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The Long and Infuriating History of Bad Olympic Bosses

Thomas Bach has joined a long line of IOC chiefs who have been hated by everyone associated with the Games.

By , a senior fellow with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach waves the Olympic flag during the Closing Ceremony of Nanjing 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games at the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre on August 28, 2014 in Nanjing, China.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach waves the Olympic flag during the Closing Ceremony of Nanjing 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games at the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre on August 28, 2014 in Nanjing, China. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

As the one-year-delayed 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic festival finally gets underway this week, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach is not a popular man in Japan. This might seem odd given that Bach had a major role in bringing this big event to the Japanese capital.

But that’s precisely the problem: a majority of Japanese citizens believe that the Olympic spectacle, even without fans in the stands, should not be proceeding amid a pandemic that resists adequate containment. They argue that Bach’s IOC puts revenues from TV broadcasts and corporate sponsorships above the safety of athletes and the general public. Even Toyota, Japan’s premier Olympic sponsor, has decided not to run Olympic-themed advertisements during the Games: Who wants to be associated with a plague? Bach himself did nothing to improve his image with locals by mistakenly referring to the Japanese people as “Chinese” at a news conference.

Beyond his problems in Japan relating to the ill-starred Tokyo Games, Bach, a German national who has served as IOC chief since 2013, has been widely criticized for turning a blind eye to Russian state-sponsored Olympic doping scandals and showing similar insouciance in the face of systematic human rights violations by China, whose capital, Beijing, was awarded the 2022 Winter Games on his watch. Nor has he seemed all that bothered by financial scandals within the IOC itself and bumper stickers reading “Make Corruption an Olympic Sport!”

As the one-year-delayed 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic festival finally gets underway this week, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach is not a popular man in Japan. This might seem odd given that Bach had a major role in bringing this big event to the Japanese capital.

But that’s precisely the problem: a majority of Japanese citizens believe that the Olympic spectacle, even without fans in the stands, should not be proceeding amid a pandemic that resists adequate containment. They argue that Bach’s IOC puts revenues from TV broadcasts and corporate sponsorships above the safety of athletes and the general public. Even Toyota, Japan’s premier Olympic sponsor, has decided not to run Olympic-themed advertisements during the Games: Who wants to be associated with a plague? Bach himself did nothing to improve his image with locals by mistakenly referring to the Japanese people as “Chinese” at a news conference.

Beyond his problems in Japan relating to the ill-starred Tokyo Games, Bach, a German national who has served as IOC chief since 2013, has been widely criticized for turning a blind eye to Russian state-sponsored Olympic doping scandals and showing similar insouciance in the face of systematic human rights violations by China, whose capital, Beijing, was awarded the 2022 Winter Games on his watch. Nor has he seemed all that bothered by financial scandals within the IOC itself and bumper stickers reading “Make Corruption an Olympic Sport!”

While it may be no consolation to the beleaguered Bach, his current status as poster boy for IOC imperiousness is anything but unprecedented in modern Olympic history. He is merely the latest in a procession of IOC chiefs who have been responsible for crucial missteps in everything from the Games’ organizational procedures and host-city selection to protecting the 125-year-old athletic movement from commercial exploitation, political instrumentalization, and drug use by athletes. Such problematic actions, and failures to act, on the part of IOC presidents like Bach have undeniably helped shape the Olympic enterprise as it exists today, for better and worse.

Revealingly, Bach’s problematic pedigree in Olympic mismanagement can be traced back all the way to the modern Games’ “father,” French Baron Pierre de Coubertin. An avid student of the ancient Olympic Games, Coubertin hoped to “revive” central aspects of the classical festivals, including their focus on individual athletic accomplishment, independent of city or city-state allegiance. Coubertin, however, immediately undermined this individualistic focus by decreeing that athletes could compete in his modern Games only as members of national teams whose Olympic committees were recognized by the recently established IOC. Even at that moment, before any competitions had gotten underway, critics of Coubertin’s scheme argued that the team-membership requirement would likely foster nationalism at the expense of individual recognition. But Coubertin’s plan stood, and we know that his critics’ fears proved justified.

Another part of the founder’s program that quickly fell under criticism involved a wholesale departure from the ancient practice of holding the quadrennial festivals in a single, permanent location (Olympia); instead, the modern Games would move from city to city and even from nation to nation in the manner of a traveling international circus. Critics of this idea, above all Greeks and assorted European and American Hellenists, proposed that the revived Olympics be held exclusively at the site selected for the inaugural modern festival, namely Athens (ancient Olympia itself was in ruins).

But Coubertin insisted that the success of his new venture depended on giving it “as great a variety of aspect as possible.” Here, too, he won the day, and the second “Olympiad of the Modern Era” transpired in Paris, the baron’s hometown. Henceforth, questions of venue selection remained highly contentious—St. Louis in 1904 was unpopular with many Europeans but championed by Coubertin as a means of bringing the United States fully into the Olympic fold. This venue issue acrimoniously hit home for the baron when, his own fierce French nationalism notwithstanding, he promoted Berlin as host city for the 1916 Games. For Frenchmen with bitter memories of their humiliating defeat at the hands of the hated Boche in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the idea of allowing the German capital to host a festival dedicated to international peace and goodwill was an abomination. Yet Coubertin’s insistence that Germany’s full participation in the fledgling Olympic project was vital to its survival won out—and Berlin duly began constructing an appropriate site for the Five-Ring Circus’ arrival in 1916.

The arrival two years before that date of a much bloodier and costlier international competition put the viability of a 1916 Berlin Olympiad in serious question. In 1915, a British Olympic official announced that a British “team” might indeed be heading for Berlin, but it would be carrying military kit rather than sporting gear. Coubertin, on the other hand, held fast to the IOC’s original venue decision until Germany’s use of poison gas on the Western Front in the spring of 1915 made this plan untenable. The baron had to assent to canceling Berlin’s Olympic party, though to protect an illusion of Olympic continuity, he insisted on counting the non-Games of 1916 as an official Olympiad.

The Belgian aristocrat Henri de Baillet-Latour, who became the third president of the IOC in 1925, was, like Coubertin, much revered within the Olympic movement. As the head of Belgian’s national Olympic committee during World War I, he secured the 1920 Summer Games for Antwerp and managed to pull off a successful festival in the shadow of a terrible pandemic that killed far more people than the war. Baillet-Latour’s crotchety insistence on amateurism as a sine qua non for Olympic competitors harmonized fully with the views of Coubertin and the gentlemanly IOC establishment of his day. But toward the end of his tenure as IOC president, Baillet-Latour’s handling of an unprecedented challenge to the integrity of the Games—his wheeling and dealing with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis over the Berlin Olympics of 1936—revealed a willingness to prioritize IOC realpolitik over supposedly unchallengeable Olympic principles.

To simplify a very complicated matter, Baillet-Latour guided an IOC decision to hold fast to the committee’s 1931 award of the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin even after Hitler assumed the German chancellorship in 1933. True, the IOC chief secured some token concessions from Hitler and the German organizers, but these agreements hardly amounted to a triumph of Olympic ideals. Moreover, they ended up allowing German organizers to overcome a serious boycott threat from the United States and ultimately to host an Olympic festival that helped solidify Hitler’s hold on power.

Instrumental as Baillet-Latour was in making the 1936 Berlin Games a “success” for Hitler, he proved to be less crucial to that enterprise than did America’s Avery Brundage, who served as president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC) during the Nazi Games before becoming president of the IOC in 1952.

Although not (as sometimes alleged) a fan of all things Nazi, Brundage certainly shared some of that movement’s ideological baggage, along with an abiding conviction that the Olympic movement must remain “above politics”—itself a form of politics. Like Baillet-Latour, Brundage believed that the 1936 Summer Games should stay in Berlin and, as AOC chief, insisted that the United States be fully represented at that festival. To achieve this latter goal, he almost single-handedly overcame the aforementioned U.S boycott threat. To facilitate a very close vote in favor of participating in Berlin, Brundage made a personal “fact finding” trip to Germany, where he found no evidence of racism, instead discovering nothing but eagerness on the part of German officials to abide by Olympic principles. “You can’t ask for more than that,” he stated.

But many Americans (and others) believed that you could ask for more than that, and the AOC chief’s determination to take a U.S. team to Berlin despite the Hitler regime’s obvious and ongoing violations of human rights made him, in the eyes of his detractors, an avatar of Olympism’s obliviousness to its own stated ideals of racial equality, openness, and fair play.

Controversial as Brundage’s career as AOC head undeniably was, it was his 20-year tenure as IOC president (1952-1972) that made his name a byword for “Olympian” insensitivity to various real-world struggles and iniquities that he insisted must have no impact on or place within his beloved Games. Two prominent examples of this mindset will have to suffice here.

At the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, during the famous Black Power protest by African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Brundage showcased an obdurate blindness to long-simmering frustrations among America’s Black Olympians. Apoplectic with rage over the incident, Brundage ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the U.S. team and expelled from the Olympic Village. The IOC chief’s harsh measures in this instance helped earn him the moniker “Slavery Avery.”

Four years later, in his last hurrah as IOC president at the ill-fated 1972 Munich Olympics, Brundage uttered the phrase that will forever be associated with his legacy: “The Games Must Go On.” The occasion was a hastily organized memorial service for 11 Israeli Olympians murdered by Palestinian guerrillas at the Olympic Village and an airfield outside the city. Determined that this horrific tragedy not lead to a significant suspension of the competitions, let alone their cancellation (as some were demanding), Brundage and the IOC decreed that the program go on just one day later than originally scheduled. To this decree he added an astoundingly tone-deaf equation of the Palestinian attack to an earlier instance of “political blackmail” whereby the Rhodesian team, over his objections, had been expelled from the Munich Games to avert a wholesale withdrawal by Black African states. “It was like dancing at Dachau,” said one Brundage critic as the Olympic party in Munich got right back on track.

Cluelessness of another order attended the eight-year (1972-1980) tenure of Brundage’s successor as IOC president, Lord Killanin, a jovial Irish grandee who paved the way for the IOC’s mode of operations today more by what he failed to do than by what he did. Insisting on a “hands-off” approach to political matters outside the Olympic arena, Killanin stood idle as the 1976 Montreal Olympics were boycotted by Black African states over issues arising from South African apartheid. He remained unengaged as well when U.S. President Jimmy Carter ordered an American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in retaliation for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Characteristically, he also did nothing to rein in rampant corruption and galloping construction costs at Montreal ’76 that left the host city bankrupt and in debt for years. In fact, Killanin proved so inept that even fellow IOC members took notice. One of them, America’s William E. Simon, said of the Irishman: “Explaining something sensible to Lord Killanin is akin to explaining something to a cauliflower. The advantage of the cauliflower is that if all else fails, you can cover it with melted cheese and eat it.”

Explaining troubling matters to Thomas Bach might be easier, though not necessarily more fruitful. Responding to calls for cancellation of the 2020/21 Tokyo Games, he said this was never even an option because “the IOC does not abandon its athletes.” He said nothing about losing TV-generated IOC revenue streams.

David Clay Large is a senior fellow with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his many books are Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936; Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games; and, most recently, The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art, and Healing.

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