Interview: Jacques Rogge

With the Olympics finally upon us after the rockiest of run-ups, Donald McRae finds the IOC president resolute over the terrorist threat, scathing of Marion Jones and confident Matthew Pinsent will win again

Jacques Rogge should look traumatised. He should look exhausted. Even a nervous twitch or mild hysteria would not be out of place as the most chaotic, depressing and quietly terrifying build-up to an Olympic Games crawls to a close this week. Having been stretched to the limit by "emotional" Greek organisers, "overly ambitious and lavish" architects, "slow-moving" builders, "cheating" athletes and "corrupt" administrators, the president of the International Olympic Committee must now steel himself against the threat of a terrorist attack as the Athens games are finally declared open on Friday.

And even when anxiety about a possible al-Qaida strike flags, it has been cheerfully predicted that Athens will offer up its own August delights - including terrible heat, sapping humidity, choking pollution, clogged traffic, sluggish ticket sales and fresh doping scandals. Rogge should be screaming or, at the very least, rocking back and forth in a darkened room in the wild-eyed hope that the 25th summer Olympics will pass without further controversy, shame or even tragedy.

Instead, looking impossibly crisp and relaxed in an immaculate suit, Rogge reaches for a bottle of sparkling water in his swish office at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne. He checks the label approvingly, twists off the top with smooth efficiency, smiles charmingly at the escaping hiss of bubbly air and pours a couple of glasses, as if he is nothing more than an accomplished maitre d' preparing himself for a busy few weeks at an intimate restaurant down the road - rather than the man whose head will be on the block of a hugely criticised, multi-billion dollar enterprise which he claims will have a television viewing figure of 40 billion in total.

"After all the problems," the 62-year-old Belgian says, "my feeling now is of great expectation. Of course the real judgment of the games can only come once they are over. And, listen, I will be held responsible for every failure. But if it goes right, everyone will be responsible. I always think of that saying - victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan. I hope there'll be many proud fathers in Athens."

When Rogge replaced the controversial Juan-Antonio Samaranch in July 2001, he became only the eighth IOC president in the organisation's chequered 108-year history. Samaranch had clung to power for 21 years - and become synonymous with the IOC's bloated and distinctly shady image. In a typically ostentatious inauguration ceremony, Rogge was presented with a golden key to Chteau de Vidy, the IOC's headquarters on the shores of Lake Geneva. One of Samaranch's many vice-presidents, Keba Mbaye, ended his gushing address to Rogge, a former Olympic sailor, with an unusually telling conclusion: "This key is a symbol of the ship you will now be guiding. It will be a difficult task as the ship has become overloaded, capricious and the ocean is tempestuous. But I know you are a good captain."

Seven weeks later Rogge's leadership faced an apocalyptic, rather than a merely tempestuous, test. "On September 11, I was in Spain. It was three o'clock in the afternoon and I'd just walked into my hotel room when my chief of staff called and said, 'Switch on your TV - something has happened in New York.' While I saw another plane smashing into the second tower I knew the world had changed forever. I told my driver, and he was a fast Spanish driver, to get me to the airport. I have never travelled at such speed in a car - 160mph.

"By that evening everyone was in this very room thinking about the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and Athens in 2004. We didn't need to wait for a newspaper editorial to realise the magnitude of what had happened. Ten days later I met George Bush in the White House. The most interesting thing about my time with Bush was that when I asked for maximum support on security, he said he would first like to make an audit of what was in place for Salt Lake City. And that audit showed our security arrangements were already suited to deal with a post-9/11 world.

"We had not awakened to security concerns because of 9/11. The scenario of a plane crashing into a stadium existed in 1992 when the summer Olympics were held in Barcelona and the winter games in Albertville. The French air force was on alert around the clock to intercept any plane at Albertville while the Spanish authorities were fully prepared for such an attack on Barcelona. There was no intelligence then - it was just one of the scenarios we imagined. We have been living with this threat a long time."

In a much more dangerous world now, Rogge concedes, "No one can guarantee complete safety. The Greeks have done everything they could and been assisted by seven countries including the UK - but, of course, we now just have to hope."

Rogge's assessment of the risk is framed by a personal memory. As a competitor in three Olympics, his recollections of the 1972 Munich games are vivid. "The massacre [of Israeli athletes] happened during the night and we weren't told the next morning. During my race we saw a patrol boat come by our Israeli rival who had abandoned the race. Coming to the shore afterwards we heard what had happened. I had an agonising time. I was torn between two sentiments - one which said this makes no sense any more, let's go home. But there was also this sense of the young ambitious athlete in me who has worked hard for four years. Ultimately I decided to keep sailing in those games. But I did so without any joy."

After security, the battle against drugs will dominate Rogge's attention in Athens. It remains a central theme of his presidency and is, once again, fuelled by a private response from a past Olympics.

When asked whether the recent spate of drug scandals has been bleak news for Olympic sport, Rogge exclaims with delight: "On the contrary! When I was team leader for Belgium at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, I was woken up by a Belgian journalist at four in the morning. I said, 'Why the hell are you phoning?' He said, 'Jacques, you will not believe it, Ben Johnson has tested positive!' And, quite spontaneously, I said, 'This is fantastic!' The journalist shouted, 'Are you crazy? This is a disaster.' But it was the best possible news. The most physical and fastest athlete had been exposed as a cheat. The system was working."

Rogge used to be an orthopaedic surgeon. Perhaps that past surgical career explains the mix of calm assurance and bold precision which he uses to set about another tarnished Olympic icon, Marion Jones. A leading question, wondering whether Jones deserves any sympathy as she has never failed a drugs test and always maintains her complete innocence, is crushed by Rogge.

"That is not the right level to have this discussion. It is not because you are not being tested positive that you are innocent. There are other ways of being found guilty. Look at David Millar on the Tour de France - he hadn't tested positive but he took EPO. It is more than a positive A or B sample. It can be possession, trafficking or circumstantial evidence.

"In the case of Marion Jones no proof of guilt has been achieved so you can say she is presumed innocent. But her first husband, CJ Hunter, has been proved guilty of doping. She then went to work with the trainer of Ben Johnson - Charlie Francis. She has been involved with another trainer, Trevor Graham, who is being associated with doping even if there is as yet no proof of guilt. [Her partner] Tim Montgomery has been indicted. There are probably better acquaintances to have than those ..."

Jones's blustering counter-claim, that Rogge is "ignorant", is met with a snort of derision. "Ignorant of what? I have said she has the presumption of innocence. But I will also point to her association with CJ Hunter, Charlie Francis and Tim Montgomery - where is the ignorance in that?

"Cheating is embedded in human nature. I always say doping is to sport what criminality is to society. We cannot stop people trying to cheat but at least we now have stringent doping controls in place."

Just as it has not won the drug war, so the IOC is still mired in a struggle to clear its own reputation. In June, Un Yong Kim, a 72-year-old vice-president, was jailed for 2 years after being found guilty of bribery and embezzling corporate donations in South Korea. And last week the BBC revealed that votes for London's 2012 Olympic bid had supposedly been offered for purchase by agents claiming to be in contact with IOC officials. Rogge has ordered an inquiry into the allegation and voices predictable determination to root out sleaze - a legacy he has inherited after decades of deceit and larceny.

A more romantic hope for a purer IOC, however, resides in his undimmed passion for sport. "I was thrilled to be at Wimbledon," he suddenly says, as if we need a break from the stench of corruption and the threat of terror. "I go to so many sporting events but that was a rare afternoon. We were thrust into this magical moment when a new star is born. We all knew Maria Sharapova was good but before the final I said, 'I hope we at least see a match.' Instead it was a magical afternoon and the way she won was quite lovely. It came out of the blue - that's the magic of sport. In Athens, I have no doubt, we also will celebrate some new stars."

Rogge is on a convincing roll. "Have you seen [Kenenisa] Bekele? I will definitely watch him in the 10,000m. He is a phenomenon. And how about [Michael] Phelps? I want to see whether Phelps can become another Mark Spitz. I will also be there when Alexander Popov swims the 50m and 100m freestyle. I worked very closely with him in Sydney when he was the athletes' representative.

"I would like my colleague and fellow IOC member, Matthew Pinsent, to win his fourth consecutive gold medal. I know he had some problems and they've had to rebuild the team - but with Ed Coode coming in, the British four will be strong. And in the weightlifting we have the flag-carrier for Greece - Pyrros Dimas - who is also on for his potential fourth gold."

Rogge pauses for breath, then smiles knowingly. "We have had, let us say, a very hectic preparation. When the Greeks had delays we urged them to accelerate and, in the end, they did. I always said they would finish in time and over the last few weeks this has happened. They are extremely proud of the games - they are their invention, after all. And if you saw their enthusiasm for the football, you have an idea of the enthusiasm they'll bring to these Olympics."

Suddenly, and almost as shocking as the idea of Greece winning Euro 2004, it seems possible Athens might not be the unmitigated disaster that has been predicted for so long. And Rogge, who had the supposedly impossible task of following Sydney - unequivocally the best Olympics in history - with the chaos and trauma of Athens, might somehow be right when he predicts an unlikely success.

"People have short memories. Sydney was highly criticised in the build-up. We had lots of controversy and instability - with four chief executives and three presidents of the Sydney games. There was also a major ticketing uproar.

"Of course the controversy in Athens has been much bigger. But I always think of Atlanta in 1996. We had a long honeymoon period before those games, but then we had huge technical and transportation problems. So all this gives me a sense of relativity about the build-up to Athens. I am very optimistic. Athens may surprise you."

The GuardianTramp

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