Thomas Bach faces Olympic-sized challenges
Upcoming hosts Russia, Brazil face spiralling costs
New IOC President Thomas Bach will be tested quickly by two troublesome Olympics: the Winter Games less than five months away in the southern Russian resort of Sochi, and the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — still three years away but setting off alarms.
Bach was elected to the top job on Tuesday, replacing Jacques Rogge as head of the International Olympic Committee. One of the first phone calls he received was from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is staking his prestige on the Sochi Games.
"He congratulated and [said] there would be close cooperation to make [sure of] the success of the Sochi Games," Bach said.
The buildup to the Feb. 7-23 games has been overshadowed by concerns with cost overruns, human rights, a budget topping $50 billion US, 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 told The Associated Press.
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 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."
Then he hedged.
"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."
Rio looms large after Sochi.
Building delays in Rio IOC inspectors visiting just over a week ago said slow progress was being made in preparations for the 2016 Games and warned that things need to be speeded up.
Carlos Nuzman, head of the Rio organizing committee, was grilled Sunday by IOC members worried about building delays, lack of local sponsorship money, and planning squabbles between the federal, state and local governments.
There are worries about infrastructure projects including a revamped port and a late start building one of the four main hubs for the games. Demonstrations are also a concern, particularly after daily protests in June at the Confederations Cup with many Brazilians asking why the government is spending billions on big sports events in a country with stark inequalities, high taxes and poor public services.
"We are three years ... from Rio and we will make sure that we have very close coordination with the organizing committee, and also with the governmental authorities," Bach said. "There are, of course, some issues.
"I hope also that in the not too far future — I don't know when — that I can visit Rio and get a firsthand impression."
Bach, the longtime favorite, defeated five candidates in Tuesday's secret ballot. The former Olympic fencer received 49 votes. Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico was second with 29 in a six-candidate field.
Former fencer Ng Ser Miang of Singapore got six votes, Denis Oswald of Switzerland five and Sergei Bubka of Ukraine four. C.K. Wu of Taiwan was eliminated in the first round after an initial tie with Ng as low vote-getter.
The vote was the third and final big decision at the four-day IOC congress. On Saturday, the IOC awarded the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo, over rival bids from Istanbul and Madrid. The next day, wrestling won reinstatement to the program for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics, beating out squash and a combined baseball-softball bid.
Bach, who has headed Germany's national Olympic committee, is the ninth president in the 119-year history of the IOC. He's the eighth European to hold the presidency and replaces Rogge, a 71-year-old Belgian who held office for 12 years.
Elected to an eight-year term, Bach is the first gold medalist to become IOC president. He won gold in team fencing for West Germany at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Bach was the long-time favorite because of his resume: former Olympic athlete, long-serving member of the policy-making IOC executive board, chairman of the legal commission, head of anti-doping investigations and negotiator of European TV rights.
"It is what I and many of the others had anticipated," said IOC member Prince Albert of Monaco. "I think it was very clear. You can't argue with his experience and his leadership and his great knowledge about the Olympic movement and the world of sports, and also the outside world. I think we are getting a great president."