Gerhard Heiberg (82) met Vladimir Putin (69) several times over three decades. He describes a friendly tone, but does not recognize himself in the Russian president who ordered the war against neighboring Ukraine.
– Putin has always been a kind, interesting and attentive person. It was ‘right’ to deal with. Therefore, it is very strange to see how he behaves now, says Heiberg.
Like many others, he reacts to TV images from Ukraine these days.
The Norwegian has been declared a genius and can seemingly go into the water after he was the head coach of the Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994.
Just 28 years ago, Heiberg received a Russian trade delegation on a visit to Oslo and Lillehammer. The delegation was headed by the Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg.
His name was Vladimir Putin and he gave his business card to Gerhard Heiberg.
“I was there, it was fun!”
Several years later, in 2007, the two met again – this time in Guatemala. Russia is now working for Sochi to become an Olympic city in 2014, and Heiberg was an important figure in the IOC apparatus.
Putin and Heiberg chatted with an interpreter for an hour.
– At one point he was going to say something, but I raised my hand and said I was the head of the Olympics at Lillehammer. I said I met a “young” politician at the time. “Yeah okay,” he said, and just looked at me. But I brought his business card from 1994 and showed it. Then he lay down laughing and laughing. Suddenly he spoke English. “I was there, it was fun!” He said.
In the following years, Heiberg met the Russian president at the Kremlin in Moscow. He traveled to the diamond mines in Siberia and had a conversation with the giant Gazprom. Putin wanted Russian companies in the IOC’s sponsorship portfolio.
He didn’t believe in war until after the Olympics
Heiberg headed the IOC’s market committee at the time, but said he declined after an exhaustive process.
– Russia attacked Georgia during the 2008 Olympics, then on Crimea during the 2014 Olympics. Now the attack on Ukraine has taken place after the Olympics in Beijing. Does timing sound fun?
– Yes, but when discussions came about a possible attack during the Beijing Olympics, I was convinced that it would not happen until after the closing ceremony of the Olympics. It was clear that he did not want to step on the toes of President Xi Jinping in China. Some Americans said the attack could happen at any time, but I said: Forget it. In this case, one or three days will come after the Olympics,” Heiberg tells VG.
He is wary of becoming a politician and analyzing Vladimir Putin. But the 82-year-old admits that the Russian president has changed his personality. Heiberg thinks his ambitions have grown since he last spoke to Putin in 2014.
Next, Russia will have the Norwegian commission that will investigate allegations of doping during the Olympic Games in Sochi. Heiberg for it.
– Is it strange to see Putin today and what is happening in light of the man you knew?
Heiberg responds quickly and decisively. It takes a few seconds before it continues:
– Perhaps that is why I do not want to talk about him politically. I saw a completely different side of him. But he was in a position where he needed to vote for Sochi as an Olympic city, and later to get Russian companies to become part of the IOC’s first sponsorship programme. At the time, he was “just fine” to deal with it. I didn’t see the pages we see today, says the 82-year-old.
We may have been too naive
Heiberg struggled incurable cancer For several years, but spoke to VG after a few hours on cross-country trails on Hafjell. He is in a good mood despite a serious problem.
I am astonished by what he is doing now, and I do not understand that it is possible on the basis of my knowledge of him, says Heiberg.
– Were you and international sports used by Russia?
It is difficult to answer yes or no. It’s also about Doping cases related to the Sochi Olympics. Maybe we were too naive when we thought something like this would never happen. We didn’t imagine it. Perhaps we all underestimated the desire to recreate the Soviet Union. Then I also realized that the West may have come too close to the Russian border, but I don’t follow how this brutality can be acted upon, says Heiberg.
Here’s Putin in action during a Russian PR stunt a few years ago:
– They are less and less, but some still claim that sports and politics are not related. One of them is Ole Einar Bjørndalen. What do you think?
– I agree with Thomas Bach (the president of the International Olympic Committee) who said that we should stick to sports without interfering with too much politics. I love the IOC’s Purpose Clause, which states that we must contribute to building a better world through sport. At the same time, there is another sentence that says that it should happen without any form of discrimination. I support it. But there shouldn’t be too much politics. In the Olympic Games, everyone should be friends, without discrimination.
– But won’t there be politics when you add the Olympics to Sochi and Beijing and the World Cup to Qatar?
– I understand the question and the debate, begins Heiberg.
Sport is a big part of society, but we want to do it our way. The Olympic Charter protects what is about human dignity. Let’s keep in mind that all countries of the world can come together and the Olympic Games are something special. I support him, at the same time I see that we can be attacked for taking a political position, he says.
Heiberg is clearly in favor of excluding Russian and Belarusian athletes as long as the war in Ukraine continues.
At the same time, he worries that it will come sometime after the war. After that, Russia and Belarus should be allowed to return to sports.
We must be old enough to say, “Now we have to find our way.” The two countries should slowly but surely return to good company and participate in the Winter and Summer Olympics, he says.
– How should such a process take place?
– I started thinking about it. This has never happened before. I don’t have a clear answer for you today, but we should start thinking and being open to countries that have to participate again sometime in the future, Heiberg thinks.
– Some people will say that it is only about profit and commercial forces that want Russia to return to the good company in the field of sports?
– no. No and no. This has nothing to do with advertising. This is about the purpose clause and the reason why I have been with the IOC for so many years. I believe in that. Gerhard Heiberg says I believe in building a better world without discrimination.
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