Rogge’s final months — and what’s next

SEOUL — Jacques Rogge has been president of the International Olympic Committee for nearly 12 years. He has held hundreds, if not thousands, of news conferences and briefings.

He presided over another one Friday at a downtown hotel as the rain came down hard and cold here in Seoul, reporters and camera crews shaking off the water like poodles after a walk, and then came the usual breathless questioning from some of the local reporters met by the president’s calm and measured responses, a scene from a real-life movie that has played out before many, many times.

It was odd in its way to think that this set piece will soon be coming to an end. But these are indeed the final months of Rogge’s presidency; he steps down at the IOC session in Argentina in September. There the IOC will choose his successor.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge at Friday's Seoul news conference // photo courtesy Korea Herald

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge at Friday’s Seoul news conference // photo courtesy Korea Herald

And while there wasn’t any breaking news Friday — there typically isn’t at a standard-issue IOC press conference, only clues to what’s really going on — what was plainly and powerfully evident is that this year, 2013, holds the potential to re-shape the Olympic movement in far-reaching ways.

At issue are fundamental philosophies about where the IOC has been, is now and is going amid three decisive reckonings: what sports will be included at the Summer Games, what city will play host to the Games in 2020 and who will be the next president.

Given the way the IOC presidency works — an eight-year term followed by another, shorter term of four more years — the vote for Rogge’s successor is essentially a once-in-a-generation event. Already in 2013, it frames the backdrop to most everything of significance happening in Olympic circles, even if subtly.

In two weeks, the IOC executive board, meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, will review the 26 sports that appeared on the London 2012 program, charged with cutting one to get to a “core” of 25.

Then — as the year goes on, and even trying to describe the process is complicated — it’s possible the IOC will add sports. Or not.

Baseball and softball, for instance, which are trying to get back in as one entity, not two, will learn whether the basics of interpersonal dynamics ultimately will prove more potent than the merits of either sport.

Everyone knows it can sometimes be incredibly hard to admit you made a mistake, if indeed you did. Would an IOC that under Rogge’s watch kicked both out be tempted now to double back and say, oh, we get it — now we are going to let them back in?

As the February executive board meeting approaches, meanwhile, rumors have been increasingly fevered about which of the 26 sports might be the one left out.

Track and field, swimming and sailing — Rogge competed in the Games as a sailor — would seem to have nothing to worry about.

That said, modern pentathlon has been fighting to keep its place for years. It sparked a huge debate that consumed the IOC session in Mexico City in 2002. Now? The sport has undertaken a series of initiatives to make it easier to follow. Yet any realist can see that while the IOC is trying to reach out to a younger audience, and there are taekwondo gyms on seemingly every other block with little kids running around in their colored belts, a modern pentathlon enthusiast with a gun, a sword, a horse, a swimsuit and a pair of running shoes would be hard-pressed indeed to find a place to practice all its pieces.

Meanwhile, in September, the IOC will choose Madrid, Istanbul or Tokyo to be its 2020 Summer Games site. The process ramps up next month with visits by an evaluation commission to all three.

Which leads, in a circular way perhaps but inevitably, to the presidential campaign.

When Rogge took office, in July 2001, the IOC was still feeling its way after the Salt Lake City corruption scandal. The key element in a 50-point reform plan, passed in December 1999, bans the roughly 100 members from visiting cities bidding for the Games.

Rogge has been a vocal proponent for that rule. It seems to have prevented a recurrence of what happened in Salt Lake — where bidders showered the members with inducements — from happening elsewhere.

On the other hand, there’s also the argument that rule fundamentally says to the members, many of whom are important personalities in their own countries: we don’t trust you.

The way the process works now is that the evaluation commission undertakes four-day visits to each city and then produces a report. The full IOC meets a few months before the vote to go over the report and hear from the bid cities. Then they get together again a few months later, for the vote itself. The members vote after having the report available to read (which some don’t), watching videos (maybe, if they’re interesting) and taking in the presentations from the bid cities.

This for a process that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and is worth billions to the winning city and nation.

With great power comes great responsibility, goes the saying. Certainly the IOC wields enormous power. But does the bid city process — as it is now — assign to the members meaningful responsibility?

Thomas Bach of Germany is widely considered the leading presidential candidate. Ser Miang Ng of Singapore might well prove a strong challenger. And Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico has shown business skills to help keep the IOC strong in the global economic downturn.

The smart candidate, if he were to be moving around the world, meeting with other IOC members, listening to their observations, would surely hear some number of them say perhaps the time has come to look anew at the way things work. A lot of time has passed. No one is going back to Salt Lake City anytime soon.

Pyeongchang was selected the 2018 Winter Games host in 2011. Intriguingly, Rogge saw the place with his own eyes for the very first time this week. Simply put, there is no substitute for seeing something yourself.

Rogge said of Pyeongchang, “I had of course seen it in the bid book,” adding, “When you see it in reality, you have another view. It is state of the art.”

Which is what the IOC, of course, aspires to be.

 

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