LAUSANNE, Switzerland—In 20 minutes of self-directed comments to the press yesterday, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach did not address the scandal rocking the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), where high-ranking soccer officials were arrested by Swiss authorities based on corruption charges brought by the United States Department of Justice.
But Bach did make sure to point out the improvements in governance that have taken place at the IOC in the last 15 years, and which he says are continuing to take place today. Although he never stated it, the choice of contrasting the IOC’s governance to the unmentioned corruption of FIFA seemed obvious.
Take, for instance, the organization’s finances. The IOC hired Price Waterhouse Coopers to do its auditing, and to hold the IOC to the standards of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, even though such standards are not required as the IOC is not based in the U.S.
“They confirmed that our financial statements for 2014 were in compliance with the IRS, just to remind you that Olympic Agenda 2020 stipulated that we are going to apply… the international highest standard, even if legally the IOC would not be required to have our accounts being audited to such a high level standard,” Bach said. “Price Waterhouse Coopers also expressed their great satisfaction with the high level of transparency of these accounts and welcomed a program which we started in house, which we call the Operational Excellence Improvement Program, which is very much about the internal control.”
In other words: no corruption here, although KPMG, another one of the world’s largest accounting firms, signed off on FIFA’s accounts before the scandal erupted. So who knows if audits make a difference.
Bach also pointed to other improvements in transparency and ethics that have been brought about by Olympic Agenda 2020, the hallmark platform of his presidency.
“We have appointed a chief ethics compliance officer,” he explained. “We have appointed a chief internal audit processor. We have strengthened the audit committee by separating it from the finance commission. And we have strengthened the role of the ethics commissions by having the members of the ethics commission being submitted to election by the IOC session.”
It wasn’t until the Q&A session that Bach had to talk about FIFA, and at that point it was almost all he could talk about. The questions wouldn’t stop: FIFA is the largest and most profitable international sports federation in the world, and its president Sepp Blatter – who announced his resignation from the presidency last week – is still an IOC member. Although Blatter is not attending these meetings, he has not yet resigned his IOC position.
“Just remind me that I’m reporting about the Executive Board meeting of the IOC and not FIFA,” Bach laughed at one point.
While Bach says that the direction and reforms FIFA needs to take are up to FIFA, he has also offered support and advice to the organization. Just days after the scandal broke, Bach traveled to Zurich to speak at the annual FIFA congress. He used the opportunity to encourage reform.
When a journalist expressed surprise that Bach would risk sullying himself by standing on FIFA’s stage, Bach said that giving up is not his style.
“I did not consider not to go,” Bach responded. “You should know, this is my general attitude. I think it is always better and means always more and is always more effective to go somewhere and make your point, rather than staying at home and letting things pass. This is what I always have defended with regard to sports events, and what I am also defending for these kinds of meetings. It may need more courage to go and to stand up there, but I also think that because it needs more courage, it is more effective.”
What Bach can offer, he said, were examples of how the IOC successfully cleaned itself up after the Salt Lake City bidding scandal. En route to winning the bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee bribed IOC members for votes. This led to the expulsion of ten IOC members and the sanctioning of another 10. Many IOC rule changes followed.
Bach, who first became an IOC member in 1991, saw all of that. In answering questions to the press, he talked about how the IOC took the initial steps to recover from the scandal.
“We know from our experience that the other part of the job means putting everything on the desk, it can be a painful experience, but it is absolutely necessary to do this as we have seen from our own history,” he said. “There, I’m still convinced, that only by doing this at the time could the IOC restore its credibility.”
FIFA is certainly not putting everything on the desk, as of yet. Although Blatter resigned a week ago, he said that he will stay on to lead reforms until an election is held – which he estimated could take nine months.
In other words Blatter, who is still under investigation, stepped down but did not really step down. And Bach did not call for him to leave any more quickly.
“This is something that FIFA has to decide,” he said. “FIFA is a federation in its own right, and it is not for the IOC to interfere…. We can only encourage FIFA to continue the way of reforms which have already been initiated.”
However, as was seen in the dismantling of the sports group SportAccord, Bach does not seem to see any problems meddling in other circumstances. With the World Cup and other championship events so successful, it’s true that FIFA does not need the IOC’s support as much as SportAccord did.
But there’s little doubt that strong pressure from Bach could accomplish something at FIFA, should he choose to apply it. No matter where one comes from, access to the Olympic Games is among one of the highest commodities in sports.
Instead, Bach riffed on the changes the IOC implemented 15 years ago in the wake of the Salt Lake City scandal. Some are simple: Bach, for instance, has an eight-year term, extendable once for a four-year re-election. In 2014, FIFA voted to reject the idea of term limits for its president, and Blatter had been in power for 17 years.
“We addressed it by introducing term limits, by reducing the age limit significantly, by having term limits not only for members but in particular for all members of the Executive Board and the President,” Bach explained. “We at the time made what for me is still one of the major steps in all these reforms, because I had been fighting for this many years before – we finally had athletes electing their own representatives, not only for the membership but even for the IOC Executive Board. We have members from the [international federations] and from the [national Olympic committees]. We gave all the stakeholders in the movement the chance to express themselves.”
But while he offered advice on how the IOC solved its own problems, Bach was quick to assert that FIFA’s situation was much worse than that the IOC had faced.
“The corruption issues we had 15 years ago were related to the election of Olympic host cities only,” he said. “Here in FIFA you see many other facets… you see many other allegations with regard to TV rights, with regard even to sponsoring rights to national federations and many others. And you see amounts of money being allegedly – I have to say allegedly – involved which cannot be compared to what was at stake for the IOC 15 years ago.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.