PtG Comment 10.10.2009

Rogge clears the way for further reform

The next four years will show to which extent Rogge will succeed in becoming the great reformer of the Olympic movement that he was expected to when he took office in 2001.

The IOC President Jacques Rogge had reasons to be satisfied when he entered the closing reception with his IOC colleagues Friday 9 October in the Tivoli gardens, ending nine days of Olympic summit in Copenhagen. Re-elected by an 88-1 majority Rogge can start his last four year term with a strengthened mandate to achieve his political goals. Everything in Copenhagen went as planned by the IOC President, who most often acts with discretion, but keeps tight control over details.

After a 15 year break the IOC Congress dealt with issues such as conditions for athletes, the autonomy of organisations, youth involvement in sport, the future of the Olympic Games and the digital media challenges, and the congress ended by approving the conclusions that were mostly written in advance. Moreover, the 106 IOC members took notice of Rogge’s hints and made clear decisions on important matters like the choice of Rio as host city for the Summer Olympics 2016, the election of rugby and golf as new sports and elections to the IOC’s executive levels.

Rogge not only counts on support from his constituency. He also has the advantage that he cannot be re-elected when his third four-year term ends in 2013, and hence he is freer than before to take unpopular steps. Therefore, the next four years will be decisive for whether the 67-year-old Belgian will be regarded as the staunch reformer that he was launched to be when replacing the controversial Catalan Juan Antonio Samaranch in 2001.

In the first eight years, Rogge has obviously been hampered by his predecessor, now Honorary President Samaranch, who has been a very active lobbyist in the Olympic circles, not always in support of Rogge’s visions. As recently as during the choice of the 2016 host city 89-year old Samaranch could mobilise 32 votes in favour of Madrid, and for many years he has been assumed to control around 40 of the 76 members who were appointed under Samaranch’s 21 year long rule. As a born diplomat Rogge's attitude to Samaranch is kept private, but the accumulated irritation is appreciable when Rogge to the American magazine Around the Rings says about his own future after stepping down in 2013: "I think the first quality of a past president is to shut up. "

Until Rogge resigns, it will be needed more than ever that he speaks up. If the IOC is to give convincing answers to its challenges, for instance with regard to involving the youth and combating the growing corruption, it has to radically change the prevailing culture of silence.

Meetings in Copenhagen have stressed that the IOC still inhabits a reality of its own where open debate about difficulties is as welcomed as the use of pesticides among organic farmers. On this field, Rogge does not display a significantly different management style to his predecessor. Openness behind closed doors IOC likes to take praise of being open and transparent, but largely practices the opposite, although it has a far better score than many other sports organisations. Whether it is the ability or the will that is lacking is hard to tell.

A few examples: One year before the congress, the IOC opened a website with the promising title "Virtual Congress." If anyone imagined something like a forum for dialogue that could warm the public and the participants up to the next Congress, they were thoroughly mistaken. The correct title should have been "Virtual Mailbox", because the website was a simple mail slot in which anyone could submit a text about the congressional five main themes, but without being able to read or comment on what others delivered. The website resulted in 1,400 entries, which was sent to delegates as a huge book. Not bad, but also not referred to at all during the Congress meetings – at least not those that Play the Game could attend.

Apart from this book and the designated main themes not even the IOC members received information about the Congress programme. Neither the website nor information upon arrival revealed even basic information such as list of participants and names of presenters. Reportedly it was an angry outburst by ex-King Constantine, Honorary Member of the IOC, that convinced the organisers to put photocopies forward every morning with programme details. Only for that same day, of course - the IOC perhaps assumed we would not be able to cope with more information.

During the plenary sessions, we were allowed to listen to prominent speakers, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the forefront. No questions were taken, neither by Ki-moon nor lower-ranking speakers over three days. The discussion forums we also were invited to were no such thing. Instead of exchanging and developing thoughts the set-up allowed only a pure delivery of viewpoints. Each participant was allowed to deliver a two minutes statement, but without any interaction between the delegates.  Last but not least, the organisers provided completely impossible working conditions for the media at the beginning of the congress. The media were not allowed into the meeting room or to come into close contact with participants during breaks. (Read more here: The ISL bribery system)

Not one federation has responded to this information, nor has the IOC. The court named only a few names of bribe takers, and therefore it is surprising that Jacques Rogge stated with certainty during the closing press conference that no IOC members had even been involved. How can he know? The ISL taboo also leaves us unknowing if it is still "just another day at the office " to sell TV and marketing rights by channelling bribes through secret funds and bank notes bundled tightly in attaché cases. Did that practice die with the ISL?

To add insult to injury, the only person that knows every bit of the affair, the ISL director Jean-Marie Weber who personally distributed the bribes, was a very active guest at the IOC meetings, residing at the chosen IOC hotel, the Marriott. Non-intervention in federations

ISL is by far the worst, but certainly not the only repressed affair in the sports world. Corruption is flourishing both on the pitch and in the corridors of the International Handball Federation, and in the International Volleyball Federation a new chairman is cleaning up after the Mexican Ruben Acosta, who in his 24 years as a despotic ruler awarded himself fees for at least 20 million U.S. dollars. In 2004 IOC put pressure on Acosta, but when he voluntarily lay down his status as an IOC member with reference to his coming of age, the IOC left volleyball to its own devices. As exception to the rule, the IOC should be commended for enforcing reforms in the international boxing federation AIBA, partly by withholding AIBA's share of the profits from the Olympics.

Also, it must be said to Rogge’s credit that he ensured that the congress created a basis for the IOC to intervene more actively in future. A number of congressional recommendations are set to create uniform rules for "good governance" throughout the Olympic movement, including in National Olympic Committees (NOC's) and international federations. (Read more here: Olympic Congress ends with 66 broad recommendations)

The Congress furthermore proposed that federations and NOC's must submit annual reports on governance and that it must be possible to sanction those who violate the common rules. But the credibility of these efforts is weakened when one realises that they are to be executed by people around Rogge with a somewhat more diverse CV than the President himself.

What are we to think when the IOC this week chose Italy’s Mario Pescante for Vice-President, the man who in the 1990s funded EPO experiments at the University of Ferrara, where skiers, cyclists and other elite sport people flocked?

Pescante, who had to resign as chairman of The Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) in 1998 because the doping laboratory in Rome cheated with tests of Italian footballers? This dubious past has not prevented Pescante from making a brilliant career as a longstanding secretary for sport in Berlusconi's government, President of the European Olympic Committees - and now Vice-President of the IOC. And what are we to think when at the same time the IOC rejects the new President of AIBA, Taiwanese Ching-Kuo Wu, as a member of the IOC Executive Committee, though Wu has been a frontrunner in cleaning up one of the most corrupt federations?

Games in a smaller format

The IOC must thank its gods - presumably the Greek ones led by Zeus and Pallas Athene – that only a few politicians, media people and sports fans are interested in sports politics, while the whole world is fascinated by the IOC's core product, the Olympic Games. These games were also under discussion in Copenhagen. One of the toughest challenges for Rogge has been to cut back on the Olympic program and bring down the number of participants, so the games can also be held by smaller countries and appear in a handier format. Now that the giant Summer Olympics in Beijing 2008, decided on the same session that brought Rogge to office in 2001, lie behind us, Rogge stands a better chance to reduce the size of the Games, helped along by an international financial crisis that does not encourage massive investment in high-tech sports facilities for single use.

Also the massive cost overruns in the preparations for the 2012 Olympics in London serve to alert many countries and help the IOC President's message of moderation through.

Rogge’s darlings

Two issues to which Jacques Rogge has shown a strong personal commitment are those of working conditions for athletes and the high dropout from sport among young people.

On both themes the Congress recommendations laid a clear track for further work. 

The health and rights of the athletes should be protected through education and information, and all organizations of the Olympic Movement should adopt rules protecting athletes from being exploited by agents, managers and sponsors. Recognizing that the athletes’ entourage exercises a great influence on the young athlete, the Congress recommends creating a committee for coaches, trainers and others in the entourage.

The Summer Youth Olympics in Singapore 2010 will not only serve as a test for a new type of event, but also as a personal test for Jacques Rogge. Despite widespread scepticism, even among close allies, Rogge has insisted that this kind of Games that have run at European level since 1991, must now grow to a global scale. The Games are meant to draw young people back to sport, both as TV viewers and as practitioners, and they are to contain more cultural elements than adult Olympics. 

It seems unlikely that any of the two main goals will be reached, but the Youth Olympics may become a success in another way: 

From a marketing perspective, games that radiate youth and joy can strengthen the Olympic brand. Youth Olympics can also be an attractive target for countries that are eager to get a profile in international sport, but cannot overcome hosting the real Olympics. This can be the case for small countries like Denmark, where curiously enough the chairman of the national sports confederation and NOC used this week’s Olympic event to dismiss any talk of a Danish bid for the Olympics. While the Olympic bigwigs sat down at a beautifully set table in Tivoli, volunteers started to clean up the congress venue Bella Centre.

The volunteers of course knew that they could not let troublesome items remain on the floor, pretending that they did not exist. Will Rogge use his strengthened mandate to clean up as efficiently as the volunteers at the Bella Center? In four years time, we will know how clean the IOC can get.