BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — With two big votes out of the way, the International Olympic Committee awaits another critical decision: electing a new president to lead the Olympic body into the next decade.
Thomas Bach, of Germany, goes into today’s IOC vote as the strong favorite among the field of six candidates vying for the most powerful job in world sports.
Bach, a 59-year-old lawyer and IOC vice president who heads Germany’s national Olympic body, has long been considered the front-runner to succeed Jacques Rogge, the 71-year-old Belgian who is stepping down after 12 years in office.
Richard Carrion, a Puerto Rican banking executive who heads the IOC’s finance commission, and vice president Ng Ser Miang, of Singapore, are viewed as the top challengers.
Also on the ballot are executive board members Sergei Bubka, of Ukraine, and C.K. Wu, of Taiwan, and former board member Denis Oswald, of Switzerland.
The campaign headed into its final, frantic hours with candidates trying to line up votes.
With Bach’s supporters confident of securing a first-round victory, his rivals were privately discussing possible voting alliances to try to stop the German.
If Bach is elected, he would continue Europe’s hold on the presidency. Of the IOC’s eight leaders, all have come from Europe except for Avery Brundage, the American who ran the committee from 1952-72.
“This is like I’m an athlete and I’m just in front of a great final,” Bach, a former Olympic fencer, said Monday. “You feel you have done all your training, the test events have been going pretty well, so you can go with confidence in the competition. But you have to know that, at the grand final, everybody is on the same starting line.”
The campaign, which had been relatively civil, took a nasty turn in recent days, with Oswald attacking Bach in a Swiss radio interview, accusing him of using his business connections and links with Kuwait to help his candidacy.
Asked if he would pull out of the race, Oswald told RTS Radio: “Certainly not in favor of Thomas Bach. The values are not the same.”
None of the six candidates has made any dramatic proposals for change, promising to continue the line pursued by Rogge, particularly in the fight against doping.
The election follows Saturday’s IOC decision to award the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo and Sunday’s vote to reinstate wrestling for the 2020 and 2024 Games. The presidential vote is what most of the 100-plus IOC members have been focusing on.
“It’s absolutely the most important decision we make – to find the right person tomorrow,” senior Norwegian member Gerhard Heiberg said.
As with most IOC votes, nothing is ever certain. The election is done by secret ballot, so promises made to candidates are never a sure thing.
Much of the pre-election talk among the members has been about the power of one man: Sheik Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti with the long permed hair who heads the Association of National Olympic Committees.
The sheik, who has been described as a potential “kingmaker,” is a key backer of Bach. With his influence in Asia and among the national Olympic committees, the Kuwaiti can deliver a large number of votes. He was seen as playing a key role in Tokyo’s victory, even helping Istanbul get to the second round of voting to keep Madrid out of the final.
Asked Monday what he hoped for in the presidential election, he said: “a good leadership for the next decade.”
Some members are uncomfortable with the sheik’s power and support of Bach. Sheik Ahmad received a mild reprimand from the IOC for openly voicing his support for Bach in a German television interview five months ago, a violation of the election rules.
“He has his opinion, he has clearly stated it, which he should not do, and he has apologized for that,” Heiberg said. “Of course, he has influence through his position in ANOC. How much that would mean in practice tomorrow, I have no idea. This is a secret ballot.”
Bach has long been viewed as the man to beat. He’s a former Olympic athlete and gold medalist (team fencing in 1976), long-serving member on the policy-making board, chairman of the legal commission, head of anti-doping investigations and negotiator of European TV rights.
But he has been the subject of unflattering reports recently in parts of the German media, including a TV documentary alleging, among other things, that he cheated in the early 1970s during his fencing career by using a wet glove to disrupt the electronic scoring equipment.
“There have been lots of rumors in the last few days but I’m not following them,” Bach said Monday. “I talk with my colleagues and the rest doesn’t interest me. It doesn’t bother me if people want to create rumors.”
Carrion, the 60-year-old head of Puerto Rico’s Banco Popular, has earned respect as the IOC’s money man. He negotiated the record $4.38 billion deal with NBC for U.S. TV rights through 2020 and has overseen the steady growth in the IOC’s financial reserves.
“I think it is very important that the potential president has a clean sheet and more importantly, that has independence in terms of decisions that need to be made,” Carrion said Monday.
Ng, a 64-year-old businessman and diplomat, is a popular member who organized the inaugural Youth Olympics in Singapore in 2010 and represents an Asian continent that is growing in world influence.
However, Tokyo’s victory for 2020 would seem to have dented Ng’s chances, making it difficult for the IOC to give Asia two major prizes back to back.
“I think Asia has been having a good run, rightly so, with two-thirds of the world’s population, growing influence politically, economically, in sports as well,” Ng said Monday. “I think we can look forward to exciting times.”
With more than 90 members eligible to vote, a simple majority is required for victory. If there is no winner in the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes goes out. The system continues for each round until one man secures a majority. The president is elected to an eight-year term, with the possibility of a second four-year mandate.
Bach’s supporters believe he has enough support to win in the first round. If not, his rivals believe they could chip away at his lead through subsequent rounds.
“It is a question of finding the right person who immediately should unite all of us and whether he is chosen in the first ballot or not, it doesn’t matter,” Heiberg said. “It’s up to him to get the unity together.”