Call it the perfect storm of Olympic politics.
With sports leaders gathering in St. Petersburg, Russia, this week for a global convention, three high-profile campaigns will be played out at the same time in an unusual confluence of issues that will set the tone for the future of the Olympic movement.
The race for the IOC presidency, the bidding for the 2020 Summer Games and the fate of wrestling will be on full display at the SportAccord conference and executive board meetings of the International Olympic Committee.
About 1,500 delegates are expected for the conference, which opens Tuesday and will feature an appearance later in the week by Russian President Vladimir Putin. His presence will underscore Russia’s commitment to its first Winter Games, which will take place in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in less than nine months.
The centerpiece of the meetings will be Wednesday’s decision by the IOC board on which sport or sports to recommend for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics. Three months after it was surprisingly removed from the list of core sports, wrestling will have a chance to climb back into contention for a spot on the 2020 program.
Also competing for the single opening are seven other sports “a combined baseball-softball bid, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and the Chinese martial art of wushu.
The sports will make closed-door presentations to the IOC board, which will then decide on recommendations to submit to the IOC general assembly for a final decision in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in September.
There is widespread speculation that the executive board will select a shortlist of three or four finalists, including wrestling. Squash and karate have been cited as other leading contenders, while men’s baseball and women’s softball have merged to push their bid after having been off the program since the 2008 Beijing Games.
“Everything will be done on merit and respecting the rights that the federations have,” IOC President Jacques Rogge told The Associated Press.
Wrestling, a sport with a tradition dating back to the ancient Olympics, has gone through a major upheaval since it was dropped by the IOC in February. The decision caused a worldwide outcry and led an improbable alliance of the United States, Iran and Russia to push for its return.
Governing body FILA has elected a new president, Nenad Lalovic of Serbia, and brought women and athletes into decision-making roles. It has also adopted a series of rules changes designed to make the sport more exciting and easier for spectators to understand.
“The federation definitely understood the reasons why they were ousted and they reacted well,” Rogge said. “That does not guarantee them a spot, but they have addressed the shortcomings.”
The process has caused some consternation in IOC circles. If wrestling ends up being voted onto the program in September, it means that no new sport will be brought in for 2020, which was the original intention.
Lalovic believes wrestling has done everything possible to win back its place.
“I understand the other sports are surprised to have wrestling with them,” he told the AP. “They don’t like that, but what can I do? We have to fight, like wrestlers do.”
The debate over the sports lineup comes in the thick of the IOC presidential campaign “with all candidates to be on show this week in St. Petersburg. Rogge, who replaced Juan Antonio Samaranch in 2001, steps down in September after 12 years in the job.
Five members have declared their candidacies in the past two weeks “IOC vice-presidents Thomas Bach of Germany and Ng Ser Miang of Singapore, finance commission chair Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico, executive board member and amateur boxing association chief C.K. Wu of Taiwan, and international rowing federation head Denis Oswald of Switzerland.
Former pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, an executive board member from Ukraine, is expected to declare his candidacy this week in St. Petersburg and complete the record field of six candidates. Bach has been considered the front-runner, but the large field would indicate there is no consensus and votes could be split in the Sept. 10 election.
Rogge, who has pledged to remain neutral in the race, said he has seen some of the candidates’ manifestos and believes whoever is elected will follow in his path.
“There is no sign of revolution,” Rogge told the AP. “There is a sign of necessary evolution. I don’t expect a major shift from what has been done under Samaranch and me and I believe was quite successful.”
The presidential candidates won’t be the only ones lobbying in St. Petersburg. So, too, will be the three cities bidding to host the 2020 Olympics “Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo.
Leaders of all three bids will make public presentations on Thursday to the SportAccord delegates, a key chance to get their message across to an international audience. They’ll also make pitches to IOC members in July, two months before the vote in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7. An IOC evaluation commission will release its report on the bids next month, and Rogge said he is “reassured” by its findings.
“I know that the outcome of the report is that the three cities are capable of staging excellent games,” he said. “So there is no major disqualifying shortcoming in any of the three bids. Whoever wins will be a very good organizer and, for me, that is the most important thing.”