The new face of the Olympics... Mr Clean

The Age-
Tuesday 29 January 2002

Jacques Rogge has been head of the International Olympic Committee - the most senior sports job in the world - for just six months, yet he has already established a vastly different style of presidency to that of Juan Antonio Samaranch, who reigned for 21 years.

Where Samaranch was a Machievellian autocrat with a Fascist background, Belgian surgeon Rogge is straightforward, consensus-driven and politically moderate. Samaranch, a resident of the chandaliered Lausanne Palace Hotel, immersed himself in luxurious surrounds. Rogge is more restrained.

"Just call me Jack," says the new president. It is a casual approach that Samaranch, the former Spanish diplomat who used to insist on his Olympic mandarins addressing him as "Your Excellency", would abhor.

Since the June 2001 IOC vote, Rogge has moved from his farmhouse near Ghent in Belgium to an apartment in Lausanne, not far from IOC headquarters on the shore of Lake Geneva.

His wife Anne has given up a prosperous medical career to support his ambitions, adjusting to the new life by learning new languages and assisting at the local university.

He is the president the International Olympic Committee had to have. The 59-year-old Rogge came to power because he was known throughout the world as the clean face of the Olympics. Mr Smooth, Mr Charming, Mr Uncorruptible.

But when he attends his first Olympic Games as its president next month, it will be in the Utah ski fields of Salt Lake City, a place that has been tarred forever by the bribery, secret deals and underhand tactics that were used to secure the Games.

There won't be much of the red-carpet treatment that Rogge detests at these Olympics, which open on February 8, and which, given the current security tension, could be the first big test of Rogge's stature and control.

Australian IOC member Kevan Gosper, who will become the most senior vice-president during the Salt Lake Games, has been impressed by how Rogge, with only 10 years of IOC membership, has proven to be an effective leader.

"After a long period of unorthodox presidency (under Samaranch), he has brought the orthodoxy of being very much in control," Gosper said.

"He is not a bureaucrat, he is a trained professional surgeon and the skills he had in the surgery he has brought to the job. "He is happy to consult everyone and he canvasses opinions very well. He has lots of energy, but once he has done the research he is not afraid to make his decisions and he is quite independent in doing that, much like the control he would have had while doing a knee operation."

Rogge reckons he is a "sober man with sober tastes" and that the heart of the IOC is more humble than its public facade indicates.

He insists, for instance, that he will bunk down with the at-times rowdy athletes in their village in Salt Lake City rather than enjoy five-star comfort at a hotel.

"I will be working all day, but I will go to the village in the evening and sleep there and eat there at night," he said.

There has been little time for internal criticism of Rogge, who has engaged on a round-the-world series of trips to visit heads of state and the world's sports powerbrokers, including a White House appointment with President Bush to shore up security at the Winter Olympics.

Indeed, it appears that everything is going swimmingly for the new Olympic head, other than minor rumblings about a Eurocentric focus in his early appointments where his close ally Denis Oswald of Switzerland took charge of the 2004 Athens Olympics and his Belgian compatriot Hein Verbruggen the 2008 Games in Beijing. It is a claim that Rogge quickly denies, pointing out that some anticipated he would root out those who did not vote for him. "That is not my style," he said.

All three of his opponents for the IOC presidency have been given key positions although his outspoken and bitter rival, Canadian lawyer Dick Pound, lost the battle to retain the prestigious role of head of marketing. Instead, he heads up the World Anti-doping Agency.

Rogge's term will expire in 2009, but he can ask for a further four years just after the Beijing Olympics, an event already shrouded in controversial human rights issues and sure to provide further challenges for him.

There are the obvious security fears for the immediate future in Salt Lake City. "We are well prepared for everything," Rogge said. "Whether we can stop it is another issue."

He wants the security to be reassuring but unobtrusive and certainly less confronting than at the Montreal Olympics of 1976, which had thousands of gun-wielding security officers.

The Montreal Games followed the tragic Munich Games, at which terrorists killed 11 Israeli team members and a German policeman. Since that time security is the top priority for Games organisers.

But this time, the threat of terrorism has kept the debacle of Salt Lake City in the background.

Only three years have passed since the elderly Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler waved his cane for emphasis, thundered about "money, snow and disgrace", and blew the whistle on the $10 million bribery scandal that enveloped not just the Mormon city, but for a short time threatened the very future of the Olympic Games.

At the time, Rogge was the IOC's designated man to oversee the Sydney Olympics, and Australia had problems of its own. Rogge was on the edge of an incident when it became known that Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates gave two African countries $50,000 each just before they voted to choose the host city for the 2000 Games.

Internationally, the IOC's reputation was reduced to the sleaziness of its most greedy member, Jean Claude Ganga, the Congolese father of 10 who milked Salt Lake City almost dry helping himself to carpets, plastic surgery, tapware and furnishings, holidays and a substantial property deal as Utah tried to win the right to host the 2002 Winter Games.

In the end, 10 IOC members departed in the wake of the scandal, but no one outside the Olympic movement was convinced that the elitist culture that had bred such corruption was truly rooted out. That is, until Rogge came to power.

Rogge, the suave peacemaker, knows that an athlete focus has to be stamped on the image of these Winter Games, if only to keep up the momentum from the wildly successful Sydney Olympics and bury the more murky dealings of Ganga and his cohorts. It is a role that he has taken seriously.

Yet the former champion yachtsman and rugby international says his greatest enemy is not anticipated challenges, but finding time to fit everything in.

His greatest strength as an IOC member was his personal skills; ironically, he has no time to utilise them any more. Meetings are brief, words kept to a minimum.

"Time is the thing," he says. "So many people to see or they want to see me and I only have 15 to 20 minutes for them and we have to go to the core of the business immediately. It doesn't allow for chatting or getting to know someone. I've got to get to the heart of the issue."

Rogge works from 8am to 8pm, and has had only a handful of days off since he took over the presidency. He says: "I don't feel pressure; I am relatively stress immune."