A corruption case involving a powerful International Olympic Committee member is overshadowing meetings this week in Tokyo with local 2020 Olympic organizers, IOC officials, and the heads of 206 national Olympic committees.
Under pressure from a pending criminal trial in Switzerland, Sheikh Ahmad al Fahad al Sabah stepped down temporarily on Monday as head of the powerful Association of National Olympic Committees _ which had been due to re-elect him unopposed on Wednesday.
The Kuwaiti sheikh had last week also suspended himself from his 26-year IOC membership and his work chairing an Olympic panel that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars to athletes and sports bodies.
The sheikh, who is accused by Geneva public prosecutors of forgery in an alleged faked arbitration case involving four others, is a long-time ally of IOC President Thomas Bach and has often been called the kingmaker of Olympic elections.
On Monday, Bach led a conference call of IOC executive board members which noted the presumption of innocence for Sheikh Ahmad who “has taken the correct course of action with regard to the Olympic Movement.”
The IOC also published a document from its own ethics commission written last week assessing the forgery case and a possible five-year prison sentence.
“The fact that he (Sheikh Ahmad) is considered by a judicial authority as having violated a criminal law constitutes a very serious damage to the Olympic Movement and the IOC’s reputation,” the ethics panel wrote.
Had the sheikh insisted on chairing the ANOC meeting Wednesday, Bach and other IOC members “could not participate,” the ethics body said.
Sheikh Ahmad has also been asked by the IOC ethics commission to attend its Jan. 11 meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. His trial in Geneva is expected in the first half of next year.
The sheikh has denied any wrongdoing and said the charges against him are “politically motivated” in a dispute with another Kuwaiti royal family member, who is a former prime minister.
“I have full trust in the Swiss legal system and I am confident that I will be able to clarify my position in full before the competent Swiss courts,” the sheikh wrote in a letter Monday to the Olympic ethics body and published by the IOC.
Although he remains the head of the Kuwait-based Olympic Council of Asia, the sheikh is currently unable to perform his highest-profile Olympic roles ahead of 1,400 ANOC delegates meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday and Thursday.
The IOC board will also meet in the Japanese capital later as part of a week of Olympic meetings linked to the 2020 Games. Tokyo won its hosting vote at the same IOC annual meeting in September 2013 that Bach was elected president, when Sheikh Ahmad’s influence seemed to peak.
The Kuwaiti royal is one of three men currently suspended as IOC members. The others are Patrick Hickey of Ireland, who was an ANOC delegate on the IOC board, and Frank Fredericks of Namibia.
Hickey was arrested in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro on suspicion of ticket scalping, and Fredericks has been charged in a French investigation connected with vote buying in the selection of the 2016 Olympic host city.
Honorary member Carlos Nuzman of Brazil, who headed the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, is also suspended on corruption allegations connected with vote-buying.
Sheikh Ahmad also faces exposure to a federal investigation in the United States linked to bribery in soccer elections. He resigned from the FIFA Council days after being identified in April 2017 as “co-conspirator 2” in federal court documents in Brooklyn.
A former FIFA audit committee member from Guam pleaded guilty to financial wrongdoing linked to payments from the Olympic Council of Asia, and said he believed the OCA president was the source of the bribes.
While Sheikh Ahmad may be relatively unknown to sports fans, he is one of the most influential people in Olympic circles.
Bach has been in Japan since Saturday inspecting facilities for the Tokyo Olympics, which are only 600 days away.