When Thomas Bach became president of the International Olympic Committee in 2013, the German lawyer who had spent a lifetime networking and politicking towards that very moment had a neat analogy up his sleeve. “The role of the IOC president is being the conductor of the worldwide orchestra of the members,” he said. “He is the conductor of a fascinating orchestra with the members who have so many strengths and you have to allow them to play the instrument they prefer and get them in harmony.”

 

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In the wake of the IOC’s muddled, confusing and chaotic decision over which Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in Rio next month, Bach is still playing to his orchestra but most of the rest of the world is finding the result a discordant mess. Even in Russia, where there was widespread relief at avoiding the blanket ban the World Anti-Doping Agency had called for, there was criticism of inconsistencies in the IOC’s decision.

 

When Bach exited the auditorium in the Buenos Aires Hilton having been anointed president, a position he had targeted for decades, a phone was thrust into his hand and the first person to offer his congratulations was Vladimir Putin. As international sporting federations began the task of working out which athletes can be deemed “clean”, attention has inevitably turned to Bach’s relationship with the Russian president.

 

When Bach was elected, it was widely speculated that Putin’s support was a key factor. The IOC’s membership list, which fluctuates but currently stands at 90 active members and 36 honorary ones, is an eclectic mix of sporting administrators, royalty, politicians, former athletes and business people. Putin was then in the midst of a headlong dash to secure a run of sporting events that would project Russian power on to the world stage and, as we now know, putting in place a climate in which a failure to win medals would not be tolerated.

 

He was also in the final troubled throes of preparing for the lavish $51bn Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. It is tempting to wonder now whether he also knew he would need Bach’s support in the future if the state-sponsored doping programme ever came to light.

 

To no one’s surprise, it was confirmed on Monday that Vitaly Mutko – a close ally of Putin’s – would continue in his role as Russia’s sports minister despite the fact Richard McLaren’s report said there was no way he could have been unaware of the widespread doping programme.

 

Shortly before the Sochi Games got under way, amid concerns over human rights and the grotesque cost and corruption that came with the huge price tag, Bach praised Putin’s “great commitment” to the Games and the way he “set the pace in this great endeavour”. At the closing ceremony, Bach stood shoulder to shoulder with Putin and declared the most expensive Games in history “a real special experience”. He also personally thanked Putin for his contribution to the “extraordinary success of these Winter Games”.

 

This at a time when Bach was also insisting he would introduce rules ensuring that human rights were taken into account when the Olympics were awarded and overhaul the way in which the Games were bid for and staged amid concern about their growing gigantism.

 

It is this ability to look in two directions at once – to champion human rights while awarding the 2022 Winter Olympics to China – that is key to Bach’s success. He has proved more adept than most in shape-shifting his way through the world of international sports politics. In Buenos Aires, one of his rivals complained: “He is always standing next to a broken window but no one has ever seen him throw the stone.”

 

The multilingual German, a gold medallist in fencing at the 1976 Olympics, was long groomed for the role. He was schooled not only by the controversial former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch but spent two years as an Adidas executive under Horst Dassler, who wrote the book on the system of kickbacks and patronage that defines modern sports politics.

 

Any analysis of his relationship with Putin must be placed in the context of the patronage he would have required from a wide network to ascend to the presidency. Also key to his success was the Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad al-Sabah, the shadowy kingmaker of the Olympic world who is now locked in a bitter row with his own government that, as a result, has been suspended by both the IOC and Fifa.

 

Russia has other senior IOC figures sympathetic to its plight. Pat Hickey, the Irish IOC executive board member who is head of the European Olympic Committee, has been a vocal supporter of Russia throughout its travails and is hopeful it will step up to host his pet European Games, last staged in Baku, in 2019. There is Alisher Usmanov, the Arsenal shareholder who is the head of the international federation for Bach’s former sport of fencing, into which he has pumped millions of dollars of his own money.

 

Putin was presented with world swimming’s highest honour last year by Julio Maglione, the head of the world swimming federation that held its world championships in Russia in 2015 – one of the events McLaren has revealed was subverted by state-sponsored doping.

 

Marius Vizer is the head of the international judo federation, of which Putin is honorary president. Sheikh Ahmad had helped Vizer become leader of Sport Accord in 2013, before he overreached and took on the IOC and so fell out of favour.

 

Until recently there was Lamine Diack, the now disgraced former president of the IAAF who was believed to have swung votes behind Bach and whose son is under investigation by French prosecutors in connection with a $2m payment from Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic bid. Diack was close to Putin. Sheikh Ahmad also backed Tokyo’s bid. And so it goes on.

 

Olympic sport, lubricated by billions of dollars in broadcasting and sponsorship deals, remains the canvas on which international political and power struggles play out. When Putin complained recently that calls for a Russian ban were a worrying sign of politics interfering in sport, it was hard not to laugh at his audacity.

 

Most of the 28 international federations that make up one side of the IOC’s constituency and now asked to decide which Russian athletes should compete are just as riven with internal politics and conflicts of interest as the National Olympic Committees that make up the other.

 

Bach has been a lot less glowing in his tributes to Putin recently, insisting he had not spoken to the Kremlin since the scale of Russia’s doping programme was revealed. “President Putin is a head of state with whom we have working relations like with more than 100 heads of state all over the world,” he said earlier this month. The truth, though, is that some are more equal than others.

 

The Guardian