Jacques Rogge: Past master of the delicate art of sporting diplomacy

With a month to go until London discovers whether it has won the race for the 2012 Olympic Games, the man at the head of the IOC is maintaining an even-handed approach
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In Singapore a month from today the curtain will fall on the first act of the 2012 Olympic Games, the process - variously considered to be exciting, wasteful or ludicrous, or indeed a combination of all three - to determine which city will spend the next seven years preparing to host the greatest show on earth.

In Singapore a month from today the curtain will fall on the first act of the 2012 Olympic Games, the process - variously considered to be exciting, wasteful or ludicrous, or indeed a combination of all three - to determine which city will spend the next seven years preparing to host the greatest show on earth.

The announcement will be made, once the 115 members of the International Olympic Committee have scrutinised the report released today by their Evaluation Commission and decided whether to anoint London, Paris, Moscow, Madrid or New York, by the IOC's 63-year-old president, Jacques Rogge, whose career as an orthopaedic surgeon can hardly have prepared him for the machinations of Olympic politics. On the other hand, he is urbane, charming, fluent in several languages, and Belgian, all of which are significant assets.

"It is an important factor that I don't come from a dominant country," he says. "If you look at the leadership of major world organisations, you very rarely see them coming from one of the superpowers. There is a very good reason for that; the superpowers are already superpowers, and we don't want people from those countries to have even a perceived influence. It is better to come from small, insignificant countries like mine. Being humble is sometimes a help." Rogge says all this in near-perfect English, yet English is not one of the several languages in which he claims fluency. He is an impressive character, perhaps the ideal figure to lead the Olympic movement away from the Salt Lake City bribery scandal of 2002 and towards a brave new world devoid of such menaces as corruption and doping.

However, there is still the not-so-small matter of the combined $160m (£90m) or so that has been spent by the five cities frantically bidding for the 2012 Games. Gratifying as it must be for the IOC that such mighty cities are locked in such expensive combat, does it not also amount to a monumental waste of money? Rogge smiles. I suspect he has heard this question before.

"Yes, it is a difficult process, but I compare it with the process you go through as an athlete. In the Olympic trials, you get maybe 15 or 20 guys who have trained very hard for four years, who have invested a lot, yet there can be only one winner. It is the hardship of sport."

It would be rude to say "poppycock", especially as he has set aside a whole hour from his preposterously busy schedule to talk to me in his handsome office at the IOC headquarters overlooking Lake Geneva in Lausanne, Switzerland.

But he must glimpse scepticism on my face, because he continues: "We try to reduce the costs of candidacy as much as possible, but there is sometimes a clash between the unbridled ambition of a particular city and what we think is reasonable.

"However, the competition process brings the best out of these cities. If we said, 'Let's have a geographical rotation between continents', and offered the Games to city A or B, the standard of the Games would not be the same.

"This competition brings the best in terms of creativity, and in terms of what will happen to the city after the Games. The renovation of the east side of London is a good example. Cities would not think in terms of urban heritage if they were sure of getting the Games."

And yet the legacy of the Games is mixed, to say the least. Montreal is still paying off its $1.2bn (£675m) debt from 1976, and although things have changed since 1984, when Los Angeles - where else? - came up with the bright idea of letting private enterprise provide the finance in exchange for commercial rights, host cities still find themselves with unwanted arenas, what critics of Olympic culture like to call "white elephants". I invite Rogge to consider the example of Athens.

"Well, the Greeks themselves say there is a tremendous legacy. They have a new airport, a new ring road, a new metro, a splendid new stadium.

"There might be one or two facilities where the after-use is questionable, but some responsibility has to be be borne by the government of Greece itself, who went further than we proposed. They wanted to put a roof on the stadium and we told them we didn't need such an expensive facility. Yet how can we argue with the government? Everyone says the roof is splendid, and I agree, but we said very clearly we didn't need the roof, which cost $200m. You can't blame the IOC for a roof it didn't want."

It is perfectly true that the IOC discourages expenditure as much as encourages it. Take the $15m package of "incentives" that Lord Coe's London team felt compelled to withdraw. It wasn't anything sinister, just flexible air fares and caps on hotel prices for athletes and officials, rather than the wads of cash, holidays, cosmetic surgery, bathroom fixtures, pedigree dogs and even Viagra, all of which changed hands during Salt Lake City's bid for the Winter Olympics.

So, while it is understandable that Rogge wants the ethics of bidding to be beyond reproach, those ethics have surely strangled some of the creativity that he purports to value? Again, a smile. "It is like being pregnant; you can't be a little bit pregnant. Similarly, you're ethical or you're not ethical, there is no grey area. We have been slaughtered by the media in the past, saying IOC members have too much red carpet treatment. This time we're having none of that. If people are saying the rules are too harsh, we're ready to re-examine them after these Games."

Fair enough, but it is disingenuous of Rogge to imply that this bidding process is all sun and no shadow. After all, there is a strong political dimension: some IOC members are bound to be influenced by international enmities and alliances, just like - if he will forgive me for demeaning the Olympic Games with such a comparison - the Eurovision Song Contest.

"Yes," he says, "but all elections are both political and emotional: you have to win minds but also hearts. Remember also that the IOC members know sport like no other organisation on earth. There are 39 members who have participated in the Games [including Rogge himself, a yachtsman in 1968, 1972 and 1976], with more than 100 medals between them. They understand the differences between bids. Only if two cities are at the same level will they vote with their emotions."

And what of his emotions? Can he put his hand on his heart and deny that he lies in bed at night privately rooting for Paris over London, or London over Moscow? "Yes, I have great confidence in all of these cities. They are all capable of organising a very good Games." It is the only answer he can give, but will he not concede that Paris has more goodwill in the bank, having bid unsuccessfully for the 1992 and 2000 Games?

"That is difficult to assess. For some members it might be the case, for others no. Beijing was a candidate in 1993 and was defeated by Sydney, then they bid again in 2001 [for the 2008 Games] and they won. On the other hand, some cities have bid two or three times unsuccessfully. There is no rule. What is important is the right bid at the right time."

We will know next month which city has made the right bid at the right time. We will also know whether Rogge's presidency has survived the consternation of those sports that he is perceived - unfairly, he insists - as wanting to remove from Olympic competition. A few days after the winning bid is unveiled, the merits of all 28 Olympic sports will be carefully considered. But Rogge laughs off the suggestion that he is facing a rebellion incited by angry representatives of those sports, such as modern pentathlon, considered most vulnerable.

"This is not a rebellion. If you look at the history of the Olympics you will find many more emotional things. I have been blessed with a far more tranquil presidency than many. My compatriot, [Henri de] Baillet-Latour, had to deal with the 1936 Berlin Games; Avery Brundage had to face the Munich massacre; Lord Killanin had to face the boycotts of 1976 and 1980; Samaranch had the 1984 boycott, the Ben Johnson affair, the Salt Lake City turmoil..."

Since he mentions his immediate predecessor, Spain's former ambassador to Moscow Juan Antonio Samaranch, it occurs to me to ask whether he feels at a disadvantage having not been been schooled - as Samaranch was, admittedly without demonstrating it very often - in the subtleties of international diplomacy. To put it more bluntly, what use is a knowledge of orthopaedic surgery to an IOC president?

"Ah, but my job has helped me in a major way. From surgery I have got a much-needed sense of humility, of the uncertainty of life, of the frailty of every ambition, because you might not be there the next day. And surgery teaches you to be systematic. It is like being a pilot, a profession full of checklists. Also, you have to be able to take tough decisions. For example, if you do not amputate, the patient will die. Some decisions are very emotional."

And what of sport's effect on his emotions as a spectacle? Does it move him more than anything, except his family? "At times, yes. But I am also a great lover of modern art." He gestures towards a picture on the wall behind him. "This is a Mondrian. If it were original it would be worth $60m, but it is a very good copy. Look at it. It is just a composition of planes and colours, yet it moves me. Every time I am in London I visit the Tate Modern and the Saatchi."

Just think how many times you will be able to indulge yourself if London wins the bid, I say, fatuously. He sensibly ignores me, and in any case goes on to declare that his favourite painting lives in Moscow. "The Black Square by Malevich, painted in 1912, intrigues me greatly. It is enigmatic, like the smile of the 'Mona Lisa'. Last time I stood in front of it for 20 minutes. And in sport there are events that have the same effect on me, like when Steve Redgrave won his fifth gold medal and Matthew Pinsent won his fourth. I went merely as a spectator, and in both cases I felt a great emotion."

And if Malevich's square is art stripped down to its bare essentials, what is its equivalent in sport? Is it the Olympic 100 metres final?

"I do think that track and field represents the epitome of what the human body is capable of doing. To look at the winner of the marathon entering the Olympic stadium alone, that is a special moment. To see someone bursting out of the pack in the 100m, these are magic moments."

But the magic is constantly diminished by illegal drug use, Rogge's overriding concern and the first thing he mentions when I ask him what his visions are for, say, the 2024 Games.

"If we could have less doping I would be a very happy man. And things are progressing well. I would also like equality between men and women; at present 60 per cent of competitors are men. But some things you can't change. It's like Wimbledon; it will also be on grass, and it will always last two weeks."

A glint of mischief enters the president's eye. "And you are still waiting for the first British winner for a long time."