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As London gets ready for the greatest show on earth, we profile Jacques Rogge, the Belgian count at the helm of the International Olympic Committee
A few weeks from the opening of the London Olympics and Jacques Rogge is probably crossing his fingers. This will be his last games as president of the International Olympic Committee – the body responsible for organising every aspect of the games, from choosing a host city to negotiating broadcasting rights – and he will be hoping for a tournament that is free of controversy and remembered for the right reasons, inspired by his pet project, the Youth Olympic Games.
During his tenure as president, a position he has held since July 2001 when he succeeded Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch, Rogge has worked hard to improve the reputation of international sports, tainted by everything from doping scandals to commercialism. He wants to see a return to the true Olympic spirit, as articulated by Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman who organised the first modern games in Athens in 1896. De Coubertin was an internationalist and saw the games as a way of promoting sporting excellence, solidarity and mutual respect.
It’s been an uphill struggle, but Rogge leaves an impressive legacy: greater attention is being paid to the athletes, which, as a former top athlete, Rogge understands implicitly; the IOC has solid finances; and, most importantly, under his tenure, the games have not only been well organised but also free of the kind of big corruption scandals that previously plagued the competition. And while doping and cheating is still a problem, the IOC’s fight against it intensified under Rogge’s watch.
Fair and just competition is the backbone of Rogge’s own history, both as a sportsman – an Olympic yachtsman and rugby international, no less – and as a doctor who trained at Ghent University. When he took over as president of the IOC, it was mired in a series of corruption scandals. His first Olympic Games as president were the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City in which two bid committee members – David Johnson and Thomas Welch – were indicted for buying votes from the IOC to secure the bid. According to a report in the New York Times, local officials channelled money, gifts and tuition fee payments to IOC members whose votes were crucial in securing the rights to host the games.
Before Rogge, the top bosses of international sport weren’t exactly great athletes, but rather greying men known for shadowy deals. The Olympic ideals were under severe pressure from ruthless commercial interests, performance enhancers and question marks surrounding the allocation of the big events. Rogge would probably add to this series of laments the lack of good manners among many athletes. His favourite sportsmen are French alpine skier Jean-Claude Killy, who dominated the sport in the 1960s and won three gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, and Swiss tennis player Roger Federer. They are worthy role models, he says. Both may be legendary sportsmen with good looks and exemplary manners, but it is still a strange choice, considering the multi-disciplinary genius of US athlete Carl Lewis and the grace and strength of Belarusian gymnast Olga Korbut, to name but two of the most obvious.
But the count’s favourite words are ‘excellence’ and ‘role models’. When athletes fail to play by the Rogge book of politesse, they are criticised with all the sternness of a schoolteacher. Golfer Tiger Woods is one sportsperson who incurred Rogge’s wrath for his lively extramarital love life. “I want all our athletes to be role models for our young. We don’t know exactly what happened to Tiger Woods, but of course it’s a disappointment. He must realise that his private life is inseparable from his professional life,” he said when the Woods story broke.
And like an old-fashioned headmaster, he also told off Usain Bolt, when the Jamaican leapt across the finishing line in the 100m final in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Bolt’s mind-boggling victory, which blew the world record away in a couple of mega steps, and left the crowds in the Bird’s Nest stadium ecstatic, may have been the fastest 100m sprint in history, but Bolt was nevertheless reprimanded for showing off and failing to shake hands with his competitors before he danced along the track with the Jamaican flag flying behind him.
“You don’t do that,” Rogge told reporters after the event. “But he’ll learn. I would love him to show more respect for his competitors. That’s not the way we perceive being a champion. But of course Bolt is a great athlete,” he conceded, almost grudgingly. I don’t know who “we” are, but the audience and commentators screamed with excitement at Bolt’s feat. It may have been lacking in etiquette to not acknowledge your competitors before the victory lap, but the spectators were richly compensated by the sheer magnificence of the run – and Bolt did remember to hug his mother as he went round.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Rogge can actually understand the intensity of the training, having been an Olympic yachtsman with the Finn dinghy, an Olympic class since 1952. He sailed, but didn’t win any medals, in three Olympic Games: Mexico in 1968, Munich in 1972 and Montreal in 1976. He won one gold and two silver medals in the World Championships, however. Finn sailors are known in the yachting world as some of the toughest, because it’s the biggest of the single sailing boats. He has also played rugby, a sport he learned as a boy while living in England, at an international level.
He says that you need to be Superman in both these sports, something he concedes he isn’t, but his sports career has rendered him humble, as he has “lost more than he has won”. He could add to his sports legacy that he is a mean golfer as a member of the Royal Latem Golf Club, outside Ghent. His friend in the Belgian Olympic team to Mexico in 1968, runner and long-jumper Philippe Housiaux, is full of admiration for him, telling The Bulletin: “Jacques Rogge always had an exceptional capacity, managing his yachting career while pursuing his studies as a doctor at Ghent University, specialising in orthopaedic surgery. It was necessary to find someone of Rogge’s calibre to return the IOC to its original values.”
Even though Rogge holds the values of sporting fair play dear and sometimes seems to adhere to the principles of Olympic Games à la Chariots of Fire, he has a realistic attitude towards doping and admits that there is no way that the London games will be free of drugs, although everything is being put in place to make it difficult for competitors to escape doping tests. In a recent interview with the BBC, he said that the reason athletes took performance enhancers was because they think the others do. “If they could live in the belief that others are not cheating, they will not cheat themselves.”
Housiaux also commends Rogge’s skill in balancing the power of sports with the power of politics. There’s something of a clear line in Rogge’s career, as he advanced towards the top echelons of international sports, first as head of Belgium’s Olympic Committee, then climbing doggedly to the top of the IOC at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, which certainly requires stamina and an unusual level of personal ambition.
Former Chinese sports minister Yuan Weimin writes in a book that the Chinese supported Rogge for president in exchange for his support for the Beijing bid. This controversial deal-making claim is hotly rebuked by the IOC, but it was noted that Rogge never supported the critics of China’s human rights violations during the games, which was pointed out by Reporters without Frontiers. The organisation demonstrated against the Beijing Games and the oppression in China. Rogge promised he would bring up human rights abuse with the Chinese authorities, but according to Robert Ménard, former head of the journalists’ organisation, he never did.
When Rogge hands over to his successor in September 2013 in Buenos Aires, it is likely that the 12 years he spent at the helm will be regarded as a cathartic period for the IOC. Maybe his legacy will be that he has brought something of De Coubertin’s ideals back to life. The London games will be the litmus test.
1942 in Ghent
Participated in 1968 (Mexico), 1972 (Munich) and 1976 (Montreal) Olympics
International rugby player
• Orthopaedic surgeon from Ghent University
• Doctor of sports medicine at VUB
• Director of Ghent orthopaedic clinic
• 1976-1988: Head of Belgian delegations to Winter and Summer Olympics.
• 1989: Head of Belgium’s National Olympic Committee
• 1991: Member of IOC
• 1992: Made a baron
• 2001: Elected President of IOC
• 2002: Made a count
• 2013: End of IOC mandate