Strong and courageous helmsmen

Baron Pierre de Coubert in, who revived the Modern Games.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

It was not easy for his successors to fulfil the dreams of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. But they have done so, without marring the image of the unrivalled sporting extravaganza, the Olympics, for over a century. A handful of them, however, have done remarkably well and continue to do so against seemingly insurmountable odds, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Leadership — dedicated, determined and dynamic — is the sine qua non for a movement to court success. The Olympic Movement provides quite a few fine examples.

Blessed by the benign presence of the erudite and exemplary man of sense and sensitivity, Baron Pierre Coubertin, who led the Olympic Movement from 1896 to1925, the Olympic Games, have weathered manifold challenges to be what they are today.

It was not easy for his successors to fulfil the dreams of the Baron. But they have done so without marring the image of the unrivalled sporting extravaganza for over a century. A handful of them, however, have done remarkably well and continue to do so against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Serenity and experiments marked the progress of the Games until the 30s. Strains, if any, were not threatening to cut the fabric of Olympism. There were irritants. But the evolution was transparent, without rancour and recrimination.

When the Baron stepped down in 1925 he was confident that the movement had been left in safe hands. It looked so till 1936 when the persona of Hitler threatened to alter the very basis of Olympic ideals. But Hitler was frustrated by his failure to introduce his racist agenda.

The aftermath of the war signalled a more stressful phase. The effects of the Cold War began to be felt. Signs of sport getting enmeshed in politics loomed large in the 50s when the Soviet Union entered the scene in 1952 at Helsinki.

That period needed a dynamic, no-nonsense man at the helm. It found one in the US millionaire, Avery Brundage (1952-1972). For two decades, the Detroit-born Engineering graduate from Illinois and a famous art collector, was a bastion in protecting the virtues of amateurism.

Brundage faced quite a few challenges but handled them with firmness, including the macabre massacre of the Israeli sportsmen at Munich in 1972.

In his last days as President, he was to confront that political challenge. He and the new incumbent, Lord Killanin, ensured that the Games were not disrupted. After a memorial service they let the Games resume and showed to the world the triumphant spirit of sport.

Brundage — till now the only American to head the IOC — was determined not to allow any form of political messaging through the Games. He suspended, as President of USOC, the three athletes for the black salute at the Mexico Games in 1968.

The turbulence in the world of sport had not abated a bit when Brundage handed over the baton to Lord Killanin (1972-1980) an Irish peer who was a multifaceted personality — a journalist, film-maker and a committed administrator.

During his tenure the Olympic Movement passed through a very difficult phase. Within a few days after his election, Lord Killanin had to face the pressure of the Munich disaster. His first encounter with crisis came when Denver pulled out from staging the 1976 Winter Games. He also had to deal with the financial mess of the Summer Games in 1976 in Montreal.

Avery Brundage (right) and Lord Killanin successfully steered the Olympic movement through choppy waters.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The boycott by the African nations was another moment of stress in 1976. Lord Killanin managed to steer the movement through all this without much damage. But the biggest crisis that Killanin was forced to encounter stemmed from the US-sponsored boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980.

These disastrous events, however, did not distort Killanin’s faith in the movement. But they came in the way of implementing a lot of planned reforms. He endeavoured to bring China back into the fold and was passionately involved in fighting the scourge of drugs. He termed dopers as “chemical athletes.”

No leader of the Olympic Movement enjoyed as much attention and clout as Juan Antonio Samaranch (1980-2001). Perceived as autocratic and authoritarian, Samaranch took the mantle in 1980 from Lord Killanin. For well over two decades, Samaranch headed the IOC earning bouquets and brickbats across the spectrum.

Accused for his association with the dictator General Franco in Spain, Samaranch worked his way up through the hierarchy to become the Ambassador in Moscow during the boycott. His rapport with IOC delegates ensured his victory. But even his nuanced diplomacy failed to avert the Eastern bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics.

Samaranch succeeded in liberating the Games from the narrow confines of amateurism, His biggest achievement, if it can be described as one, is the opening of the commercial route to the Games by way of sponsorship deals. He facilitated the famous TV deal with NBC besides expanding the areas of sponsorship to make IOC a financial giant.

He visited practically every member country, rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty. He was also instrumental in bridging the political divide by bringing all the countries into the Games in 1988 at Seoul.

For all his progressive measures, Samaranch had to face the criticism of encouraging, or remaining oblivious to, corruption in the bidding by the candidate cities and his manoeuvres and methods to hold on to office.

The current incumbent, Jacques Rogge, (2001) from Ghent (Belgium), is a triple Olympian (1964, 68, 72) in Yachting. A suave and successful orthopaedic surgeon, Rogge is in his second term.

Rogge is a strong crusader against gigantism and strives towards achieving a compact Olympics.

A true sportsman with his background as an Olympian contributing a lot, Rogge won the admiration of one and all by staying in the Olympic Village during the Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002.

Last year, Rogge was named by Forbes Magazine as one among the most powerful people in the world. What further pressures the movement will be subjected to is a million-dollar question.