The man who this week became the sports world’s most powerful bureaucrat has been embroiled in a row over his role as head of an organisation that advises companies on the Arab boycott of Israel.
Thomas Bach, a German, who was elected as the new president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) following a ballot of its 94 members in Buenos Aires on Tuesday had strong Arab support in his campaign to become the body’s ninth president.
The former fencing gold medallist was in particular backed by Olympic delegate Sheikh Ahmad al Fahad al Saba, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family.
Mr Bach is president of Ghorfa, the German-Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a group that facilitates business between Germany and the Arab world.
One of its roles is to advise German companies on how to ensure products meet the demands of the trade boycotts imposed by Arab governments which ban Israeli products and services.
The president of Ghorfa (is) simultaneously in a leadership position of a body that should represent tolerance and peace. - Mathias John
This has drawn criticism from both Jewish and non-Jewish groups in Germany, who accuse the organisation of effectively encouraging the boycott.
A Ghorfa spokesperson insisted that it had “no influence” over the rules set by sovereign states. The organisation “does not carry out certification but performs services for companies,” she added.
However, Reinhold Robee, president of the German-Israel Society, pointed out that the European Union had criticised such practices for years and that the German government had raised the issue with Mr Bach.
“Taking that into account, I would say that Ghorfa runs anti-Israel politics,” he said.
Mr Bach “must answer certain questions about his supposed neutral position as one of Germany’s top sporting officials and whether that is consistent with Ghorfa’s anti-Israel policies”, he added.
In an investigation into the matter by the German television channel WDR, Mr Bach refused to answer questions. The broadcaster alleged that a German arms manufacturer was represented on the Ghorfa board “for which Arab countries are a massive and growing market”.
The German branch of Amnesty International also expressed concern. Its spokesman, Mathias John, said that the so-called “Ghorfa nations” were prime importers of German weapons.
This could be a conflict of roles for Mr Bach, he suggested. “Looking at the situation, I have a bad feeling. The president of Ghorfa (is) simultaneously in a leadership position of a body that should represent tolerance and peace.”
Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Yakov Hadas-Handelsman was sceptical that the IOC — including Mr Bach — would take a stand over marking the massacre of Israeli Olympians in Munich 40 years ago.
Mr Hadas-Handelsman pointed out that appeals for a moment of silence at the opening ceremony in 2012 had been turned down by the IOC. “It’s been 40 years but it won’t happen. It is all about politics. Didn’t you know that? Even in this case it’s a political matter.”
Referring to Mr Bach’s election, Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin Ramer Institute, said it “betrays the principles of sportsmanship for the IOC to be headed by someone who actively participates in ongoing Israel boycott measures”.
However, there was support for the new IOC president from the Israeli branch of the Olympic movement, where secretary general Efraim Zinger described Mr Bach as a “leading sportsman and supporter of the special relationship in sport between Israel and Germany.” He had visited Israel on several occasions, said Mr Zinger.