Just hours before the Sochi 2014 Games open the IOC President , Thomas Bach, launched a surprising attack on the US and, in particular, former President George Bush junior for using the Olympics for political purposes. Although he did not name Bush the reference to the former US President was clear and this follows Bach’s remarks three days ago when he attacked western leaders, including Barrack Obama and David Cameron, for not coming to the Olympics as an “ostentatious gesture” serving their own agendas.
Does this point to the kind of geo-politicking (sniping) that we might expect from a football World Cup in 2018? Will the World’s leaders really be able to contain their love of football and a global press opportunity and stay away? We will have to wait and see what kind of “ostentatious gesture” they have for that moment.
Bach’s press conference remarks refer to Bush’s behaviour at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and came in response to questions about the political use Russia’s President Putin is making of the Sochi Games. Russia’s anti-gay law and record on human rights has made this one of the most politically charged Games in years and one question was whether Putin might use the Opening Ceremony to further his political agenda.
In tart response at the traditional pre-Games press conference Bach said, “The president of the country can simply say one sentence. Indeed all the heads of state before [did that], with the exception of one [who] violated at the time the Olympic Charter. This was in Salt Lake City in 2002. All the other heads of state respected the charter and the charter will be respected tonight.” In fact Putin, who later had the platform when as Russia’s Head of State he opened the Games, stuck to the script
Clause 55 of the Olympic Charter could not be clearer as to what any Head of State of the host Country is allowed to say. The words are “I declare open the…(the number of the Olympic Winter Games) Olympic Winter Games of…(name of the host city).”
However in the 2002 Salt Lake Games, held just months after 9/11 terrorist attack, Bush was determined to make the most of the occasion and went much further. Having walked into the stadium to thunderous applause, and having stood to attention as the as American athletes walked in, he declared, “On behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation, I declare open the games of Salt Lake City, celebrating the Winter Olympic Games.”
The change of wording may not seem much but the IOC was outraged and saw it as a highly political act. This came after much controversy in the lead up to the Games with the Americans wanting to march in the Opening Ceremony under a tattered American flag found at the World Trade Center. In the end the flag was carried by an honor guard of New York City police officers and firefighters.
Bach did not name Bush but he did not have to. In his attack on western leaders three days ago he also did not name Obama, Cameron, German President Joachim Gauck and French President Francois Hollande all of whom are not coming to Sochi. But, as in today’s attack on Bush, there could have been no mistaking who he had in mind when he accused world leaders of using the Sochi Olympics as a political platform “on the backs of the athletes.”
The western leaders have taken their stand against Russia’s law banning gay “propaganda” among minors. But in his speech Bach said the Olympics should not be “used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests.”
“Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes. People have a very good understanding of what it really means to single out the Olympic Games to make an ostentatious gesture which allegedly costs nothing but produces international headlines.” Bach was all the more outraged that these politicians had publicly declined invitations “they had not even received.”
Bach’s comments today represents intense anger in the Olympic movement that for the first time since 2000, the US delegation to an Olympics will not include a president, vice president or first lady. The US delegation is led by former Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano. And what is seen as a clear response by Obama to anti-gay laws, the US delegation includes tennis great Billie Jean King, 2006 Olympic hockey medallist Caitlin Cahow and figure skater Brian Boitano, all three being openly gay.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose