Expecting the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to influence the political system of a country is a chimera, it makes no sense. And speaking out against China, as the WTA, the governing body of women’s tennis, did, is an option that Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, does not contemplate.
He will continue to bet, like his predecessor, Jacques Rogge, on “silent diplomacy”.
“Expecting that the Olympic Games can fundamentally change a country, its political system or its laws, is a completely exaggerated expectation. The Olympics cannot solve problems that generations of politicians have not solved”, Bach said during an interview with the German news agency DPA.
“What is our responsibility and what are our limits? Our responsibility is to run the Games in accordance with the Olympic Charter and the Host City Contract, and to bring together the athletes from 206 teams and the IOC refugee team under one roof”, he added.
Bach added new details about his conversations with Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who vanished from the scene after denouncing a “sexual assault” by a high-ranking official of the Chinese Communist Party.
“We tried to contact Peng Shuai, with her physical integrity at the center. You know the result of these efforts which led to two video conferences on November 21 and December 1. And to say it right away: These two video conferences do not mark the end of this process.
“I was very touched by the conversation with her. It is not easy to hold such a talk via video. I can only report what she is reporting. We have offered her support in all areas. You can only have a really meaningful conversation with an athlete who is in such a fragile situation if trust is built up and the public around the world is not immediately informed about its content”.
The interview, which was conducted by John Bagratuni, Christian Hollmann and Andreas Schirmer, DPA’s three Olympic experts, added several other topics, although the situation of Peng Shuai was a central issue. How will the meeting Bach committed to with the tennis player in January in Beijing go?
“This is an appointment we made when we spoke for the first time. How this encounter takes place must be agreed with Peng Shuai, but also be in line with anti-Covid measures during the Games”, the IOC president replied.
“Silent diplomacy” is Bach’s weapon of choice in a politically convulsed world and a shaken Olympism after the announcement by the United States that it will make a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, which open on February 4.
“You normally have two options: A public statement with the hope that this will solve the situation, possibly combined with public pressure. Or you become active yourself in order to find a solution through discreet dialogue. This is what is called silent diplomacy. Based on the experience of other organizations, governments and our own, this option is the most promising.
“Silent diplomacy and face-to-face contact require that this is respected by the public. This is not easy at a time characterized by deep distrust of all organizations. Nevertheless, experience shows that this silent diplomacy can work and produce results. That is why we will continue to pursue this path. We followed the same strategy in Afghanistan over the past months when we managed to obtain humanitarian visas for more than 300 members of the Olympic community of Afghanistan through silent diplomacy and with help from the Olympic Movement.
“At the moment we are in talks with the Taliban via silent diplomacy regarding ensuring human rights for the members of the Olympic community still in Afghanistan, and over humanitarian aid for those people in the currently precarious situation. From our point of view silent diplomacy is a promising path we will continue to pursue”.
And “silent diplomacy” applies to Peng Shuai’s case.
“We had two options: Either to make a public statement like the WTA or to choose our approach of direct contact. The WTA has gone its way and made its decision. Many other sports organizations have chosen a different route. While the ways differ, the goals can, however, be the same”.
Bach said the newly chosen Brisbane 32 Games had to adapt to different conditions than previous bids, including Beijing’s 2022 bid.
“Human rights and social topics have a special role from now on,” said the German, who avoided answering whether, in that context, a Games in countries like Qatar or Kazakhstan would be possible.
“I will neither speculate on individual countries nor the results of the reformed evaluation process”.