Within minutes of being elected to the top job in the Olympics, new International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach received a telephone call from a powerful leader he will work with closely in the next few months: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bach, a 59-year-old German lawyer, was elected on Tuesday. He succeeds Jacques Rogge, who stepped down after 12 years.
Bach, the longtime favorite, defeated five candidates in a secret ballot for the most influential job in international sports, keeping the presidency in European hands.
The former Olympic fencer received 49 votes in the second round to secure a winning majority. Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico finished second with 29 votes.
Taiwan’s Wu Ching-kuo was eliminated in the first round after an initial tie with Ng Ser Miang of Singapore as low vote-getter.
One of the first congratulatory telephone calls came from Putin, who will host the IOC in less than five months at the Winter Olympics in the southern Russian resort of Sochi.
The Sochi Games are one of Putin’s pet projects, with Russia’s prestige on the line.
“He congratulated and [said] there would be close cooperation to make [sure of] the success of the Sochi Games,” Bach said.
The buildup to next year’s Feb. 7 to Feb. 23 Games has been overshadowed by concerns with cost overruns, human rights, a budget topping US$50 billion, security threats and a Western backlash against a Russian law against gay “propaganda.”
Bach and the IOC have been told by the Russians there would be no discrimination against anyone in Sochi, and that Russia would abide by the Olympic Charter.
“We have the assurances of the highest authorities in Russia that we trust,” Bach said.
It remains unclear what would happen if athletes or spectators demonstrate against the anti-gay law. Rogge said this week the IOC would send a reminder to athletes that, under the Olympic Charter, they are prohibited from making any political gestures.
At his first news conference as president, Bach was asked about how the IOC would deal with human rights issues in host countries. The IOC has been criticized for not speaking out against abuses in countries like China and Russia.
“The IOC cannot be apolitical,” Bach said. “We have to realize that our decisions at events like Olympic Games, they have political implications. And when taking these decisions we have to, of course, consider political implications, but in order to fulfill our role to make sure that in the Olympic Games and for the participants the Charter is respected, we have to be strictly politically neutral. And there we also have to protect the athletes.”
A former Olympic fencing gold medalist who heads Germany’s national Olympic committee, Bach is the ninth president in the 119-year history of the IOC. He is the eighth European to hold the presidency.
Of the IOC’s leaders, all have come from Europe except for Avery Brundage, the American who ran the committee from 1952 to 1972. Bach is also the first gold medalist to become IOC president. He won gold in team fencing for West Germany in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
He received a standing ovation for nearly a full minute after Rogge opened a sealed envelope to announce his victory. Bach bowed slightly to the delegates to acknowledge the warm response and thanked the members in several languages.