Giovanni Malagò: “Thomas Bach was a giant, a phenomenon in the defense of the Games”

The president of the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) defended, during an interview with Around the Rings, the Japanese government’s decision to hold the Games without spectators and defined as a “cultural problem” the slowness of the vaccination program in the world’s third largest economy.

El presidente del Comité Olímpico Nacional Italiano (CONI), Giovanni Malago, asiste a una conferencia de prensa en Lausana, Suiza, 24 junio 2019.
REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
El presidente del Comité Olímpico Nacional Italiano (CONI), Giovanni Malago, asiste a una conferencia de prensa en Lausana, Suiza, 24 junio 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

TOKYO - Giovanni Malagò is a happy man. He feels that the Milan/Cortina 2026 Games are on track, he is still celebrating Italy’s title at the European Football Championship and he is already in Tokyo, a Games that might not have existed. If they exist, he says, it is mainly due to the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, whom he defines as “a giant”.

And to the government of Japan, he adds. “A very serious country that preferred to keep the word given to the international community,” he analyzes in an interview with Around the Rings in which he implies that we must avoid premature optimism in the face of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic that has been sweeping the world since 2020: “Nothing is as it was.”

During the interview, Malagò speaks in Spanish, the language of his Cuban grandmother and mother. He feels, he says, very close to Latin Americans (“we have the same blood”) and praises Argentinean Gerardo Werthein, member of the IOC executive committee: “I have a very, very strong relationship with Gerardo. He is a great leader. In almost everything we do on the international scene we have a lot of complicity, that is very important”.

Charismatic, former member of the Italian indoor soccer team and great lover of tennis, Malagò was a key man in June 2019 in Lausanne in the victory of Milano/Cortina over Stockholm to host the 2026 Winter Games.

- Milano/Cortina are five years away. Had they won them earlier and had to organize a Games in these months, like Tokyo or Beijing, everything would be much more complicated for them, wouldn’t it?

- Nothing is as it was. We hope that as soon as possible this situation we are living through will be over, but we have to be pragmatic every day. We have to keep our feet firmly on the ground. Covid has generated a series of very important problems that we have to face day after day. That is the truth. An Olympic Games is something unique, but in times of pandemic it is much more than unique. That is the truth.

- Experts say that we are going to have to get used to frequent epidemics. How will sport do? Because sport without spectators is less sport.

- For sure, for sure. The famous experts tell us that we have to get used to what is happening. I don’t know, I don’t know if in 2022, 2023 or in 2026, when it will be Milano/Cortina, we will have the same kind of problems, but for sure, for sure it’s not something that will be fixed right away. The truth is that all the issues we have to finish deciding them at the exact moment when the events happen, because there is no rule on how to proceed. That is the truth. We have to get used to something that is very difficult to accept.

- Tokyo 2020 is in 2021 and without spectators, what do you think?

- It has been a difficult decision, but it could not be different in this particular moment that the world is living due to the pandemic.

- Conmebol revealed that it lost $15 million in the organization of the Copa América. Strange times for hyper-professional sports, always used to making money.

- Very strange. But, at the same time we have to recognize that there is a country, very, very serious, that preferred to keep its word to the international community on the issue of the Olympic Games. That is very important and it is not easy to recognize that.

- You mean that it would have been easier for Japan to decide not to hold the Games?

- Exactly, exactly. There are some local issues in Japan that are very particular, but at the same time they have decided to keep their word.

- It is the third largest economy in the world and one of the most technologically advanced countries. How do you explain that Japan is so far behind in terms of vaccination? Have they given you, the Olympic leaders, any explanation?

- Yes. There is only one explanation: it is a cultural problem. If you see the mentality about religion, customs, tradition and some rules of life.... Again: it is impossible to understand this if you are not Japanese. That is the truth.

- How do you imagine the atmosphere of the Games?

- Our delegation, with 384 athletes, is the largest in history, with 47 percent women and 48 percent men. We perfectly respect gender parity. What is clear is that we all have to respect the rules religiously, because it is a country, and very particularly at this time, that has to make a series of impositions. But it is important to be there, participate and win. And that is much more important than the restrictions imposed by the government and the organizing committee.

- What do you learn from a situation that was very difficult for the organizing committee and the Japanese government, but also for the IOC and particularly for President Thomas Bach?

- We learned that the Olympic Games are stronger than everything, stronger than anything anyone could imagine.

- And what can you say about President Bach’s performance in this already long year and a half since the pandemic broke out?

- I say it very sincerely: Bach, for me, was a giant, a phenomenon. Because everything was very complicated, it was very complicated to look for the key to the solution to all these problems, which were very different from what was believed when Covid appeared. The greatest consideration on my part for what Thomas Bach has done to defend the IOC and the Olympic Games. Because the IOC is the Olympic Games.

- You played a very important role in the renewal of the Olympic program. What do you think of the new sports?

- This is what the young people are asking for, the new generation. Surfing, skateboarding, climbing... It is very easy to understand. You have to see very well what young people want today, and I think this is a very important opportunity for the Games of 2024, 2028 and beyond.

- The bobsleigh track is the focus of a debate in Milan/Cortina, what can you say?

- It is what is called legacy, from Cortina ’56. For us it is very important and it is the demonstration that there is something that can fix what time had turned into a monument. Not now, now it is an Olympic facility.

- Spending $60 million for a bobsleigh track, many in Cortina say, is unnecessary.

- It is also the opportunity to do something that is going to be very important for the region after the competition.

- The relationship between CONI and the government of Italy has not been straightforward in recent times. What is the government’s involvement in the 2026 Games today?

- Everything is now slowly, but with a lot of satisfaction from us, being settled. It is a victory for the autonomy of sport.

- Are things different since the change in the leadership of the Italian government?

- The relationship is very, very strong. Of course, when you have a president like Mario Draghi, who makes international activity and foreign prestige and reputation key, it is very important for us.

- When people talk about the Winter Games, they always talk about the northern hemisphere. Have you ever imagined the Winter Games in the southern hemisphere, where there is also snow?

- Anything can be, but it doesn’t seem very easy to me now. And I can’t say more, but that’s my opinion.