Thomas Bach isn’t ready to talk about his legacy just yet, despite leaving an indelible impression on the Olympic Games as an athlete and as President of the International Olympic Committee.

Soon after his appointment to the office of President in 2013, Bach – who won a gold medal at the Montreal Games in 1976 representing Germany in fencing – announced Agenda 2020, a list of 40 recommendations that represent a strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Games.

“Reforms never end,” Bach said at IMD’s campus during an event organised by the Alumni Club of Lausanne. “In our world you cannot say we will complete a reform programme in the next five years. It’s called Agenda 2020, but these reforms will still be relevant beyond that.”  

The Olympic Games – one of the largest sporting events in the world – has come under intense scrutiny in recent years for its ability to keep pace with a rapidly changing global landscape, and to stay economically, environmentally and socially relevant.

Agenda 2020 has given the IOC a “clear vision for the future and an insight into how it can strengthen the values of the Games in society,” said IMD Affiliate Professor Susan Goldsworthy, herself a finalist in swimming at the Montreal Games.

‘You could see the wave coming’

This ambitious agenda of reforms was launched with three overarching topics: credibility, sustainability and youth. Why was Agenda 2020 announced so quickly and why were these three areas chosen to spearhead the reforms?

“Because you could see the wave coming,” Bach said. “It was clear that we had a challenge with regard to the organization of the Games, with cost, with legacy and sustainability. For a number of countries hosting the Games had become just a matter of prestige, which was no longer appropriate to the times.”

The Olympics also face a credibility problem, Bach explained, both in terms of the governance of individual organizations and in the fight against doping. “We have to fight for the clean athletes and set our mind to what we can do for them. But the fight against doping is only one part of what we have to do, because if sport does not have credibility anymore, then sooner or later the competitions organized by the IOC will suffer.”

Agenda 2020 is also about finding new ways to connect with young people, Bach added. “With youth, we have new challenges. It is not like in my generation when at some point in your life you were confronted with sport, whether it was in school with your friends, or with your parents. At some point, sport was there. And this is not true anymore.

“So our motto for the Agenda was, and still is, ‘change or be changed’.”

Finding solutions

In the IOC’s quest to find solutions to these challenges, Bach stressed that “management is not about worrying, it’s about finding solutions.” The organisation has made huge strides in addressing sustainability and the legacy of the Olympics, he said, using the upcoming Summer Games in Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028 as examples.

“Ninety-percent of the facilities were already in place for LA. They will, for example, use UCLA as the Olympic Village. They don’t even need to build new housing. Paris, meanwhile, is in need of new housing, so the investment there is very much welcome.”

The focus is now shifting to the challenges of climate change and carbon emissions, he added. The Tokyo Olympics, taking place this year, “will be carbon neutral,” he said. “The Games will produce about three million tons of emissions, less than any other Games, and these will be compensated for. In Paris these will be cut to 1.5 million tons.”

The Winter Olympics offer up a different set of challenges, Bach said, particularly with lack of snow and a shrinking number of cities willing – or even able – to host them.

“In some destinations we have had to look at producing artificial snow and using technologies like China is using for the Beijing Games in 2022 … There is still room for improvement. In 2007, there 300 snow-making machines in Europe. Twelve years later there are 3000 in just Switzerland.”

Teaching respect

How should we prepare young people for a life after sport? “The assumption that sport is a distraction from education is wrong,” Bach said. “Physical activity greatly supports education. It teaches values, social skills, to respect rules and to work in a team.

“You learn it by doing, and sometimes you learn without even knowing … Sport serves and supports education.”

Athletes are at the heart of the Olympic movement, Bach said, and to protect clean athletes the organisation is offering scholarships and programs which allow them to prepare for the Games but also to gain an education and give them a better chance of entering the labour market or become entrepreneurs. “The IOC invests 90% of its revenues into the development of sport and the development of its athletes,” he said.

Megatrends

Like any large organisation, the IOC must be agile in the ways it deals with crisis situations, such as the ongoing spread of coronavirus. It’s not just Tokyo 2020 that is affected by the outbreak, Bach said, but numerous qualification events taking place in the months leading up to the Games. Many of these were due to take place in China, the country worst-affected by the crisis.

“Within weeks, these qualification competitions had to be moved to different countries,” Bach said. “The IOC is working with the international federations and with the Chinese Olympic Committee to get as many of the Chinese athletes as possible outside of the country to train and go to qualification competitions.

“There is great solidarity among the national Olympic committees … and I think we can all together really look forward to a successful Olympic Games in Tokyo at the end of July.”

The IOC must also adapt to ‘megatrends’ that are taking hold around the world, including rapid urbanization. “The time is gone where you build nice sporting facilities outside the city and present this as a great offer to the population of a metropolis. For us, it’s the other way around. You have to offer sports facilities where people are and not where you would like them to be.”

This sentiment was echoed by Pierre Ducrey, Olympic Games Associate Director. “The Games have to change. Cities used to adapt to the Games, now the Games adapt to the city. Even if the end product is different, we really want to try and create something unique that works.”

This also applies to digitalization, Bach said. “There we come to the question of e-sports. The international federations, if they want to maintain relevance, must look into e-versions of their sport and prepare themselves. Augmented reality will help, because the more augmented reality you have, the more physical activity you have.”

Nevertheless, Bach hopes that, 30 years from now, sport is still about values and is not merely an entertainment business. “We are at this moment in time, the only event in the world that manages to unify, not virtually, but in reality, the entire world in a peaceful competition.

“In these fast-changing times,” he concluded, “one challenge will be to not just preserve our values, but to strengthen them.”

Watch the video of the full event.

To find out more about the IMD Alumni Club of Lausanne, click here.