As Jacques Rogge called the executive board meeting to order, signs of change were staring him right in the face.
Four of the six candidates vying to succeed Rogge as International Olympic Committee president were sitting around the same conference table. The two other contenders were down the hall, mixing with the delegates.
With just over three months until the election, the IOC presidential campaign is one of a series of hot-button issues stirring up the Olympic movement.
Rarely have so many critical questions and decisions come together at the same time – the president’s race, the bidding for the 2020 Olympics, the fate of wrestling and proposed new sports, the role and future of the World Anti-Doping Agency, muscle-flexing by various power brokers and kingmakers.
“There’s a lot of politically loaded decisions that will have occurred in the last six months of my mandate,” Rogge said.
Rogge’s departure in September after 12 years as president has created the opportunity for power plays around the Olympic world. Organizations and individuals are staking out positions and forging alliances, each trying to secure a place in the shifting landscape.
The political maneuvering was in overdrive at last week’s SportAccord convention and IOC meetings in St. Petersburg, Russia, where presidential hopefuls, bid cities, sports federations, national Olympic committees, consultants, strategists and spin doctors all lobbied furiously for their agenda.
“With the elections, things are changing a little bit,” veteran Swiss IOC member and international ski federation chief Gian-Franco Kaspar said. “There’s a lot of rumors, a lot of gossip, but things are really moving at the moment.”
Added Canadian member Dick Pound: “Certainly a lot of the stars and planets are lining up at roughly the same time.”
The road show moved to New York this week, with the key players attending the 3rd International Forum on Sport for Peace and Development at the United Nations.
The presidential contenders are everywhere: IOC vice presidents Thomas Bach of Germany and Ng Ser Miang of Singapore, finance commission chairman Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico, amateur boxing association head C.K. Wu of Taiwan, former pole vaulter Sergei Bubka of Ukraine and rowing federation chief Denis Oswald of Switzerland.
Next stop on the campaign trail: the Association of National Olympic Committees assembly in Lausanne, Switzerland, on June 14. The candidates return to Lausanne on July 4 to present their manifestos to IOC members. The meeting will be held behind closed doors, with each candidate given 15 minutes to make a pitch.
From there, it will be a mad sprint to the finish line in Buenos Aires, with the 100-plus IOC members voting by secret ballot on Sept. 10.
Bach, a former Olympic fencing gold medalist, has been seen as the front-runner but faces the most crowded field ever for an IOC presidential race. Carrion and Ng appear to be the top challengers, but anything can happen in IOC elections.
Many of the candidates have spoken of a need to review the way sports are added to or dropped from the Olympics, reflecting dismay with the process that led to wrestling’s surprise removal from the 2020 Games in February.
Wrestling is now back on a shortlist with squash and baseball-softball, competing for a single spot on the 2020 program, which will be decided by a Sept. 8 vote in Buenos Aires.
None of the candidates is espousing radical change. Instead, their manifestos have centered on common themes: giving more power to IOC members, controlling the size and cost of the games, engaging with youth, fighting doping and irregular betting, and protecting the Olympic ideals.
“Everybody’s come together to try to occupy the middle and hint at perhaps some of the tougher edges,” Pound said.
Personal friendships and relationships are likely to count more than any specific issues.
“It’s almost ridiculous,” Kaspar said of the material he has been receiving from the candidates. “We all know the candidates since 20 years or whatever. Why the hell should they try to inform the IOC members all of a sudden who they are and so on? It’s more for the media.
“At the end, they are more or less on the same level, the same direction and philosophy.”
Change is also afoot for WADA, which has come under criticism from sports federations it accused of not doing enough to catch dopers. The IOC and federations insist WADA is a “service organization” created to support the sports bodies, not order them what to do.
A new WADA president will be elected in November, succeeding John Fahey. It’s up to the Olympic movement to nominate a candidate. Prospective contenders include British IOC vice president Craig Reedie, who sits on the WADA executive committee, and former IOC medical director Patrick Schamash.
Meanwhile, other movers and shakers are making their mark in the Olympic world.
Among those working the corridors of power in St. Petersburg were Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah of Kuwait and international judo federation president Marius Vizer.
Sheik Ahmad took over last year from Mario Vazquez Rana as head of the Association of National Olympic Committees. He has raised eyebrows by proposing a multi-sport ANOC games and is seen as a key ally of Bach in his IOC presidential bid.
The sheik also was seen hugging Vizer, after the Romanian-born Hungarian was elected as head of SportAccord, the umbrella body for Olympic and non-Olympic sports. In a direct challenge to the IOC, Vizer proposes holding a “United World Championships” for all the federations every four years.
“We have some guys like the sheik and Vizer who come in with a lot of power and a lot of money and their intentions are quite interesting,” Kaspar said. “What do they want?”
Almost overshadowed by the politicking has been the bidding for the 2020 Olympics, with Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo making up the field. They made their first presentations in St. Petersburg, with each portraying itself as a safe and financially sound choice.
The presentations came before the anti-government rallies and police crackdown in Turkey that have raised issues for Istanbul.
“That’s the elephant in the room for Istanbul: Is the country willing and able to remain secular?” Pound said. “People will now be looking a little more attentively at it.”
The three cities will make technical presentations to the IOC members in Lausanne on July 3, a potential turning point ahead of the Sept. 7 vote in Buenos Aires. It was at a similar meeting in 2009 when Rio de Janeiro seized the momentum in the race for the 2016 Games.
With all this activity swirling around him, Rogge said he still has plenty to do before handing over to his successor.
“My agenda will be full until the very last day,” he said. “It’s an agenda with major decisions. It’s not an agenda of someone running out of his mandate quietly.”