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The head of the Olympics speaks his mind: Jacques Rogge on Athens 2004 and beyond

By training an orthopedic surgeon, Jacques Rogge is also a linguist with a keen sense of history and Greek culture to bolster his role as the Olympics’ main representative. He joined the IOC in 1991 and its executive committee in 1998. In July 2001 he became the IOC’s eighth president, succeeding Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch, who had served for 21 years. Earlier, he competed in yachting events at the Mexico City, Munich and Montreal Games of 1968-1976, and also played rugby for the Belgian national team. The Salt Lake City Winter Games of February 2002 were Dr Rogge’s first as IOC chief, and he made a point of staying at the Olympic Village with the athletes. He plans to do the same at Athens in August 2004. In this interview, he addresses questions regarding the Athens 2004 preparatory effort and more general issues pertaining to the future of the Olympic movement. This July you will have completed two years as IOC president. What have been the biggest surprises so far, both on the positive and the negative side? A surprise on the negative side definitely is what surprised the rest of the world, it was 9/11. Not as much for the IOC itself, which already knew about terrorism, since the Munich Games [of 1972], but this has created concerns about security in other sports events, and at the same time it has triggered an economic crisis, or accelerated an economic downturn, that is affecting many sports organizations; again not the IOC, because we are covered by our contracts through 2008, but that was definitely something that no one expected. On the positive side, frankly speaking nothing has really surprised me, but, I mean, many things have made me rejoice, and in particular, the great success of the Salt Lake City Games. During your visit to Athens in January, you praised the Greek progress toward 2004 as «outstanding and evident.» Yet within a month or so you were saying that things were «getting really urgent.» What on earth happened within that month? That is quite simple. When I was in Athens in January, I received a promise by government officials that the security contract would be signed within a matter of days. Six weeks later, at the executive board, by February 20, still nothing was signed. I was glad to note that, three or four days later, the contract was finalized. A second issue, when I was in Athens in January, I was told that the Karaiskaki issue was solved, and that it was a matter of days for construction to begin. Six weeks later, it was still not solved. Today again, we have a solution. Third issue, when I was there, I asked about the test events, they told me, «No problem!» and six weeks later, we were told that eight of the 28 test events are in danger. So, I mean, that’s the fundamental difference. And we expressed our concerns. Do you think that this perhaps represents a broader pattern on the part of Athens? Have they tended to give you optimistic information? No, no, no, listen, there are reasons for the slippage. On the security contract there was still the issue of the final amount of money, on the Karaiskaki issue there was a negotiation that was tied down with the national Olympic committee. Yet regardless of the reason, there was a slippage; I mean, a fact is a fact. And we cannot have such major slippages so shortly before the Games. In the meantime, I am glad to see that these things were solved. When you were visiting in January, you made a reference that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary for the venues themselves to be tested – that it was more for the human side, for people to know what they’re doing when the time comes. Do you feel that this may have given a misleading impression to the Athenians, that perhaps the test events are less vital? No, I don’t think I gave a misleading impression. Some have used my comments to defend the slippage. The main objective for the outdoor test events is to have them at the same moment as the Games, to allow the athletes and trainers to cope with what will probably be the same meteorological environment, so if you have the slippage of these events, that’s something you miss. The second issue, for all sports, indoor and outdoor, is that you want to test operations. Now, again, if you have a slippage of test events, you are losing time to correct errors that might have been accounted for and experienced. And the third issue is to test the facilities. Now, when I said that 50 percent of the test events were held in other facilities than the final ones in Sydney, that is, of course, absolutely true. We prefer always to have 100 percent, but no city is ever totally ready one year before the Games, and because there are a lot of things you cannot test in other venues, such as technology, cabling, and so on… Whenever we can have the final venue, then you have the three advantages. Games politics There has been a lot of friction between ATHOC and government officials responsible for the Games, sometimes very public and strong friction. In your experience, is this worse than in other, previous Olympic preparations? And how damaging do you think it’s been in this case? No, I mean, you have to look at each Games in their environment. I remember very well the 1976 Games in Montreal, you had a major problem with a strike of the workers, and the Olympic stadium was not finished. We could have had very good Games, that’s not the question, but in an unfinished stadium. Barcelona [1992] had its share of problems. At a certain moment, Samaranch had to intervene, and he did intervene, with success, bringing together the people from the government, from Catalonia, from Barcelona, he needed to bring them together, and from then on it went well. Sydney… had three presidents, five chief executive officers, and still they were perfect Games. So, I would say this is not exceptional, because the Games always put a high demand on a government, on the organizers and the leader. It’s never easy to construct or divert new roads, to have all the kinds of issues that we have. I’m sure that by Games time, that everything will be ready, that the government and ATHOC will work very closely together. They are doing enough, so I’m not concerned by the squabbling, I’m more concerned about the deliveries. Let me rephrase it; what really counts is the deliveries, it’s not the discussions. There have been suggestions floated publicly that the IOC would take positions on the ATHOC board. No, this was a misquoting of Kevan Gosper [an IOC vice president from Australia]. Kevan Gosper just aired what had been discussed in the executive board when we noticed a slippage of construction in some areas that would postpone the test events, and that when we had the issue of Karaiskaki, there was a question raised in a discussion about whether the IOC would put an expert in town to assess the progress of the works, and then we decided not to do that, because anyhow we have an expert company, a Swiss company, which is advising us on the progress on the works. They are based in Geneva, and they come together with the Coordination Commission. The obvious conclusion was that they didn’t need to be full-time because you are not following progress on construction of a venue on a day-to-day basis, you do it on a month-to-month basis. And Kevan told this to an Australian journalist, who misunderstood him, and then said we considered putting people in place. It’s never been our intention, it’s not the style of the IOC. We work with the organizing committee, we trust them, we are very happy with our relations with them. There’s never been any idea of that.  Nail-biting time Effectively, we have a year to go before everything has to be basically ready. Do you have any contingency plans in case something major does go wrong before the Games, such as a venue not being ready? We don’t have contingency on certain elements of the preparations. You cannot replace a venue that is not ready. You can have contingency on other issues… on the number of volunteers, on the budget, on television cameras you will install, but if you have no venue, you’re not going to do it on the marketplace. So, there are issues that are essential, and that have to be finished.  Do you genuinely think that Athens will be ready to put on fine Games? Yes. Well, many people believe that I’m too cosmetic when I say that, but it’s not true. That’s what I believe. I have confidence that at the last moment things will be ready. It could definitely have been done at a more regular pace, by losing less time, especially at the beginning. In the first 18 months, frankly speaking, it was too disorganized, we complained about that, we asked for changes that did not come, and ultimately they came by May 2000. We will have to continue to monitor it, [and perhaps] to ask for an acceleration, but I am confident that, at the end, things will come together.