BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Twelve years after taking over an IOC recovering from its worst ethics scandal, Jacques Rogge is leaving with the Olympic body in much sturdier shape but facing serious challenges.
The 71-year-old Belgian steps down as president next Tuesday after steering the International Olympic Committee through a period of relative stability that spanned three Summer Olympics and three Winter Games.
Rogge, an orthopedic surgeon who competed in three Olympics in sailing, is completing his term with a reputation for bringing a calm, steady hand to the often turbulent world of Olympic politics.
He took a hard line against doping and ethics violations, created the Youth Olympics, oversaw a growth in IOC finances during a time of global economic crisis and made peace with the U.S. Olympic Committee after years of bitter squabbling over revenues.
Under Rogge’s watch, the IOC has also taken the Olympics to new places — including awarding the 2016 event to Rio de Janeiro for the first games in South America.
“I hope that people, with time, will consider that I did a good job for the IOC,” Rogge, in an interview with The Associated Press, said with typical understatement. “That’s what you legitimately want to be remembered for.”
IOC members meeting in Buenos Aires over the next week will elect Rogge’s successor among six candidates by secret ballot Sept. 10. The new president will face tough issues, including the backlash over anti-gay legislation in Russia before February’s Winter Games in Sochi and concern over construction delays in Rio.
Rogge was elected the IOC’s eighth president in Moscow in 2001, succeeding Juan Antonio Samaranch, a Spaniard who ran the committee with an authoritarian style for 21 years. Rogge took office following the Salt Lake City scandal, in which 10 IOC members resigned or were expelled for receiving scholarships, payments and gifts during its winning bid for the 2002 Winter Games.
Rogge, who enjoyed a “Mr. Clean” reputation, broke with the tainted and elitist image of the IOC, choosing to stay in the athletes village as much as possible during the six games that he oversaw.
“He was absolutely the right person at the right time,” senior Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg said. “We had a lot of turmoil. We had to get out of that. We had to get another image. He has brought stability to the organization.”
Rogge’s measured leadership was in sharp contrast with that of Samaranch. While the former Spanish diplomat worked behind the scenes and twisted arms to get what he wanted, Rogge pursued a more democratic, collegial and management-oriented approach.
Some critics called Rogge dull and wooden, but he liked to describe himself as a “sober” and level-headed leader in keeping with his medical background.
After serving an initial eight-year term, Rogge was re-elected unopposed in 2009 to a second and final four-year term. He now reflects with quiet satisfaction on his time holding down the most powerful post in international sports.
“I received an IOC in good shape from Samaranch,” Rogge said. “And I believe I will leave an IOC in good shape to my successor.”
Rogge presided over Summer Olympics in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012), and Winter Games in Salt Lake City (2002), Turin (2006) and Vancouver (2010). Some were trickier than others: Salt Lake City came just months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks; Athens was dogged by chronic delays; Beijing was surrounded by controversy over China’s record on Tibet and human rights.
Rogge steered away from Samaranch’s practice of calling an Olympics the “best ever,” choosing other words to sum up the success of each games.
“I’m very glad of the quality of the games that were held under my watch, summer or winter,” Rogge said. “I would say they were ‘magnificent,’ ‘exceptional,’ ‘superb,’ ‘truly unforgettable,’ and ‘gracious and glorious’ for London.”
Rogge is leaving his successor with two potentially difficult games ahead.
Apart from security worries and cost overruns, the buildup to the Feb. 7-23 Sochi Games has been dominated recently by an international outcry over a new Russian law banning gay “propaganda.” Rogge and the IOC have been criticized for not doing enough to fight the legislation.
Rogge said he is “comforted” that Russia has given the IOC “strong assurances” that there will be no discrimination against any athletes or spectators at the games.
Construction delays and other organizational setbacks, meanwhile, are raising concerns that Rio could be another Athens.
“We’re working hard together with both organizers and any potential shortcoming has been addressed, so I expect both games to be good ones,” Rogge said. “I think Sochi will be absolutely OK because the Russians love sport, they know sport, there is no limitation in their desire to perform well.
“For Rio, I am quite sure and quite confident they will be very good games also. We will benefit from the experience of the (2014) World Cup.”
Human rights groups and other outside critics have accused Rogge and the IOC of failing to speak out against abuses in host countries like China, Russia and Brazil. Rogge espouses “quiet diplomacy” and says the IOC is a sports organization, not a government or political body.
Looking back, Rogge cites the achievements of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps as Olympic highlights — even though he criticized the Jamaican sprinter for showboating in Beijing and questioned whether he was a “living legend” in London.
As for the low point of his presidency, Rogge has no hesitation.
“On the dark side, it is the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili that I will never forget,” he said.
The Georgian luger died after a high-speed crash during a training run in Whistler just hours before the opening ceremony in Vancouver. Rogge recalls being notified that Kumaritashvili was in a hospital on life support. He gathered a crisis meeting of Olympic leaders at a hotel.
“We wanted to get more news and unfortunately after five minutes we heard that the athlete had passed away,” he said.
One of Rogge’s biggest priorities was trying to control the size and scale of the Olympics. He instituted a cap of 10,500 athletes and 28 sports for the Summer Games. The cost of hosting the games has gained urgency at a time of global economic uncertainty, with cities spending tens of billions of dollars on construction projects.
“On one hand we have to make sure we contain the size, on the other hand we have to help the organizing cities by lowering the demands and the service levels,” Rogge said.
Rogge struggled with the thorny issue of the Olympic sports program — which sports to drop and which to bring in. While softball and baseball were kicked out after 2008 and golf and rugby were added starting in 2016, the system for 2020 has been messy. Wrestling was surprisingly dropped in February, but now looks set to be put back for 2020, meaning no new sport will be included as originally intended.
While Samaranch and the IOC were criticized for what was seen as laxness on performance-enhancing drugs, Rogge pursued “zero tolerance” on doping. He doubled the number of tests at the Olympics to 5,000, implemented rigorous pre-games and out-of-competition checks, retested samples from previous games to catch cheaters retroactively and championed the biological passport for monitoring an athlete’s blood profile.
In Turin, after a tipoff by the IOC, Italian police raided the lodgings of the Austrian cross-country and biathlon teams, seizing doping substances and equipment.
“We really stepped up the fight,” Rogge said. “I think it is far more difficult to get doped today than it used to be a couple of years ago. Today the Lance Armstrong case could not occur because the sensitivity for the EPO testing is far higher than it used to be back in 2005.”
Rogge also set up a system to monitor betting patterns during the Olympics, suspended or forced out members implicated in ethics violations and held firm to the post-Salt Lake City ban on member visits to bid cities.
He also spoke out against the rise in youth obesity and staked his legacy on the creation of the Youth Games, an event for athletes 15 to 18 years old that debuted with the summer edition in Singapore in 2010.
The IOC’s coffers also strengthened under Rogge’s tenure, with revenues from top-tier global sponsors going from $663 million in 2001-04 to nearly $1 billion for the four-year cycle through London. Television rights deals raised billions, including a record $4.38 billion deal with NBC through 2020.
The IOC’s financial reserves, designed to allow the organization to continue operating for four years in the event of an Olympics being canceled, have risen from $100 million to $900 million over the past 10 years.
Perhaps Rogge’s most significant financial achievement was the signing of a long-term revenue-sharing deal with the USOC in 2012. Tensions had festered for years over a previous deal going back to 1996 that many Olympic officials felt gave the U.S. too big a share. The resentment contributed heavily to the IOC rejection of U.S. bids for the Olympics of 2012 (New York) and 2016 (Chicago).
“The situation was a thorn that irritated a lot of people in the Olympic movement,” Rogge said. “The USOC have a special place in the Olympic movement. However, the place had to be reviewed in modern circumstances with the modern economics and so forth. We found a very good agreement that respected both sides.
Rogge’s health has declined in recent months. He had hip replacement surgery in September 2012 and has looked much older and slower, a far cry from the youthful, vigorous man who came to power 12 years ago.
Yet Rogge has continued to circle the globe on IOC business and kept his hand on day-to-day issues.
“My agenda will be full until the very last day,” he said.
Rogge is looking forward to returning to Ghent and spending time with his family —wife Anne, two adult children and grandchildren. He’s got a pile of books to read and a list of art galleries to visit.
Even though he could stay as an IOC member for 10 more years, Rogge is resigning to become an honorary member.
“I don’t think it would be sound for the IOC to have the past president running around the session having a vote to cast, giving his opinion,” he said.
Rogge will continue attending the Olympics, able to appreciate the action from a new perspective, no longer a president worried about the organizational aspects.
“Coming from one competition to another I was constantly in line telephonically or by email with my team at the headquarters who would inform me about potential problems,” he said. “I won’t have that anymore and I will enjoy sport at 100 percent.”
Rogge has no plans to write his memoirs, preferring to update the archives for the Olympic Museum.
“I note everything every day on my little white papers, so I have a pretty impressive collection, a lot of material that is very interesting that people don’t know about,” he said.
Then, with a laugh, Rogge adds: “And some material that people better not know about.”