Mario Pescante and the matter of dignity

According to the earliest records, the first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC in what we now call ancient Olympia, in Greece.

Tradition holds that the city of Rome was founded 23 years later, in 753 BC.

In the abstract, it was quite okay for Rome to drop out of the race for the 2020 Summer Games, Mario Pescante was explaining Wednesday on the phone from Italy. But it was not okay to do so on such short notice, with just hours to go before the deadline for the applicant cities to tell the International Olympic Committee whether they were in — or not.

This, he said, is why he had no choice but to resign as vice president of the IOC.

This is also why Mario Pescante should be applauded.

His resignation was an act of honor — the work of a man of principled action who would not be persuaded to reconsider.

It’s a significant loss for the IOC’s policy-making executive board. Pescante has a law degree. He is a professor, a parliamentarian and something of a philosopher.

At the same time, it also may prove a key stroke in restoring the dignity of Italian sport.

How many senior officials would similarly have the fortitude to do what Pescante did?

It’s a big deal to be an IOC vice president. Who gives that up, and why?

Who measures both the political and economic circumstances of the times in which we live now and the pull of the traditions, cultural and social, of a movement that reaches to ancient times?

“This movement,” Pescante said, “has 2,700 years of antiquity.”

He added a moment later, “It’s not particular to decide 12 hours before the deadline. It’s not correct.”

Once more, for emphasis, “It has nothing to [do] with the negative decision. Just the timing.”

Last Tuesday, the day before the IOC deadline, Monti scrapped Rome’s 2020 bid, saying the Italian government could not provide the required financial backing the campaign required at a time of economic crisis. Projections for playing host to the 2020 Games in Rome: $12.5 billion.

Rome’s withdrawal leaves five cities in the 2020 mix. In no particular order: Tokyo; Istanbul; Madrid; Baku, Azerbaijan; and Doha, Qatar. The IOC will pick the 2020 city in September, 2013.

Reflecting on the debt crisis in Europe and its intersection with Rome’s 2020 bid, Pescante said, “Personally, I thought the moment to change the policy and to start with the investment was right. But the prime minster, at this moment, I think, with the situation in Greece, in Spain, where everybody — they were sacrificing, the discipline is extraordinary, this was the time to think of the future. I respect this decision.

“My trouble is this decision could be taken two months ago, not 12 hours before the deadline. This is not correct for the Italian sports movement.”

For emphasis, Pescante said, Monti is “doing a fantastic job.” But in this case, “There was a lack of style,” and for the sake of the Italian sports movement it was important that he — Pescante — resign his IOC vice presidency.

“Frankly,” Pescante said, summing up, “sport is a very important social expression. But it’s not decisive in this moment to solve the problem of Europe, or the crisis.”

He also said, “I repeat — 2,700 years of history. This is another aspect of life in the world. No other religion or philosophy has this. Frankly, if I can show my prime minister, and also the Italian public — this must be respected. I am happy to finish my career at the top of the Olympic movement.”

To be clear: Pescante, now 73, is not resigning his IOC membership. He is still a member; at the conclusion of the London Games, he will no longer be a vice president.

It is no easy thing to become an IOC vice president. There are only four. All four are elected by their IOC peers.

“I know well,” Pescante elected as a regular IOC member in 1994, said. “I was elected vice president after 15 years of activity in the world of sport.”

Once elected, you are the fourth vp for roughly a year, then the third for another year, and so on.

The way it would have worked, Pescante would have been in the enviable position of being the first vice president from the closing ceremony at the London Games until the session in Buenos Aires in September, 2013 — roughly 13 months.

At that session in Buenos Aires, the IOC will elect a new president — Jacques Rogge’s 12 years in office come to a mandatory end — and the 2020 Summer Games site.

Talk about influential.

This is what Pescante is giving up, willingly and knowingly.

Pescante said he spoke twice Tuesday to Rogge about the matter.

“Jacques said, ‘Mario, will you change?’

” ‘I said, ‘No, thank you.’

“This is theater. Theater was also born in Italy. I don’t want to be an actor in the theater.”

It was not immediately clear how the IOC would address the matter of Pescante’s position for those 13 months. Zaiqing Yu of China is due to rotate off the board after London; Ser Miang Ng of Singapore and Thomas Bach of Germany hold the other two vice presidencies. The early indication was that Ng would slide up to the first vice presidential slot and Bach to the second. Bach is widely believed within IOC circles to be interested in the presidency; Ng is similarly discussed as a contender.

Pescante said, “I would like to say — how do you say it in English? — that my decision is irrevocable.”

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