IN SEPTEMBER, THOMAS BACH was elected the ninth president of the International Olympic Committee since its founding in 1894. The 59-year-old Bach, a lawyer from W√ºrzburg, Germany, inherits an organization from his predecessor, Dr. Jacques Rogge, that has never been healthier, raking in record revenue and attracting unprecedented television ratings worldwide. But with little more than two months to go before the cauldron is lit in Sochi, Russia, site of the XXII Winter Games, Bach, who won a gold medal in fencing at the 1976 Games in Montreal, faces some formidable challenges. There have been protests over human rights abuses in Russia and in Rio de Janeiro, which will host the 2016 Summer Games; threats to the Games in Russia by terrorist groups that have successfully carried out attacks before; and exploding costs in Sochi. (It's not cheap to transform a summer, coastal resort into a winter sports capital.) SI sat down with the new man in charge.
You mentioned recently that we must consider politics when choosing venues for major sports events. What happens if it appears that there is an inherent conflict between the values of the IOC as described in its charter and a law that affects the Games?
The IOC has to be strictly neutral with regard to any kind of politics, and with that we have to protect the Games and the athletes. Having been an Olympic athlete myself, I know that you do not want to be confronted with political demonstrations, whatever the political intention may be. The mission of the Games is to show that regardless of any kind of differences you may have with your fellow athletes, you can live together in peace for a certain period of time in the Olympic Village. The Games cannot be the stage for political demonstrations of any kind.
Often there are athletes from other nations who withdraw from competing against Israeli athletes. How is that in compliance with the idea of fair play between nations?
Whenever we have evidence that such a decline to compete is politically founded, then we act. Our attitude is very clear. You have to compete with every athlete who is in the Games.
What are your thoughts about the two journalists from Norway who were recently detained near Sochi while reporting about the Games?
I do not feel comfortable at all about this because freedom of the press is one of the values the Olympic movement promotes. It is the responsibility of the IOC to ensure that during the Games the Olympic Charter is fully applied, and we are confident that this will happen because we have all the assurances from the highest authorities in Russia.
Are you as confident about security at these Games?
Protecting the Games and the athletes is always the highest priority. There again we are confident that the Russian authorities and security agencies will protect the Olympics. Unfortunately we are living in a world where terrorism can threaten any event. We have to take care that the best is done for security. But making concessions [by curtailing freedoms] would mean victory for terrorists. I think this can be in nobody's interest.
There was a story in the Associated Press not too long ago that Russia's state-owned railway monopoly was dumping waste illegally into a landfill north of Sochi, with the potential for that to drain into the water system that feeds the city. How concerned are you about this?
We have to recognize that Sochi and Russia did a lot with regard to environmental protection in these Games. You also have to see the starting point. Before the Games, consciousness about environmental issues in Russia was not as high as it is now. What happened with this dumping is a concern. We have been following up with the Russian authorities.
How much can the IOC influence a host in terms of its governance of issues such as environmental ones?
We have to respect the national authorities, and we have to respect their efforts and assurances. But the IOC is not a supergovernment that can enforce concrete measures in a country. We have to concentrate on the delivery of the Games. This is where we have influence. We have to respect the laws and the measures of a sovereign country.
There is an article in the Olympic Charter that states that one role of the IOC is to act against any form of discrimination that affects the Olympic movement. Earlier this year Russia enacted a bill that criminalizes public expressions deemed to be pro-homosexual. Are you satisfied with President Putin's assurances that all Olympic family members will be welcome in Russia?
President Putin was very clear in a conversation with me and in a following public declaration: He said that every athlete and spectator would be welcome in Russia, and there would be no discrimination with regard to race or sexual orientation or any other kind. We are sure that these Olympic Games will be free of any kind of discrimination. Here again it is the task of the IOC to make sure that the Olympic Charter is applied for the Olympic Games. Outside of the Olympic Games, we have to follow the laws of a sovereign state or a parliament, and we are not in a position where we can legislate on our own.
The announced [Sochi] budget at this point is $51 billion, much bigger than the $12 billion originally stated....
You have to understand the difference between the operational budget for the Games and the investment into the future of the region. Russia was and is a great winter sports nation. But after the breakdown of the U.S.S.R., there was no winter sport center in Russia. So what Russia did is to make the decision: We are a winter sports country, and we need a winter sports destination. The Games were used as a catalyst.
Are the Olympics getting too expensive for a number of nations to afford?
We have to devise a real concept of sustainability for the Games. We apply the standards of one part of the world to the rest of the world. There I think we need a change. We have to invite candidate cities to tell us how they see the organization of an Olympic Games fitting into their long-term development plan, into their efforts for sustainability, which legacy they see for the Games in their social and cultural environment, and allow more creativity, have more diversity in the candidacies.
What should other sports learn from the way wrestling was put on temporary status before it was voted back into the Games?
Many issues led to the warning for wrestling. There were the rules of the sport, which were hard to understand even for the wrestlers. It was about applying good governance, being compliant with regard to athletes' participation in the decision-making in developing women's participation, and other issues. Wrestling reacted in a remarkable way. They reformed their federation and sport within months, and then they were rewarded by the vote of the IOC members. So this means for the other federations: Never be complacent.
Could we go beyond 28 sports and 10,500 athletes, the current maximums for the Olympics, in the future?
There are two limitations we have to respect: the number of athletes we can accommodate and the number of permanent facilities. Within these limitations, whether we give 302 gold medals or 308 doesn't really matter. If we can accommodate additional disciplines or sports in the already required or existing facilities, then it would not affect adversely any Games.
The IOC has had an up-and-down relationship for the past 20 years with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Can a U.S. city have a successful bid after New York City's and Chicago's failed attempts?
I think we have excellent relations now with the United States Olympic Committee. We are looking forward to a strong U.S. candidate for the Olympic Games for '24.
Outside of the Olympic Games, we have to follow the laws of a sovereign state or a parliament, and we are not in a position where we can legislate on our own.
For more from our interview with Thomas Bach, go to SI.com/mag or download the tablet edition of SI, free to subscribers at SI.com/activate
Photograph by SETH KUSHNER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED