Thomas Bach praises the Winter Games as a “a very safe environment”: “The nervousness is more back home and the roads to Beijing”

In an interview with Around the Rings, the IOC president revealed that Beijing 2022 will feature foreign spectators residing in China, elaborated on details of his meeting with Peng Shuai and discussed the possibility of a woman succeeding him in 2025.

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China January 25, 2022. Picture taken January 25, 2022. Zhang Ling/Xinhua via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China January 25, 2022. Picture taken January 25, 2022. Zhang Ling/Xinhua via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

The Beijing Winter Olympics, which open next week, are “very safe” and will feature international spectators, IOC President Thomas Bach said during an interview with Around the Rings in which he discussed a wide range of topics: from his dinner with tennis player Peng Shuai to the possibility of a woman succeeding him as president in 2025.

“The people who have arrived here and are in the closed loop, they realize that they are in a very safe environment. The nervousness is more back home and the roads to Beijing. Because there is no closed loop there and the number of cases is exploding,” said Bach during the interview.

- You just met with President Xi. What did you talk about?

- It was a good opportunity to inform me on the state of preparations. He and the Chinese authorities are committed to these Olympic Games. There were in particular two aspects. On the one hand, this target they have achieved, more than 300 million Chinese people are now engaged in winter sports. On the other hand the covid situation, all across the world. We discussed the venues and he also mentioned the Chinese team saying that for him it’s not about the number of medals they might win, for them the most important is the team with integrity and the first against doping, which he personally told the sports moment this is the key. He sees the Chinese Olympic team as a role model for the further development of winter sports in China even beyond these 300 million Chinese people.

- The Beijing 2008 Games and the Beijing 2022 Games are very different. How is it different?

- The Olympic Games have changed a lot. One was summer, this is winter. China has changed a lot, you can feel the confidence of the Chinese people. In 2008 it was the start of their appearance on the international sports stage and they arrived with the greatest sports event on the planet. In the meantime after this and having organized countless championships they have great experience and very experienced people. There are many people from 2008 involved now in the organization of 2022. You have many millions more Chinese speaking English and other languages. All this reflects the development that has happened in China and the role China is playing right now in international sports, trade, business, culture and politics.

- What is the situation ahead of the Beijing Games and what does the IOC expect with limited spectators and almost no torch relay? Must be a very edgy atmosphere in Beijing.

- You know, we are coming from Tokyo and there were no spectators at all. Here we will have spectators and we will have spectators also from the international community living here in China, this was confirmed just this morning in our daily coordination meeting.

- People from companies, government agencies...?

- Expats from foreing companies living here, sponsors, personnel of diplomatic missions, Chinese people... There will be spectators. And the people who have arrived here and are in the closed loop, they realize that they are in a very safe environment. The nervousness is more back home and the roads to Beijing. Because there is no closed loop there and the number of cases is exploding. This is why we are making an appeal to all the people coming here in the next couple of days to make an extra effort in their own interest. They are taking the anti COVID measures very seriously. Get tested as close as the departure. Don’t have farewell parties after the last negative test, 24-72 hours before. Wearing a mask because they have a choice to be home and be safe or take the risk, come here for five or ten days quarantine or go into 21 days of quarantine and not participate in the Games. The road to Beijing is for every individual who wants to come here and is responsible. I can only strongly suggest that everyone takes his responsibility.

- If you were a journalist and you had to write an article about the IOC’s experience in China over the last 15 years, with three Games held there, what would the headline be?

- I’m not a journalist (laughs). The experience from sport is reflecting the changing landscape of the world we have seen in the last decade. The importance of Asia and China rising. In business and trade, politics, culture and sport, China by now is a major sports nation and with these 300 million Chinese engaged in winter sports, with the 2000 winter sports destinations and ice rinks, China by now is also a winter sports nation. This Is a huge change to the past.

- Given all the diplomatic boycotts, protests, negative press and constant questions about human rights, censorship or pollution. Was it worth the Chinese adventure?

- It’s important for us and our mission is to deliver the best winter sports possible. This goal has been achieved. The travel plans of politicians are not within the remit of the IOC.

A Red Cross ambulance paramedic wears a protective suit as a protection from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Main Press Centre ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China January 27, 2022. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
A Red Cross ambulance paramedic wears a protective suit as a protection from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Main Press Centre ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China January 27, 2022. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

- Republican leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have sent a letter to NBC executives voicing concerns about “the extent of influence the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) may have over NBC Universal’s coverage of the games.” Anything you can say about this?

- This appears to be an American issue. We will not interfere. We are responsible for the full respect of the Olympic Charter and the host city contract. We have until now no reason for any doubt that this will be delivered. Speaking of all political issues, we should not forget that these Olympic Games enjoy the unanimous support of all 193 member states of the United Nations. They approved that member states should cooperate with the IOC and the IPC in order to accomplish the mission of these Games of unifying and the athletes delivering the message of peace and understanding. This is a great commitment by all 193 governments member states. You have political opinions, this is normal, but you have to see these unanimous support for the Games and this is what we are concentrating on.

- Have you had the opportunity to have dinner with Peng Shuai, as planned?

- We will have a meeting and dinner during the Games, this was agreed in the ongoing context we had with her since the end of November where there were a number of visual calls with our team and her. The last contact was just last week. The China Olympic committee has been very supportive to make this happen while respecting the closed loop system due to COVID. You will hear about the meeting in due time.

- Anything you can comment on the contact the IOC had with the tennis player last week?

- Our team was following up. I took part only in the first video call. They were following up and they are getting to know each other much better and she expressed she’s looking forward to this meeting and to follow the Games and her fellow Chinese Olympians performing here at the Games.

- Sponsors have been through two Olympic Games with the limitations of COVID. What are you telling sponsors about the value of the Games and whether to renew? Optimistic about Paris and Milano as opportunities?

- We saw, going back to Tokyo, that the sponsors were very satisfied with the Games. These are difficult times to make the Games take place at all. That the athletes can make their Olympic dream come true. This was appreciated by the sponsors and rights holders. We are closely cooperating with the sponsors to engage as much as possible. They are very constructive.

FILE PHOTO: President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach delivers a speech during a ceremony for the 100-year anniversary of the creation of the IOC Executive Board, in Ancient Olympia, Greece, October 17, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas/File Photo/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach delivers a speech during a ceremony for the 100-year anniversary of the creation of the IOC Executive Board, in Ancient Olympia, Greece, October 17, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas/File Photo/File Photo

- What are the IOC’s thoughts, or where do they stand, on the universality and diversity of participating nations at the Winter Olympics? 2022 will likely be the first time since the 1970s there will be a drop in participating nations, even if only by one or two at the moment.

- Yes, we see here two NOCs which have never qualified for Winter Games, have qualified athletes. We will see at the end how many NOCs will be present. At the moment we have 91 as we had in Pyeongchang, we had Russian athletes and two new NOCs have qualified. The difference to the Summer Games is that for the Winter Games we do not have this established system of invitations for the NOCs, so it depends on the sports qualifications. You can have slight changes here or there, but it doesn’t not really express commitment to the IOC given qualifications.

- What’s the viability of the Winter Olympics given climate change?

- Every World Cup in alpine skiing is dependent on artificial snow. I haven’t seen any World Cup in the last... I don’t know how many years it has been on just natural snow. Overall you are right, this does not only relate to Beijing, it’s all winter sports. Climate change is a challenge and if you look particularly to Europe and the alpine region you can see you have to go to much higher altitude than before. This is true for tourism and winter sports. The Executive Board has given to the future host commission for Winter Games to look into the impact of climate change on winter sports and Winter Games and they are already doing so, while discussing the hosts for 2030.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Weightlifting - Men's +109kg - Group A - Tokyo International Forum, Tokyo, Japan - August 4, 2021. Lasha Talakhadze of Georgia celebrates with coach Avtandil Gaklokisze. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Weightlifting - Men's +109kg - Group A - Tokyo International Forum, Tokyo, Japan - August 4, 2021. Lasha Talakhadze of Georgia celebrates with coach Avtandil Gaklokisze. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

- On a scale of 1 to 10, if you had to define the prospects of boxing, weightlifting and modern pentathlon remaining Olympic, what would you say?

- You can’t really say, it’s very different for the three. The challenges are very different. The Executive Board has outlined very clearly for modern pentathlon with regards to appeal and universality and cost worldwide of the competition, and this means not only the organization of the competition, it’s also the accessibility on the national and international level. They have decided in order to address these issues it could be helpful to replace horse riding with another one. I don’t know which sport they are deciding on. I don’t think anyone knows. Weightlifting is a governance issue, is an anti doping issue, is an issue of culture within the international federation. They, I must say, with regards to the postponement of congress and incidents leading up to congress... Is not ideal, to say it diplomatically.

- Could 2025 be the time for the IOC to choose a woman as president for the very first time? In fact, do you want it?

- It’s not about what I want, it’s what the members want. But (going to) the first part of your question I would answer very clearly and unequivocally: yes.

- Heading into the final three years in office, what is the contribution you have made to the IOC? What is left to do?

- Not up to me to judge this, and hope you are so fair not to make these judgments too early. Once a friend told me when they put you in a museum then get very alert and cautious. I think it was good advice. This Olympic world, which you know very well, is full of surprises every day. You don’t know today what challenges you have tomorrow. What we’ve tried to do with Olympic Agenda 2020 and 2020+5 is to preempt what we could have envisioned as challenges. Nobody can see all the challenges you face tomorrow or next day.

- Years ago you said that Buenos Aires was a great candidate to host the Games in 2028 or 2032. Given the current situation, do you think it is realistic for the Games to return to South America after Rio 2016?

- We are talking about 2036 and there is a lot of time for further developments in South American countries. I can’t preempt our future host commission. I see great potential in South America, but there is also great potential in Africa. We’ve seen significant interest in many parties. We’ve never been in such a favorable position with regard to future hosts as we are at this moment. We have on one hand a significant amount of interested cities for 2036, 14 years from now, and on the other hand there is great potential in South America and Africa, and my successor can look with great confidence for a host in 2036. And some of them have already indicated 2040, which will be 18 years from now.

- Africa is the only major continent to have never hosted the Olympics. Desmond Tutu had that dream. Do you see them getting their turn in the next 15-20 years?

- Yes.

- Amy specific? South Africa, Egypt?

- I had the privilege of getting to know Desmond Tutu very well in Cape Town since the bid of the city for the 2004 Olympics. I was the President of the evaluation commission and I still treasure every meeting with this great man. A great man of peace but also a great man with a sense of humor. At one of our first meetings he presented me with a bag for Christmas presents with my name on it. Since then this bag is a Christmas tradition at my home, we have it every Christmas with us. I was very saddened by his passing away and sad for him that he didn’t see his dream of Africa hosting come true. But, as I said before, for 2036 or 2040 this is definitely an opportunity for Africa, and there are some countries which could do it, of course including, but not limited to South Africa.

- A proposal for a joint German-Israeli bid for the 2036 Games has been circulated. What is your opinion?

- That is a German discussion at this moment and I will not interfere. We’ve had already very strong interest from Germany for 2032, and only because of some issues within the German NOC this was not brought more forward, but nobody can have any doubt that Germany could organize the Olympic Games. The new leadership of DOSB has on the day of the election made it clear that they want to look into such an application as one of their priorities. So we are looking forward to this.

- Do you expect a “normalization” of the Games in Paris 2024?

- Yes, we all do. There are good reasons to be very confident that even before then the pandemic is over. But I don’t want to use word normalization. Nobody should believe the world post COVID will be the same as pre COVID. It will be a different world. But you are referring to the fact that we will have crowds and fans and not have to adjust qualifyings, and that the athletes’ preparation will be without so much uncertainty. I am very optimistic and realistic that we will have “normal” Games.

A visualisation of the 2024 Paris Olympic Games opening ceremony is pictured in this undated handout obtained December 13, 2021.  Paris 2024/Florian Hulleu/Handout via REUTERS    THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
A visualisation of the 2024 Paris Olympic Games opening ceremony is pictured in this undated handout obtained December 13, 2021. Paris 2024/Florian Hulleu/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

- Spain aspires to host the 2030 Winter Olympics and is preparing a popular consultation. Are you comfortable with this method?

- I’ve been reading this in Around the Rings, they have this intention. What is important, and I’m not interfering too much in the future host commission, I have to be very cautious, but I’m not going too far in saying that the public support is important for the qualification of the candidates. It must be up to each interested party to find the appropriate way to find evidence of public support. Again, as I’ve read in Around the Rings, they have chosen this public consultation. If they do so I have full trust it’s the appropriate way for the Spanish Olympic Committee and interested parties.

- Xi Jinping said that these are the first international sports event to be held on schedule, without being postponed, delayed because of Covid. How important are the Beijing Games, to deliver them on time and without problems?

- I think it’s not only important for the Olympic committee and the Olympic movement. It’s important for so many, of course most important the athletes. You can see the people longing for the message that life can go on even under these circumstances. We can give hope for this normalization you refer to. We can show resilience, give hope for this normalization. This is key and important. You can also see from the reaction of the international community. They’re looking forward to these games as a symbol of resilience. The United Nations has expressed this in the truce resolution. The World Health Organization has given us their full support with regard to the countermeasures and expressed their confidence. You can see that not only athletes and the Olympic community are longing for this but millions around the globe.

- The 2028 Games will be in Los Angeles, but they are shaping up to be very different from the 1984 Games in the same city. What impresses you most about LA28, what stands out?

- The innovative spirit. You can feel and see it in every aspect of the preparations of LA28. The logo is the most visible example. Casey (Wasserman) flew specially to Poland to show it to me in a secret room during a meeting of the European Olympic committees. When I saw it the first time they showed me it was really “wow!”.

- And you have seen many logos in your life...

- Yes, and have forgotten most of them. This spirit (of LA) you can feel it in every move. I think my successor can be very happy with the choice of LA.

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