Thorns still linger with Pyeongchang Olympic Games set to begin

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Thomas Bach sat at the dais at the end of the 132nd International Olympic Committee session and proceeded to deliver 19 minutes of sunshine-and-lollipops monologue to assembled media on the state of the body heading into the Pyeongchang Games.

Plans to stage the 2022 Youth Olympic Games in Africa, a possible precursor to the continent’s first Olympics in 2032 or 2036. Steps toward full gender equality at the Olympics – 42 per cent of competitors at the upcoming Winter Games are women but projections push that number to 48.7 for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo – momentum in ticket sales for Pyeongchang, with organizers now at 78 per cent of their goal and expecting a balanced budget, the symbolism of a united Korean team participating in these Games.

Of note to Calgary, which is considering a bid for the 2026 Winter Games, is the New Norm document that boasts of “more than 100 measures of revised services and requirements” that could save host cities “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Still, there are lingering thorns the IOC president couldn’t shake during a 40-minute question-and-answer session, first and foremost the unsettled appeal of 32 Russian athletes challenging their exclusion from the Games before the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

A ruling may not come until hours before Friday’s opening ceremonies and even though the IOC’s executive board expressed support for the handling of the Russian doping scandal, the fact it’s still an issue at all right now underlines the fault’s within the initial sanction.

“The hearings are going on. I hope we will have as soon as possible the results from CAS. I do not know more,” Bach said early on, adding later: “We think we have good arguments. Now the procedure is ongoing so I cannot speculate there on the outcome.”

Attempts to pin him down further went nowhere, although Bach continued to defend the process that led to the banning of the Russian Olympic Committee but not athletes that could prove themselves clean he issued in December.

Russian athletes are to compete under the Olympic colours and flag but there are concerns their white, blue and red tricolours could be thrown to medallists from the stands to use in celebration.

“The regulations are very clear that this is not allowed, the regulations are published and they are even translated in Russian,” said Bach. “The Olympic athletes from Russia have signed a declaration of acceptance of these regulations and as we said before, all this will be monitored by the implementation group.”

While the controversy on that front lingers, the rest of the Games appear to be largely running smoothly.

A norovirus outbreak that led to the quarantine of 1,200 Olympic staffers is a concern – “We are in contact with the authorities here,” said Bach. Beyond that, a primary talking point has been the cold, with organizers hosting a news conference Wednesday to discuss the weather, which, they said, will continue to be cold as normal for the season.

As Canadian skeleton athlete Elisabeth Vathje put it: “It’s like Calgary, it’s like home. You freeze your butt off.”

One thaw Bach was quick to jump on was the one that led the unified Korean team for the Games. He pointed out the threat some attached to Pyeongchang amid the sabre-rattling between North Korea in the United States in recent months had been diffused and argued that there was a wider-scale meaning to the symbolism of North and South finding some common ground.

“I really believe in the Olympic spirit,” he said, “and these athletes and many, many billion other people, they will believe in this gesture, and the athletes are going to show it.”

Perhaps, although trying to attach too much meaning to the Olympics in one of the world’s more volatile geopolitical settings is foolish. You want the IOC to put on a good Games, not broker peace.

“The stage is set,” said Bach. “All the competition venues are ready. The venues are really stunning. These Games will really offer the best possible conditions for the best winter sport athletes of the world.”

Amid the ongoing issues with Russia, and the norovirus, and a politically tense region, that’s the one thing the IOC can actually deliver.