By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, February 28, 2010; D11
As the Vancouver Games come to a close, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge will call them a success. But it's the IOC -- so incubated in blue blazers, five-star accommodations, and shellfish buffets -- that requires real assessment. Exactly what should the purpose of the IOC be? Rogge seems hard-pressed to define his job -- what exactly are the duties of royalty?
It's been almost a decade since Rogge took over the IOC, and the hope that he would provide some integrity and leadership to the organization is gone. Instead, the primary achievements of his millennial Olympic movement are unwieldy growth, a breathtaking collaboration with regimes that commit human rights abuses, and a shucking of responsibility for Olympic-sized ills. The IOC, confronted in Vancouver with a couple of lethal issues and fresh human rights concerns at the next Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, instead reserved some of its toughest words for this late-breaking scandal: the drinking of champagne by women in public.
The IOC's treatment of the Canadian women's hockey team as scandalous for being photographed swilling from bottles of bubbly after winning a gold medal was typical of the organization's recent fecklessness. Gilbert Felli, the IOC's executive director for the Olympic Games, a man apparently devoid of humor except for the jokes he perpetrates unwittingly, said, it was "not what we want to see." He intoned, presumably between bites of scallops, "I don't think it's a good promotion of sport values," and promised, "We will investigate what happened."
It was another bold stroke in the emerging portrait of IOC leadership. The pattern is clear. We can count on the IOC to firmly tackle superficial issues. As for accountability on the meaningful ones, such as the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, killed on a training run on an unsafe track at nearly 90 mph, the IOC did not have "a responsibility in judicial terms," Rogge said, ever so carefully. Asked who was ultimately responsible for the fatal crash, Rogge said: "Everyone is responsible."
No. No, we're not. You are. Kumaritashvili's death requires a serious investigation, and it should include deep internal soul-searching by the IOC about its leadership. Are the Winter Games pushing athletes too far? How did the track get 20 mph faster between its design and construction? It was designed by the International Luge Federation and built to specifications by Vancouver organizers, neither of which has incentive to investigate itself, or to admit that athletes voiced serious fears and complaints about the course for a year. Oversight is surely the role of the IOC, especially when something goes wrong.
"The question is, at what point is it the responsibility of the IOC to check the work of the sports federations?" Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said. "I guess it's like any corporation that has subsidiaries. You trust them to do their job, but if they screw up, you're also responsible."
Clearly, the role of the IOC is increasingly complicated, given the enormous commercial growth of the Olympic movement. Since the last Olympics on Canadian soil at Calgary in 1988, the Winter Olympics have grown from 46 events to 86 -- and the IOC's obvious emphasis in the new events is on speed, and peril, in order to woo a younger audience that focus group surveys showed they were losing. Should they be icing alpine courses?
Troubling questions also plague the Summer Games, which have exploded to some 300 events involving 200 countries. With this growth come perils ranging from bribery to terrorism, some of them seemingly intractable. How to reconcile the musty old Olympic charter, with its emphasis on amateurism and so-called purity, with modern reality that hosting the Games can help break the bank of Greece? These aren't easy questions, and no one could blame Rogge and his colleagues if they have difficulty grappling with them.
But they don't even try. They abdicate, and that abdication has been a huge moral failure. It's a cold hard fact that the Olympics have become vehicles for evil, partly thanks to their scale. In 2007 and 2008, Human Rights Watch documented scores of human rights abuses directly linked to the Beijing Games. From forced evictions to the arrest of dissidents, the Olympics led to "an overall deterioration of human rights in China." The Olympics are leaving huge debts -- of all sorts -- in their wake. In some cases, they left men and women broken and in jail. For the moment, this is the IOC's real legacy.
A familiar refrain from Rogge and other IOC officials is that they cannot affect larger problems. This is dissembling. The IOC has shown that when it wants to, it can be proactive. For better or worse, it has been in the vanguard on sports doping, banning shot putters when Mark McGwire was still on the front of Wheaties boxes. It's surely not beyond the scope of the IOC to adopt, as Human Rights Watch suggests, a mechanism integrating human rights into the Olympic process. It would seem especially important to do so with problems likely to arise in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Games in the Caucasus, where journalists have been killed, and the Summer Games in Rio.
It shouldn't be to much for the IOC to demand that host countries sign contracts guaranteeing they won't perpetrate naked evils in the name of the Olympics, the charter of which insists on "human dignity."
If the Olympics aren't ruined yet, it's only because they are indestructible. Each quadrennial, the athletes deliver competitive masterpieces, spectacles so dazzling that we forget the problems that went into making them. In the end, that's what the Olympics are really about, and why "we can still feel good about them," observes Wallechinsky. But the danger is that under this IOC, they are turning into the ultimate political cover.