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EDITIONS
 Saturday, 7 December, 2002, 13:30 GMT
Tough at the top of world sport
Jacques Rogge president of the IOC
Jacques Rogge has found that politics and sport do mix

There are many who believe that sport and politics shouldn't mix. Last week the International Olympic Committee met in Mexico for its general assembly, or session as it's called, of all its members.

For the past few decades, these meetings have been relatively uncontroversial, but this session proved a baptism of fire for the IOC President, Jacques Rogge.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, former president of the IOC
Juan Antonio Samaranch was a consummate politician
Elected 16 months ago to replace his controversial predecessor Juan Antonio Samaranch, Dr Rogge discovered, much to his discomfort, that sport and politics do, indeed, mix.

For 21 years, Mr Samaranch had ruled the International Olympic Committee and taken an organisation that was on the verge of bankruptcy to the multi-billion dollar business that it is today.

It was his political ability that took him to power when the members voted him into office in Moscow in 1980, not his sporting prowess.

Respect

As the Spanish ambassador in the Soviet Union's capital he had cultivated members from the Eastern Bloc, and by the time of the vote he had their solid backing, together with his growing influence in Africa and Asia.

He was a consummate politician - little evaded his global radar as he built up a powerful and wealthy organisation.

His executive board was virtually hand-picked and the ordinary members rarely challenged his authority.

Although slight in stature, he commanded respect as he mixed with world leaders. But he never missed a trick if he thought that lesser mortals could help his cause.

Athens Olympic logo
The Athens Olympics Games have run into trouble
I remember one meeting at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne in Switzerland. Before open government became the rule, and the sessions were broadcast on closed circuit television to the press, journalists like me would lurk around the corridors of power hoping that one of the IOC members at least would drop us a titbit of information ahead of the formal, and heavily orchestrated, news conference.

While standing around, we were suddenly and surprisingly ushered into the meeting hall. After we had taken our seats, Mr Samaranch switched from speaking Spanish to English and promptly dropped his bombshell.

The Athens Olympics in 2004 were so far behind in their preparations that they were in danger. The traffic lights, he said were on amber and soon would be red.

There never was any danger of the games being moved away from Greece, but Mr Samaranch was perfectly happy that some newspapers and news agencies implied that the games could be switched.

The resulting outcry forced the Athens organisers and Greek Government into a frenzy of re-organisation to get back on track.

Triple whammy

Towards the end of his IOC presidency he appeared frail, and after the crisis of the Salt Lake City scandal, there were murmurings that he was a lame duck. His final general assembly in Moscow in July last year ended all doubts that his powers were on the wane, when he achieved what is known as a triple whammy.

Beijing won the right to stage the 2008 Olympics, having been beaten for the Millennium Games by Sydney in spite of his backing for China. He pushed through his son's application to join the IOC, despite claims that it smacked of nepotism. And thirdly, his favoured candidate was elected to replace him.

In 16 months, the flashing white-teeth smile has given way to a more wearied look as his vision of the IOC future has been repeatedly blocked

Dr Rogge, a Belgian surgeon, won the vote against powerful contenders. His clean image and support from Europe gave him the most important job in world sport. But in 16 months, the flashing white-teeth smile has given way to a more wearied look as his vision of the IOC future has been repeatedly blocked.

He wants to be more of a chief executive officer of a company than a figurehead president - to consolidate after the IOC's years of expansion. But he's finding the IOC members do have teeth.

As almost 40 of them stood up to speak against his proposal to eliminate three sports - baseball, softball and modern pentathlon - from the Olympic programme, we shook our heads in disbelief.

Revolt

Surely, he must have canvassed the feelings of members - evidently not. Mr Samaranch would never have allowed himself to be exposed to such a revolt.

Members of his executive board would have been dispatched to sound out the mood, he himself would have talked to key people and sometimes even journalists.

Any sign that he could lose the vote, and the proposal would have been quietly shelved. Instead, Dr Rogge had to sit on the stage for two-and-a-half hours as member after member attacked the proposal and the flawed report that led to the revolt.

The idea that the modern pentathlon should be removed was the most inflammatory. The sport - which combines in a military fashion, shooting, fencing, swimming, horse riding and running - was created by the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and one meddles with Olympic tradition at one's peril.

Coupled with the fact the Juan Antonio Samaranch junior is the sport's vice president, and that Prince Albert of Monaco is the honorary president, it seemed to most observers that Dr Rogge was not only biting the hand that fed him, but also tangling with powerful supporters.

An unsatisfactory decision to delay the fate of the three sports until after the Athens games has further weakened his position.

With a reference to his profession, one IOC member said Dr Rogge's actions were like a surgeon performing an operation without an anaesthetic.

In those happy and untroubled times 16 months ago when Dr Rogge had just been elected president of the IOC, he gave fulsome praise to Mr Samaranch, whom he said had taught him the politics of sport.

But Mexico City suggests the pupil still has more studying to do before he can emulate the master.

See also:

30 Nov 02 | Americas
16 Feb 01 | Europe
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