The head of the International Olympic Committee, German Thomas Bach, paid a visit to the Norwegian women’s cross country ski team during a gym session in Oslo on Monday morning. Bach spoke to Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen about the controversial armbands the women wore competing at Sochi following the death of her brother, but many reacted that the visit was simply a stunt.
Bach is visiting Norway this week for a progress update on the 2016 Youth Olympics to be held at Lillehammer, reported newspaper Aftenposten. Bach, his delegation and members of the media visited the Norwegian women in the middle of a treadmill session. There was controversy between the IOC and the skiers during the Sochi Olympics in February, after the women wore black armbands during a 15 kilometre cross country race to mourn the death of Jacobsen’s brother just the day before. It was reported Norway had been reprimanded by the IOC, but that was later denied. Norway’s own IOC delegate, Gerhard Heiberg accused the national team of arrogance.
“We felt very much for you,” Bach told Jacobsen during their conversation. “It was never intended that the Norwegian skiers should feel that they did not have support.” Bach said his team had suffered a similar tragedy when he was an Olympic competitor. “We lost one of our athletes in the team, and it was a tough blow. Today I still remember the good memories and how painful it was when he was gone. It is so important to stand together in such situations.”
They spoke for 10 minutes, reported Aftenposten, but Bach never apologized in so many words for the furore. Nevertheless, Jacobsen said it felt like an apology to her and her family. “This means a lot to us,” she said. “When I look back, Sochi was the place to be when it happened. The teammates mean so much to me. It was them who kept me going.”
Bach also spoke with Olav Tufte, Kjetil Jansrud and Marit Bjørgen at the training session. “For me it was surprising that he came here, so I had not prepared myself like that,” Bjørgen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “It was not a positive case, but I think he has apologized and I accept that.”
Commenters on both the NRK and Aftenposten websites described the visit as a public relations stunt played up for the cameras, and said the IOC boss was on a “charm offensive” as speculation continues to swirl over the potential for an Oslo Winter Olympics in 2022. Despite support among some Oslo politicians and the sports lobby, the latest polling last week showed a majority of Norwegians don’t want to host a costly Olympic Games. The Conservative party has skirted around the issue, while its government partner the Progress Party voted against hosting the Games at its national congress earlier this month.
Jacobsen told Bach in front of journalists that she was in favour of an Oslo Olympic bid, and Bjørgen also voiced her support. “He is genuinely interested in the sport and what we do,” she said, reported NRK. “He is an interesting person, and I hope this (visit) contributes in a positive way.”
Bach and Heiberg were also received by King Harald on Monday. “We discussed the Lillehammer Youth Olympic Games, which will use only pre-existing venues, and the legacy these Games will bring to the region and the country,” Bach said, in an IOC press release. “We also discussed the Culture and Education Programme, which is an integral part of the Games and helps to develop the Olympic values in all the participants.”
Bach also met with Culture Minister Thorhild Widvey. Aftenposten reported Widvey is the one who, in many ways, decides if Norway will officially apply to host the 2022 Olympics. “I got the impression that it is possible to discuss some of the IOC’s requirements,” the Conservative minister said. “We are certainly not disqualified because of our attitude on reducing costs in relation to the things that have been common in recent games. The IOC is flexible on some of the requirements, for example where the media and athletes villages should be.”
The application committee and Oslo City Council want NOK 33 billion (USD 5.5 billion) from the state to host the event. The government will consider if Norway will make a bid or not over the summer.
The Norwegian Confederation of Sports (Norges Idrettsforbund) head of communications, Per Tøien, denied Bach was on a mission to change public opinion, and said it was against the IOC’s rules to visit a city that had shown an interest in hosting to drum up support. “He knows absolutely everything about the situation in Norway,” said Tøien. “When he is here, he gets to experience the atmosphere. The meeting was arranged long ago. He is not in Norway to convince about the Olympic issue. On the contrary, he is not allowed to.” Bach was due in Lillehammer on Tuesday.