I finally got around to reading a book vital for any disciple of the Olympic Movement on a long-haul flight last week: Richard Pound’s Inside the Olympics: A behind the Scenes Look at the Politics, the Scandals, And the Glory of the Games.
As Pound makes clear in the intro, the book is an overview rather than an in-depth study, aimed at the general sports-loving public rather than Olympic specialists. Yet it is a useful thematic overview and, despite a focus on the 1980s and 1990s, the period where he was twice International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice-president behind the great Spaniard, Juan Antonio Samaranch, it remains fascinating reading today.
It is clear to someone with only a passing awareness of those times just how well the IOC did. In 1980 when Samaranch took over, they had been labouring under the Irishman, Lord Killanin, with the Montreal bankruptcy rightly or wrongly attributed to the 1976 Olympics followed by the Western boycotts of Moscow 1980.
The Olympics were making no money and bringing few obvious benefits for a city as they became more and more a pawn in an increasingly volatile Cold War political game.
After Tehran withdrew following the Iranian Revolution, Los Angeles was the sole bidder for the 1984 Olympics and, with a surfeit of World Championships appearing in other sports, there did appear a genuine possibility the Olympics could be overrun.
Samaranch, Pound and others responded by revolutionising the IOC’s financial model by introducing The Olympic Programme (TOP) sponsorship stream and nurturing huge television deals, while delicately weaving between West and East to bring all sides of the political spectrum back on board. Subsequent Games in Seoul and Barcelona showed the advantages of hosting and by the dawn of the new century the concept appeared secure once again.
As Pound also makes clear, however, corruption and autocracy was increasing alongside these improvements. The pressure exploded with the Salt Lake City scandal of 1998, where the IOC was shown up essentially as an unregulated and unaccountable old boys club. In a new digital era of politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, where image was as, if not more, important than substance, Samaranch and his ilk were out of touch with the world at large, with their largely ambivalent attitude towards doping a good example of this.
If you are to believe Inside the Olympics, one of the only exceptions appeared to be Pound himself, who was always there questioning the consensus and leading the drive for change.
Pound is certainly not universally popular. I have spoken to several people off the record in recent weeks who have attempted to smear him following his chairing of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Independent Commission investigation into Russian doping.
"There are a lot of egos in sport, but Dick Pound is the biggest,” said one.
“You must know that Dick Pound likes to play with truth and the words,” said another.
There is a great quote by British war leader Winston Churchill which is relevant here: “History will look kindly on me, because I intend to write it myself.”
Yet, so far as I can see, Pound does deserve great credit for many of the IOC’s successes and is the perfect foil to the iron rod of Samaranch and others. Blunt and honest, he is one of the few Olympic statesman to truly tell it how it is. He is certainly aware of the politics and how the world works, but is not prepared to sacrifice his beliefs for these ends.
My first dealings with him came a few months after I started at insidethegames when I was tasked with writing an article entitled: "How did the breakup of the Soviet Union change the Olympic Games?" I had all sorts of theories mapped out about the huge and immediate impact it had had, and rang Pound essentially to get a quote supporting my view. He listened silently to my hypothesis before replying: “I think you’ve got it completely wrong” and explaining in a forthright yet patient way how it really was.
This was a great lesson to me about how to use a source as a journalist for information rather than a cheap comment, but it also said much about Pound.
His honesty has come at a cost, however. As he admits in Inside the Olympics, he spent his time dealing with television companies, sponsors and the press rather than his IOC colleagues. As a consequence, he did not have the power base to match the likes of Rogge in the 2001 Presidential election, with his support further eroded by being chair of the inquiry into the Salt Lake City Scandal, so, in a way, he was responsible for the downfall of his own colleagues.
In my time he has suffered two failed attempts to return to the IOC Executive Board, and has since settled for reaping havoc from the back benches rather than the inner cloisters.
If we are to use history as a tool to study the present, it strikes me that current IOC President Thomas Bach must be both a Samaranch and a Pound.
Bach arrived to replace Samaranch's successor Jacques Rogge in 2013 to steer a ship seemingly already riding the crest of the wave, striving to take the organisation onwards onto uncharted waters of success.
It has not yet turned out that way, however. New challenges have materialised, as well as new sporting corruption and doping scandals and, as has been repeatedly said over recent weeks, there is growing opposition to the long-held consensus stretching back to Killanin's times that bidding for the Olympics is beneficial for a city.
Hamburg’s referendum defeat last month was a further example of what we had already seen in Oslo, Munich, Kraków and Boston and so many other cities. It’s all very well awarding events to China and Russia, but in the West, the Olympic Movement is struggling.
Bach is certainly far more media-friendly and careful with words than Samaranch, but there are many similarities between the two, stretching back to shared associations with Adidas and sports marketing pioneer, Horst Dassler. Bach, like Samaranch was, is an astute politician, backed up by a loyal administration and enduring a ferocious travelling schedule, prioritising meeting statesman and world leaders as often as possible.
Bach, like Samaranch did ahead of Lillehammer 1994, also faced some of his most vociferous opposition in Norway ahead of Oslo’s scrapping of their Winter Olympic and Paralympic bid last year, with the Scandinavians invariably the most critical of the IOC and its Presidents.
Yet, like Samaranch, Bach is also savvy enough to realise the importance to make changes, and his Agenda 2020 reform process was a means by which to do this. However, as we have said before, too much of what he has said is wishy-washy and vague rather than something which will appeal. This is yet another common trait with Samaranch, who was famously dry and deliberately vague in press conferences, in contrast to the blunt resonance of Pound which was so clear when he spoke in Geneva to unveil the WADA report last month.
Much has been made this week of how, rather than being drawn into debates about finance and sustainability, the IOC need to focus on the positive aspects of the Games. Bach’s words to the Los Angeles Times after the recent Executive Board meeting in Lausanne suggests he is beginning to do this.
“The spectacle of sport,” he said. “Peaceful competition between nations. A chance for communities to rally around a unique event. The concept of the Games has to be adapted to modern times. We need some changes."
This is better, but he still needs more character, more passion to convince those sceptical Europeans of what they really have to gain.
As the example of Pound shows, it is also vital he listens to those with different opinions. Samaranch supposedly chose Pound to sit on the Executive Board partly because he was a questioning voice of dissent. He wouldn’t tolerate many people like this, and Pound probably ended up upsetting him one time too many, but this is another important lesson.
Bach has a raft of new IOC appointments to make in the next few years, among the athlete, International Federation and National Olympic Committee representatives as well as individual members. Agenda 2020 has committed to a “targeted recruitment” process, whatever that means, but the general feeling is that he will favour those who are loyal and supportive rather than controversial and critical.
With some of the more vocal members - such as St Lucia’s Richard Peterkin and Britain’s Adam Pengilly - set to end their terms within the next few years, it is vital the IOC does not become a chorus of "Yes-Men", battling only to be the most excruciatingly supportive.
Without those, like Pound, who are prepared to look at things from a different perspective and say something unpopular which may not help their personal ambitions, the IOC will become ever further detached from where the public want it to be.