BANGKOK, April 17, 2018 – In his first address at the 2018 SportAccord Convention in Bangkok, IOC president Thomas Bach warned against the danger of sport being used as a means for division, and insisted that the greatest power of sport lies in remaining politically neutral.
“As the world becomes more and more polarized – socially, economically, politically, this is when the unifying power of sport becomes more important than ever. However, this polarization also leads to some wanting to use the power for their own political purposes. While we strive for unifying, some are using sport to divide people even more.
Neutrality “This is sometimes a very fine line,” Bach continued, “and the only answer is that sport has to remain strictly politically neutral. Sometimes this is not easy, acting and dealing with those you might not politically agree with, where you see serious problems. This is when you have to take the decision that it is not up to sport to judge politically, or to erect walls but that it is more important that sport remains the bridge between people,” he said.
United Through Sport The IOC president was speaking at the United Through Sport Conference on the third day of the SportAccord Convention in Bangkok. A novel part of the Convention is a festival under the patronage of the IOC dedicated to promoting sport on a widespread level among Thailand’s youth with the participation of over 40 Olympic and non-Olympic sports, including participation of displaced children and juvenile delinquent youth.
Bach praised the initiative for the United Through Sport campaign in Thailand led by AIMS President and GAISF Vice President Stephen Fox, a notable figure in the Thai combat sport Muythai, and called for more engagement in sport.
Building bridges “The principle decision is how to make progress, through isolation or engagement. The answer of sport must always be engagement. Only then can you get your argument across, or in the case of sport, our values across. This is how bridges are built. Keep going, building these bridges even if sometimes if it is not easy, and keep your political neutrality, under all circumstances, because otherwise you will see sport losing its fragile unifying power very quickly,” he underlined.
Russia Bach was faced with the danger of numerous bridges burning during his mandate as IOC president, including a global cry for all Russian athletes to be banned from the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro after evidence of Russian government-sanctioned doping at Sochi 2014 emerged and even more pressure for the same to be done at the Winter Games in PyeongChang. In Rio, Russian athletes were allowed to compete, if approved by stringent tests within their international federations. In PyeongChang, following the suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee due to further proof of “unprecedented systematic doping manipulation”, Russian athletes proven to be clean were allowed to compete as ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’. In such a compromise suspension, Bach avoided the possible outright boycott of Russia at the Games.
A Peninsula united More sensitive still were drastically heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula just months before PyeongChang 2018, due to North Korean missile tests. The outcome, after a push from the IOC and the United Nations, was an unprecedented show of unity at the Winter Games in PyeongChang, which saw not only the participation of North Korean athletes, but the march of North and South Korea under a united flag in the Opening Ceremony, and a united Korean women’s hockey team.
Speaking of the joint march in PyeongChang, Bach went beyond the messages of pride that was delivered after the Games and revealed it wasn’t easy.
Three speeches “We had an agreement with both of the governments from North and South Korea on the 20th of January 2018 for the joint march, for the Unified flag and the joint ice hockey team, and many people thought it was done. But the final decision was taken four hours before the Opening Ceremony, because there were last minute attempts by both sides to make a political point, with one symbol or the other," Bach said.
"Then we had to decide what to do, whether to give in to save this great symbol of the unified march or whether we would say – under these circumstances no. This is what we did, so at noon time of the day of the Opening Ceremony, I had three different speeches ready, because we would not know if we would convince all sides to follow our decisions.”