Russia and Putin’s best friend: how IOC President Thomas Bach is playing on the hands of the Kremlin

There are many questions that arise to the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach. Especially about his attitude toward Russia. It has a long way since crossed the line from  “lenient” attitude and is with confidence heading towards “adulation”.

It is artlessly to think that sport is “outside of politics”. Big sport means big money. And where there is a lot of money, there will always be room for politics. And this is obviously relating to the behavior of the International Olympic Committee and its president – Thomas Bach. We examined what is actually wrong with Mr. Bach and what is known about his connections to Russia. 

“Sportswashing”

The practice of individuals, groups, corporations, or governments using sports to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing. Often, dictatorships or politicians used such ‘great victories’ as a smokescreen to hide the great evil behind. Of course, we all know that in the case of Russia, sports has been used as a propaganda tool since forever.

Lessons learned: examples of such sportswashing are not difficult to find in history. Perhaps the most famous case is the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. The Nazis used these competitions to promote their ideology.

from archive: Hitler and his henchmen during the opening of the Olympic Games in Berlin, 1936

And quite frequently the International Olympic Committee helps with sportswashing. Even though the International Olympic Committee itself notes that “one of its roles is to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sports and athletes.”

It was sportswashing that was actively used in Russia when they tried to show their “greatness”. For this reason, the country hosted the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, and later the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Although, this would not have happened if the IOC had shown a clear position and adhered to its own mission.

Sochi, 2014: Dmitry Medwedew, Thomas Bach, Vladimir Putin (Photo: President of Russia)

One should not forget that the man who revealed the real costs of the Sochi Olympics, the corruption and the $51bn price tag, was killed in February 2015 in Moscow: The politician, opposition leader and Sochi-born Boris Nemtsov.

08.08.08 – war and the Olympics

Russia won the right to host the Winter Olympics during the IOC 119th session in July 2007 in Guatemala. Then Moscow in the voting ahead of South Korea, in the second round of voting, gained 51 votes to 47 votes for PyeongChang.

A year later, on August 8, 2008, Russia attacked Georgia. What Russia did on the opening day of the Olympic Games in Beijing is symbolic.

The IOC reacted to this, but in the typical style of “neutrality” – they condemned the very principle of military action as contrary to the spirit of the Olympics. But they refused to “give political evaluations to those who unleashed a war in the Caucasus region on the opening day of the Olympics.” At the same time, Vladimir Putin, who at that time temporarily left the post of President of Russia and became Prime Minister, went to the opening of the Olympics in Beijing, where he met with the head of the IOC, Jacques Rogge. But there was no “discussion of political events”.

Could the International Olympic Committee have punished Russia for its war against Georgia by removing the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics? Yes. So. Did they do it? No. At that time, the president of the IOC was the Belgian Jacques Rogge. And Thomas Bach was the vice president and head of the legal commission.

Jacques Rogge has assured Russia that his successor will be “strong”

Thomas Bach, a close friend of Putin.

In 2013, Thomas Bach was elected president of the IOC. And the Winter Olympics in Sochi were his first in a new role. Another one was added: he was a close friend of the Kremlin owner.

It was in Sochi that friendship arose between Mr. Bach and Putin, who returned to the position of the Russian president. So “friendly” that the head of the IOC did not tire of praising the Russian dictator even after the end of Olympics Games. Although it was during the Winter Olympic Games that Russia started its aggression against Ukraine, by annexing the Crimea peninsula. It is unlikely that such an event could have gone unnoticed by the IOC. But no significant reaction followed.

T. Bach became friends with Putin during the Olympics in Sochi.

But, The IOC and Thomas Bach were no longer able to remain silent in 2016. And again because of the Olympics in Sochi. The domino effect, which exposed the mass use of doping in Russia under the cover of the authorities, happened in 2014.

Doping Russia and inert IOC

In December 2014, a journalistic investigation was broadcast on the ARD channel in Germany, in which the use of doping at the state level, in athletics, was indicated in the testimony of Russian athletes.

In 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) created an independent commission, which started an investigation based on these findings. As a result, in November 2015, WADA recommended the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to disqualify the All-Russian Athletics Federation (VFA) for systematic violations related to the use of doping by athletes. Furthermore, there was talk of corruption within the IAAF itself, including related to doping of Russian athletes. And about Putin.

A series of mysterious deaths

In January 2016, the former head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory Hryhoriy Rodchenkov fled from Russia. He gave the reason that he started receiving threats. And shortly after that, two representatives of the leadership of the Russian National Anti-Doping Organization (RUSADA) died. Even in Russia, these deaths were called “mysterious”.

Rodchenkov fled to the US, where he told about the existence of a state-controlled doping program in Russia. And it manifested itself the most at the Olympics in Sochi, where doping tests of Russian athletes were actively exchanged for “clean” samples. The Russian Ministry of Sports as the FSB was involved in this.

Hryhoriy Rodchenkov

“Putin’s Poodle”

Despite this, Thomas Bach and the IOC became so pro-Russian in this case in 2016 that even the European media did not hold back:

  • “A well-paid Russian sports ambassador” – that’s how Bach was called in the Die Zeit newspaper in May 2016. The article itself was then called “Russophile and corrupt – as Putin likes”, which described the Russian system of intertwining sports and politics, which led to the doping scandal.
  • “Putin’s poodle” – an article under this title appeared in the German edition of Bild already on July 24, 2016. It described how the friendship between Thomas Bach and Vladimir Putin allowed Russia to avoid serious punishment.
Putin and Bach enjoying champagne / Die Zeit, photo by Getty image

A week before, on July 18, WADA released Richard McLaren’s report on Russia’s state doping program, which focused specifically on the Sochi Olympics. Although, the report indicates that athletes’ tests were changed in the Moscow laboratory from at least the end of 2011 until August 2015.

The IOC reacted too “idly” to this, and Thomas Bach received a lot of criticism. After all, on July 24, despite the seriousness of the accusations, the International Olympic Committee allowed Russia to perform at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro under its national flag. And he only entrusted the International Sports Federations to independently determine which athletes can go to the Olympics.

Bach justified his decision by the fact that every athlete should have a “chance to answer the accusations”, using an analogy with the presumption of innocence.

Thus, 292 Russian athletes performed at the 2016 Olympics. The weightlifting team was expelled completely. And in athletics, despite the suspension of the national team, Russian athletes were allowed to perform after individual approval of the candidate by international sports federations.

Also, shortly before the start of the 2016 Olympics, the Russian men’s academic rowing team was disqualified precisely because of doping in one of the athletes.

And it is likely that in 2023 the president of the IOC decided to use the same principle in the effort to admit the Russians to the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Only on December 5, 2017, the IOC made a decision to terminate the activities of the Russian Olympic Committee. And to invite to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang only “individual Russian athletes under strict conditions”, who should perform without their national flag under the name “Olympic athlete from Russia”. This decision was based on the report of the commission, which was led by the former president of Switzerland, Samuel Schmidt. The investigation lasted 17 months.

On December 9, 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency suspended Russia for four years from participation in the Olympics and World Championships due to the falsification of samples of Russian athletes. At the same time, individual athletes were allowed to participate in competitions, but only under neutral flags. Russia appealed this decision. And a year later, on December 17, 2020, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne reduced the suspension to two years, until December 16, 2022.

After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the IOC suspended Russia and Belarus from international competitions. But Thomas Bach is actively considering the option of returning “individual” Russian and Belarusian athletes to performances in the tournament.

History ‘should teach Bach a lesson’

The fact that IOC started the process of discussing the admission of Russian athletes to the international competitions seems strange. It is concerning that more and more voices in favor of this decision are now beginning to be heard. I wonder what benefit Bach could get for being sympathetic to Russia and always relying on it. It seems very strange to me. This is an absurd discussion. Most people understand that the suspension of the Russians in the spring was the right decision. Since then nothing has happened to justify the lifting of that decision.

Swedish biathlete Samuelsson criticized IOC head Bach for his position on admission of Russians
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