matter. The integrity of our major international competitions has already been substantially damaged by the actions of the Russian and Belarusian governments through the hardship inflicted on Ukrainian athletes and the destruction of Ukraine’s sports systems. Russian and Belarusian athletes, many of whom have military affiliations, should not be beneficiaries of these actions.“

Coe did not mention the opinion of the alleged UN experts, which is so important for Bach, with a single word.

Common sense. Humanity. Real solidarity. That was Coe’s unspoken message. As long as the war rages and the aggressor Russia has not completely withdrawn from Ukraine, there will be no collective return of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in athletics.

IOC against elected politicians

Whether other Olympic federations follow the example of the core Olympic sport of athletics or follow the IOC and the Russian-dominated federations of fencing and boxing will be seen in the coming days and weeks. One should not expect much resistance. Most will submit to the will of the IOC president.

No matter what, any future IOC presidency will be measured against this Russia issue. The boycott discussion will also overshadow the next 16 months until the Games in Paris.

Will Bach really step down at the 2025 session in Athens after his twelve-year term? Will the Olympic Charter be amended for him so he can get another four years in office, as many observers suspect? Or will he manage to install a successor, or successors, to his liking?

Or, and this is the first time this question has really come up, so far it has only been the dreams of a few British journalists: Can Sebastian Coe actually emerge as a serious contender for the IOC throne? The Russia issue has the potential to permanently shake the balance of power in the IOC.

Thomas Bach and the IOC are also attacking critics from the world of politics in an almost absurd manner – first and foremost several hundred members of the European Parliament as well as sports ministers from 35 democratic nations from four continents.

Bach and his propaganda department accuse the democratically elected politicians of a lack of knowledge and refuse to let them interfere in the so-called autonomy of sport.

Yet, autonomy cannot be a one-way street when sport in democracies is supported every year by public funds that certainly amount to triple-digit billions. Or, to put it in the words of IOC honorary member Richard Pound, who at the 2015 Play the Game conference said about autonomy:

„That mantra is an outdated relic from an earlier era… The right to ’autonomy‘ in the sense of making and administering sport rules must be earned through responsible conduct… Why should a corrupt organisation be rewarded?“

European Parliament: IOC is an embarrassment to sport

In a resolution of 15 February, an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament stated that the readmission of Russian and Belarusian athletes „runs counter to those countries‘ multifaceted isolation and will be used by both regimes for propaganda purposes“.

The Parliament called on EU states and the international community „to exert pressure on the IOC to reverse this decision, which is an embarrassment to the international world of sport“.

At the same time, 35 sports ministers from four continents had agreed on a declaration in which the IOC’s action was also castigated as unacceptable. The sports ministers had stated that the situation in Ukraine had not changed, the war was raging and that „for reasons of fairness and solidarity towards the Ukrainian athletes whose facilities have been destroyed and who have had to leave their country (or stay to fight for the defence of Ukraine, in which very many have lost their lives), there is no practical reason to deviate from the exclusion rule for Russian and Belarusian athletes“.

Thomas Bach regards such criticism from democratic nations as interference in the internal affairs of sport. His unworldly argumentation is now largely congruent with the statements of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and China’s head of state and party Xi Jinping.

Support from Putin and Xi

The two former Olympic hosts and business partners of Bach, for whom sport and politics traditionally merge, rattle way about the separation of sport and politics and the alleged dangers emanating from Western democracies in which they are criticised.

After the recent meeting of Putin and Xi in Moscow, a joint statement was published:

„The parties welcome the relevant initiatives and decisions of the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which jointly uphold Olympic values. The parties oppose the politicisation of sports, and hope to use the unique role of physical culture and sports to promote solidarity and peace.“

President Putin was quoted claiming:

„Western countries are trying to use sports for unseemly purposes as a tool of pressure.“

Bach embodies this propaganda, repeating almost prayerfully that history will show who are doing more for peace, Olympic sports or politics.

Bach’s hubris is endless. Bach, who spent his professional life as a business lobbyist and sports official, at one point thought he was on a par with heads of state and governments, just because he managed to sit at the side table at G-20 meetings. Insiders even that his career goal after the IOC presidency is a true global top job:

Thomas Bach as secretary general of the United Nations?

This topic has been put to rest. Because the votes from Russia, China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and North Korea won’t make up. And experienced diplomats will tell you that a man without government experience should never even dream of such position.

Bach’s greatest strength has always been his political intuition to find a profitable way out of critical and messy situations. He never had visions. It has long been proven that he also lacks democratic values. He has transformed the IOC into a body that has only two goals: The personality cult around him, the infallible Great Chairman, and billions in profits from the marketing of the Olympic Games.

Obedient opportunists in the IOC, the Duma of world sport

In the meantime, Thomas Bach and his politics have become a danger for the IOC and the Olympic movement. Bach’s politics are a liability for a sport that wants to embody humanity and democratic values.

History teaches us that every reign comes to an end. Every kingdom breaks up. The only problem is: This IOC has in large parts been hand-picked and shaped by Thomas Bach. The members no longer know any democratic debate. They act as obedient opportunists with an absolute majority. Nobody tells the emperor that he is naked.

Sebastian Coe is an exception. Currently perhaps the only one. This is said without glorifying Coe and glossing over the problems of his CV. He deserves due diligence like all other officials. But let’s please concentrate on the crucial current sports political issues that are dividing world sport – a division that has long been recognised, exploited and pushed by the alliance around Russia and China.

World Athletics, as a traditionally influential and important Olympic federation, has defied the will of the IOC on the Russia issue. In contrast, two weeks earlier, the FIE, the world fencing federation under Russian thumb, had decided, even with votes from democratic nations such as Germany, on the immediate inclusion of Russians and Belarusians. The federations are moving between these extremes.

Subservience in the family

The IOC Executive Board now has the next say. A side note: Media representatives are not allowed at the meeting in the Olympic House in Lausanne. Journalists were traditionally allowed to attend EB meetings at the IOC headquarters. They were able to make direct contact to the members – not necessarily a desired contact, but still possible. That, too, has changed under the all-powerful president Bach.

In principle, the decision on Russia has long been made. Bach refers to the alleged majority of the National Olympic Committees (NOC) and the corresponding statements of the respective Olympic continental organisations. Such addresses of surrender and subservience are routinely delivered in the so-called Olympic family.

Not only the usual suspects are to blame, all the vote procurers and lobbyists – no, also the NOCs from democratic nations show less determination than their governments. They may express resistance against Russian and Belarusian participation, but who really follows up words with deeds?

The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), for example, is still tactical, because it wants to bid for the Olympic Games and does not want to spoil things with DOSB honorary president Thomas Bach. There are many such dependencies.

This is another reason why the way is paved. Expect that Russian athletes, including whole battalions of soldiers and police officers who support the brutal war of aggression, will participate in Olympic qualifying competitions across the board in the coming weeks and months.

And in a few months‘ time, the IOC will certainly argue that the Russian and Belarusian athletes, who have secured qualification places in honest competition, cannot be deprived of these starting places! That would be a violation of human and labour rights.

New sports body inspired by Russia

That’s the way Thomas Bach wants it. That’s how Putin and his key ally Xi Jinping like it. Both were Olympic hosts under IOC President Bach. Both were and are important business partners of the IOC. Both have forged an alliance against the free world.

Under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – a network of governments that deal with politics, trade, security and defence – the founding of a new organisation in international sport was decided in mid-March on Russia’s initative: The SCO Association of Sports Organisations.

The organisation of SCO Games are already being prepared. Russia and the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, can start Olympic competitions via the SCO at any time.

Then add the Middle East: Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. World sport continues to throw itself at the feet of these dictatorships.

Breaking the Olympic Truce – and the Olympic Charter

The IOC’s actions contradict the Olympic Charter in many respects. With the state doping system, Vladimir Putin has organised an essentially irregular Winter Olympics in Sochi, defying all international doping agreements.

But on three occasions he even broke the Olympic Truce that is so fervently cherished by the IOC and the United Nations: In 2008 with the war in Georgia, in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and in 2022 with the murderous attack on the entire Ukraine.

Thomas Bach and the IOC are therefore disregarding the Olympic Charter themselves. If they actually followed the Olympic Basic Law, there would only be one logical and compelling decision because of the permanent fundamental violations of the Charter:

Total exclusion from the 2024 Summer Games in Paris and the 2026 Winter Games in Milan.

It is clearer than ever what the IOC has become since 2013: A Duma of world sport. A Chinese People’s Congress of the Olympic Games. A potentially dangerous collection of opportunists (the absolute majority), enemies of democracy (there are more and more), and even warmongers (the Russian members and honorary members and their allies).

Even in the darkest days of the IOC, when it surrendered to the mass murderer Adolf Hitler and hosted the Nazi Olympics in 1936, there was wrangling over attitudes and decisions within the body.

Thomas Bach’s rise in the IOC is inextricably linked to the support of Russia and China. Putin and Xi may now also be ensuring Bach’s downfall. It is quite possible that they want to install another puppet at the top of the IOC.

Ignoring IOC bans

And there is another extremely important aspect to mention: Neither Russia, nor China, nor other nations give a damn about IOC bans. These are violated on a daily basis, for instance when the IOC claims that meetings with representatives of the Russian state are forbidden in the Olympic family.

Yet, Russia’s sports minister Oleg Matytsin, who has only temporarily left his presidency of the International University Sports Federation (FISU), was just in India.

There he met with the Indian NOC president, the legendary sprinter Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha. Matytsin stayed at the women’s boxing world championships, and he met at ministerial level and pushed ahead with the planning for the SCO Games.

The IOC should have taken action. Usha and the Indian NOC should have at least been warned. Nothing happened. The next IOC session is due to take place in India in October. Business as usual. Actions count, not empty words.

It is observed very closely in the Olympic business that the IOC threats are never followed by actions. In this respect, this fundamental conflict in the Russia question is also a kind of twilight of the gods in the IOC.

On the one hand, Bach still rules in Lausanne, but has long since ceased to be receptive to good advice, as well-informed observers say. On the Olympic fringes, however, his power is already beginning to crumble.

A shorter version of this article was first published @ Play the Game: „Coe and Bach: United in history, divided by history“

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