IOC boss expects ‘good Games’

LAUSANNE – Four years ago, the head of the International Olympic Committee publicly warned Athens organizers they were in danger of losing the 2004 Games because of severe delays. That was then. Juan Antonio Samaranch has since been succeeded as IOC boss by Jacques Rogge, and Athens has frantically scrambled to get ready for the August 13 opening ceremony. For the first time in 20 years, someone other than Samaranch will be presiding over the Summer Games. If Rogge is anxious after years of race-against-the-clock preparations in Athens, he hides it well. «I’ve always expressed, throughout the difficult period, my confidence that the Greeks would be ready in due time,» he said. «We knew it would come at the last moment. We used a polite and gentle pressure to urge our Greek friends to accelerate, which they did. I expect good Games, and I believe they will be good Games.» Hardly a rousing endorsement, but typical of the steady, measured approach preferred by the 62-year-old Belgian, a former Olympic sailor and orthopedic surgeon. Rogge was the IOC’s Coordination Commission chairman for Athens when Samaranch, in an unprecedented attack, scolded the Greeks in 2000 for what he called the worst organizational crisis in his career. Rogge was elected in 2001 to replace Samaranch, who had been in charge for 21 years. Repeatedly prodded by the IOC to step up the pace, Athens made up for lost time and has nearly finished preparations for the return of the Games to the land of their birth. «Ultimately, what people will remember is what happens between the 13th and 30th of August,» Rogge said in an interview with The Associated Press. «If the Games, as I expect, are a success, all the previous controversies will be forgotten.» Already, he said, the Games have achieved a positive impact by providing Athens with a lasting urban legacy. «It is a new city, a changed city for the good – airport, metro, suburban rail, tramway, ring roads, new power stations, new telecommunication centers,» Rogge said. «This is already a major success.» While the «fundamentals» will be ready, Rogge expects some teething problems in the first few days, but nothing different from previous Games. He cites the transportation system as the biggest question mark. «The roads will be ready, the tram is already in operation, the suburban rail will be in operation, there will be Olympic lanes,» he said. «But ultimately it’s only the reality test that can tell you.» The key, he said, will be for local organizers, together with the government and IOC, to be flexible and act quickly to solve any early problems. «Once these difficult two or three days are over, then you come into cruising speed and most of the difficulties are gone,» he said. While domestic ticket sales have been sluggish, Rogge believes there could be a boost from Greece’s stunning triumph at the Euro 2004 soccer championship in July. Greece, a 100-1 shot, had never even won a game at a previous major championship. «If you see the enthusiasm, this is wild, like a volcanic eruption,» Rogge said of the soccer celebrations in Greece. «The Greek football success will not alter any of the fundamentals, but we will see something very special in terms of enthusiasm of the Greek public. I think they will see the Games as their second biggest victory.» No matter how the Games turn out, one thing is certain: Rogge won’t follow Samaranch’s tradition of calling them the best ever. «Unlike my predecessor, I will never say that any Games during my mandate were the best ever,» Rogge said. «It is not fair to compare between different Games that are held at different times in different countries, with different cultural and political and social systems.» Instead, Rogge will consult with athletes, IOC members and media representatives before the closing ceremony. «Having done that, I will express what I feel,» he said. «Believe me, my vocabulary is rich enough to find the right description.» Rogge described the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City – his first as IOC president – as «superb» Games. «My American friends were pleased with that,» he said. Rogge, who competed in three Olympics in sailing, will stay in the athletes’ village for most of the Athens Games, just as he did in Salt Lake. The athletes will be subjected to the most extensive anti-doping program in Olympic history. The measures include a 25-30 percent increase in the number of controls, out-of-competition checks at training camps around the world, and possibly new tests for previously undetectable substances such as human growth hormone. «It would be nice if there were no positive tests because of the deterrent effect, but I’m not naive,» he said. «It’s very difficult to deter cheats. The more cheats we take, the better.» Several top track and field athletes have been implicated in the BALCO steroid scandal in the United States, leaving their Olympic status in limbo pending appeals. Rogge wants the cases resolved as quickly as possible, but without a rush to judgment. «The worst thing we could do is have a kind of hanging judge passing by and having an expedited situation where the athletes’ rights are not respected,» he said. While the US Olympic Committee and national Olympic federations are now in line with international anti-doping standards, Rogge said, pro leagues are still not doing enough. «They should go further and have more muscle, but I think we’re moving in the right direction,» he said.