An Olympic-Size Leadership Challenge

IOC Chairman Jacques Rogge is learning that this Olympics can't be easily led, managed, or controlled. Leaders have less power and their followers more

Posted on Political Animals: April 9, 2008 11:05 AM

You think life is tough? Imagine you were Jacques Rogge. Imagine you were president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and had to rest your head last night fearing the "Journey of Harmony" was going to explode yet again, this time on the streets of San Francisco.

The Journey of Harmony is the moniker that in a moment of cockeyed optimism was bestowed on the Olympic torch relay, the 21-nation promotional tour for the 2008 Olympics, to be held this summer in Beijing. Ostensibly it is Rogge's task to ensure that the relay, and everything else about the fabled Games, runs smoothly, without a hitch. But as was foretold before the relay even began, and as is being foretold before the Games even begin, this Olympics is unlike any other Olympics. This Olympics cannot be easily led, managed, or even controlled. As Rogge is discovering along with any number of Chinese officials, in the 21st century leaders have less power and their putative followers have more.

Rogge's immediate predecessor as president of the IOC was the formidable Juan Antonio Samaranch, who ushered in the Olympic movement as we now know it. But Samaranch had far too free a hand and he presided over the IOC for far too long (20 plus years). By the time he finally was effectively fired (2001), the Games were tarnished by scandal, by corruption and drugging. Rogge, then, an orthopedic surgeon and former Olympic sailor, with long ties to European Olympic Committees and a reputation for being honest and mild-mannered, was brought in as savior. His main charge was to mop up the mess left by Samaranch, and to restore to the Games their fabled luster. Not in a million years could he or anyone else have imagined that not many years down the line his leadership task would devolve into one of the most complex and challenging in the world.

et's be clear here: Within the Olympic movement Jacques Rogge has power, authority, and influence. But outside the Olympic movement who even knows his name? Yet here he is—the only man to whom to turn, in the faint hope that he might bring order to disorder.

In the wake of the protests in Paris, which followed similar protests in London, and foretell further protests elsewhere in the world, mostly against China's record on human rights (think Darfur along with Tibet), Rogge found himself between the proverbial rock and hard place. On the one hand he is trying his level best to mollify the Chinese, increasing infuriated by those determined to waylay their best laid plans. And, on the other hand, he is trying his level best to placate human rights activists, who are refusing to shut up and go away. So far Rogge is treading carefully, right down the middle, criticizing those who interfered with the Olympic torch ("I am deeply saddened by the fact that such an important symbol has been attacked"), but also calling for a rapid and peaceful solution to the confrontations in Tibet ("I am very concerned with the international situation and what's happening in Tibet"). In any case he is anxious to preclude even the possibility of an Olympic boycott, assuring his hosts this week in Beijing, "Some people have played with the idea of boycotts… [but] there is no momentum for a general boycott."

But if, as leader of the international Olympic movement, he is to be other than a figurehead, Rogge cannot continue to hold to the diplomatic niceties with which he is the most comfortable. Among the growing demands on him are those being made by the athletes themselves, who are looking to him to provide guidelines on how under the circumstances to conduct themselves. On this at the least he will have to take a clear position—lest he let down the very men and women the Games are supposed to serve.

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