When Larry Probst was elected to the International Olympic Committee at the Session in
Buenos Aires last autumn, few would have expected this staid electronics-entertainment
businessman to double as IOC court jester. Yet here he is nine months later apparently
attempting to be more of a revolutionary than Juan Antonio Samaranch managed in 21
years as President.
Probst advocates that the election of Olympic host cities should be decided not by
the IOC Members, currently numbering some 112, but – in parallel with the all too
controversial practice operated by FIFA – by the Executive Board, the internally elected
governing ‘cabinet’. Coubertin’s bones will shiver in his grave.
The founding IOC of 1894-96 was composed of aristocrats and noblemen, almost
exclusively of social, financial and political independence, impeccably wedded to what
were perceived as the inalienable ethics of sport, of the mirror of life itself. But life evolves.
Probst clearly has a 21st-century boardroom vision: business management and video
conferences, instead of expensively air-lifting a brigade of members to all corners of the
earth for annual Sessions.
While writing 20 years ago Olympic Revolution, a biography of Samaranch’s
dominance at the helm, he repeatedly mentioned to me his interventionist’s wish to initiate
what Probst now proposes: an executive host city election. Samaranch’s motivation was
not merely to save time and expense, but the means of obtaining what he considered to be
the optional choice for the long-term prosperity of the Olympic Games. And within the EB,
he reckoned, he could get, as he did with most projects, what he wanted.
Yet unlike Probst, Samaranch recognised that history, tradition, sentiment, public
opinion, the will of the Greek gods, conspired against him. Probst has seemingly not read
the ancient Olympic ethical rule-book. He wants to follow the path of Patton rather than
the philosophy of Lincoln. EB host elections would abolish the IOC.
More particularly undermining his thesis, than any theoretic practicality, is lack of
experience. He has as yet sat through only a single Session, at Sochi four months ago,
observing how the blend of trans-global geo-political opinion bears upon IOC decisions.
Leaving aside the Salt Lake City scandal of 1998-2000, IOC decisions are not predominantly inequitable. The election of Beijing, in 2001, and of Sochi, in 2007, were controversial, yet there were constructively valid arguments in their favour. There is no certainty that the EB would reach more ideal conclusions than the hundred-plus Session assembly. Indeed, it can be reasoned, the Members’ Session permits more independent views than the EB, if we recollect evidence over the past 25 years that finance has become the predominant collective consideration guiding EB opinions.
Probst’ personal credit inside Olympic circles is that, since elected USOC president
in 2008, he has overseen a return to equilibrium with USOC, following years of ruptured
relations, both domestic and international – most conspicuously negotiating with the IOC
a stable, revised formula for America’s preferential share of global sponsorship income and
of US television rights. American influence within the Olympic Movement had diminished,
both influencing the embarrassing defeats for New York and then Chicago as host
candidates, and diluting authority at the top table. President Thomas Bach schemed the
IOC inclusion of Probst and Alexander Zhukov of Russia to keep prime Olympic nations in
the foreground of debate.
An irony attends the professional life of USOC’s otherwise estimable leader:
executive chairman of Electronic Arts, a multiple technology giant with annual revenues in
excess of $3bn across more than 75 countries… which creates a transparent obstruction to
Olympic health. Interactive entertainment locks school children into armchairs. On the
other hand, remember, prominent sponsors supply the soft drinks and fast food which
help make idle kids obese. The IOC has other priorities and hazards to handle besides
finding suitable Games venues.
Probst’s public intervention is likely to compromise the prospects in the latter of any
US city bidding for the Summer Games of 2024 — IOC members likely to interpret his
comments as exploiting EB focus on finance in favour of a return to America for their
This article was republished with permission from Karl-Heinz Huba, the editor and publisher of the Sport Intern.