One powerful man who does seem to be on top of things
ATHLETICS:THERE IS nothing worse than meeting a man with a big reputation who fails to live up to it. Especially when that reputation includes being a deluded, stiff-collared bureaucrat who talks only in disconnected gibberish. It’s a terrible reminder that you can’t always believe what you read in the papers.
But even sitting in a plush bar at the Shelbourne Hotel this week, Jacques Rogge appeared far from stiff, and certainly not deluded. Rogge may not be the most powerful man in world sport, but he can’t be far off. As president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), he’s effectively in charge of the biggest sporting event on the planet, even if that comes round only every four years.
Rogge took charge in July 2001, succeeding Juan Antonio Samaranch – a man with a big reputation of his own. Since then he has, more or less, managed to avoid any of the Olympic controversies that crippled his predecessors, with the exception of those semi-staged protests that ambushed the run-up to Beijing. But then Usain Bolt went and ran 9.69 seconds for the 100 metres – dancing, hysterical, oblivious – and Rogge walked himself right into controversy.
“That’s not the way we perceive being a champion,” he said of Bolt’s celebratory antics. “I think he should show more respect for his competitors.”
Ouch – and every sportswriter went to town, labelling Rogge as being so aloof and so far out of touch with the sport that he must be still basing his Olympic ideals on Chariots of Fire, complete with some draconian code of ethics.
Bolt’s showmanship in Beijing wasn’t just what athletics wanted: it was what it needed. The sport, particularly sprinting, was on life support after the damning impact of Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, Dwain Chambers and company – not that we ever believed in them – and if no one in Beijing had come to the rescue they may as well have called in the local priest.
What Bolt did for athletics in Beijing was like what The Beatles did for music in the 1960s. He didn’t break any rules, because he didn’t see any rules to be broken. He was just being himself, even if that meant clowning around before the start of the 100 metres, winning the thing easing up, before single-handedly turning the Bird’s Nest into one giant dance floor.
If there were any lingering doubts about the Jamaican’s superstar status then he answered them in Manchester last Sunday. Two weeks and four days after he flipped his BMW M3 on the main highway into Kingston (where, with trademark coolness, his only injury resulted from stepping on thorns while gracefully exiting the wreckage) Bolt showed up for a circus event on Manchester’s main street. They laid down a 150-metre track, and figured Bolt could set the thing alight.
What Bolt did in Manchester last Sunday was the most exciting 15 seconds of athletics this year. Or 14.35 seconds, to be exact, as that was how long it took him to cover the 150 metres, and erase the record of 14.80 which had stood to Italy’s Pietro Mennea since 1983. If you haven’t seen it, definitely look it up on YouTube.
Part of that excitement was anticipating how fast Bolt could run this summer. He declared himself “only 70 per cent fit” arriving in Manchester, yet ran the first 100 metres in 9.90 seconds, while the second 100 metres, from 50 to 150 metres, was clocked in an astonishing 8.72 seconds. You do the math, but when Bolt says he can run 9.4 for the 100 metres this summer then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when he does.
Is Rogge actually that far out of touch with sport that he still feels Bolt needs to tone down this attitude? “Of course not,” he told me, with a vaguely roguish appearance of an old Hollywood movie star. Rogge was in Dublin on Wednesday to unveil a bust of another of his predecessors, Lord Killanin, outside the Olympic Council of Ireland office, and not only did he seem in touch with sport, he seemed right on top of it.
“Maybe there was a little bit of a misunderstanding. I was reacting to the fact that he made certain gestures during the race in Beijing (and Rogge lowers his arms) like, you know, ‘catch me if you can’ or something like that.
“What he does before or after the race I have no problem with. I just thought that his gesticulation during the race was maybe a little disrespectful. But I understand as well that he’s a young athlete, and that he will evolve. But I also know Usain disagrees with me, says he wasn’t showing disrespect. That closes the matter for me.
“There is always a great buzz around the 100 metres. It’s visual, it’s explosive. And you need heroes, idols, for any sport to be popular. Just like Brian O’Driscoll in rugby.”
See – he’s even in touch with Irish rugby. Rogge simply says it as he sees it, and, if that sounds a little old-fashioned at times, what harm? He actually opened a debate on drugs, and whether the IOC are winning that war.
“There have been many innuendos, about Bolt, and about Michael Phelps as well. Both have been retested again. And both are totally clean.
“We did find some positive results after retesting of samples from Beijing. It’s another battle we have won. Will we win the war? Of course not. We’re not under any illusions here. We live in the real world. We don’t live in a utopia.
“Doping is to sport what criminality is to society. Criminality will never disappear, and nor will doping. We will always need police, judges and so forth, to reduce criminality to the lowest possible level, and our duty is to reduce doping to the lowest possible level. And I think we are making inroads into doing that.”
Rogge was also realistic enough to admit we can never be sure of the authenticity of those who make it onto the Olympic podium: “It’s always sad when the legitimate athlete doesn’t get to stand on the podium, have the national anthem played, and all the emotion around that. But talk to the athletes who have got medals because the doping offenders were caught. I have talked to them. They are damn happy that this is happening, because it’s better than being cheated for the rest of your life.”
If, as we agreed, Bolt keeps going the way he’s going all the way to London 2012, then the sport couldn’t be in better hands. Not even a deluded, stiff-collared bureaucrat could deny that.