LONDON – Jacques Rogge approached the job of running the Olympics the same way he approached his work as a physician: Listen, analyze and consult.
Before taking over as president of the International Olympic Committee, Rogge, whose death was announced Sunday, was an orthopedic surgeon who saw 5,000 patients and performed 800 operations a year at his medical practice in Ghent, Belgium.
Rogge’s medical background heavily influenced his leadership style during his 12-year reign in the most powerful post in international sports, bringing stability and a steady hand to the IOC after its worst ethics scandal. He also pursued a hard line against doping as IOC president.
While his predecessor, Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch, operated in an autocratic and secretive fashion, Rogge embraced a more open, democratic and collegial style. Measured and unpretentious, he described himself as a “sober” leader.
“In medicine, you first listen to your patient. You listen to what he has to tell you, then you do the examination, you analyze, then you make a diagnosis, then you come up with the treatment,” Rogge said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2002.
“I’m definitely a listener. I consult with people and try to make an analysis. I won’t do it alone. I’m a team worker.”
The IOC announced his death without giving details. Rogge’s health had visibly declined when he attended Olympic events since his presidency ended in 2013.
“First and foremost, Jacques loved sport and being with athletes – and he transmitted this passion to everyone who knew him,” Thomas Bach, Rogge’s successor as president, said in an IOC statement. “His joy in sport was infectious.”
A three-time Olympian in sailing, Rogge earned praise for his calm in the often turbulent world of Olympic politics but also faced outside criticism for not being tough enough on human rights issues with China and Russia.
He managed a steady growth in IOC revenues, even during the global economic crisis; made peace with the U.S. Olympic Committee after years of bitter squabbling over money-sharing; and – in what he considered his personal legacy – created the Youth Olympics.
Under Rogge’s watch, the IOC took the Olympics to new countries and continents – awarding the first Summer Games to South America (Rio de Janeiro in 2016) and the first Winter Games to Russia (Sochi 2014) and South Korea (Pyeongchang 2018).
“I hope that people, with time, will consider that I did a good job for the IOC,” the understated Rogge said in an interview with the AP before stepping down in 2013. “That’s what you legitimately want to be remembered for.”
Rogge was elected the IOC’s eighth president in Moscow on July 16, 2001, defeating four other candidates to succeed Samaranch, a former ambassador who ran the committee with an authoritarian and imperious style for 21 years. Rogge took office in the wake of the Salt Lake City corruption scandal, in which 10 IOC members resigned or were expelled for receiving scholarships, payments and lavish gifts during the Utah capital’s winning bid for the 2002 Winter Games.
Rogge enjoyed a “Mr. Clean” reputation and moved quickly to break with the IOC’s tainted and elitist image. Within hours of coming to power, he announced that he would stay in the athletes’ village rather than the IOC hotel during the Salt Lake Olympics. (He continued the practice at subsequent games, though he also would stay in the official hotel when he had important meetings).
“He was absolutely the right person at the right time,” Norwegian former IOC member Gerhard Heiberg said. “We had a lot of turmoil. We had to get out of that. We had to get another image. He brought stability to the organization.”
After serving an initial eight-year term, Rogge was re-elected unopposed in 2009 to a second and final four-year mandate. He stepped down in September 2013 in Buenos Aires, where German lawyer Bach was elected.
“I received an IOC in good shape from Samaranch,” Rogge said in an interview before handing over to Bach. “And I believe I will leave an IOC in good shape to my successor.”
Rogge spoke five languages, a big selling point in the multi-lingual IOC. His native tongue was Flemish or Dutch, but he also spoke French, English, Spanish and German.
Rogge presided over Summer Olympics in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012), and Winter Games in Salt Lake City (2002), Turin (2006) and Vancouver (2010).
Salt Lake City came just months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Rogge consulted with then-President George W. Bush about security measures for the games, which went off peacefully. Preparations for the Athens Games were dogged by chronic delays. Beijing was surrounded by controversy over China’s record on Tibet, human rights and press freedom.
Human rights groups accused Rogge and the IOC of failing to speak out against abuses in China and Russia. Rogge espoused “quiet diplomacy” and insisted repeatedly that the IOC was a sports organization, not a government or political body.
Rogge said the darkest moment of his presidency was the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed in a high-speed training crash hours before the 2010 opening ceremony in Vancouver.
While Samaranch and the IOC were criticized for a perceived laxness on performance-enhancing drugs, Rogge initiated a high-profile “zero tolerance” policy on doping. He doubled the number of drug tests at the Olympics to 5,000, instituted rigorous pre-games and out-of-competition checks and retested samples from previous games to catch cheaters retroactively.
Rogge’s views were not always well received: He was criticized as being out of touch when he chided Usain Bolt for showboating in Beijing and questioned whether the Jamaican sprinter was a “living legend” in London.
Rogge came under fire from Jewish groups for refusing to allow a moment of silence at the London opening ceremony to remember the 11 Israeli team members killed by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Munich Games. He did take part in special commemorations for the Israelis outside of the ceremonies.
Seeking to contain the size and cost of the Olympics, Rogge instituted a cap of 10,500 athletes and 28 sports for the Summer Games. Still, there were about 11,000 athletes and 33 sports at the Tokyo Olympics that closed this month.
He struggled with the thorny issue of cutting and adding sports. Softball and baseball were removed from the program after 2008, while golf and rugby were included for 2016. Wrestling was surprisingly dropped for 2020 in 2012 but was given a second chance and won back its place a year later.
Lamenting a rise in youth obesity and seeking to get young people off the couch, Rogge developed his pet project – the Youth Olympic Games. The event, for athletes aged 15 to 18, was designed to involve educational and cultural experiences as well as sports competition. The Summer Youth Games debuted in Singapore in 2010.
The IOC’s financial security strengthened under Rogge’s tenure. Revenues from global sponsors grew from $663 million in 2001-04 to nearly $1 billion for the four-year cycle through London. Television rights deals raised billions, including a $4.38 billion deal with NBC through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The IOC’s reserves rose from $100 million to $900 million over 10 years.
In a major breakthrough, Rogge signed a long-term revenue-sharing deal with the USOC in 2012. Tensions had festered for years over a previous deal that many Olympic officials felt gave the U.S. too big a slice of TV and sponsorship revenues.
Rogge’s health declined in the final years of his presidency. He underwent hip replacement surgery in September 2012 and looked a far cry from the youthful, robust man who came to power.
Rogge is survived by his wife, Anne, and their two adult children.
Rogge was born on May 2, 1942 in Ghent, a medieval Flemish harbor city. By the age of 3, he was accompanying his parents on sailing trips along Belgium’s North Sea coast.
He went on to compete in sailing’s Finn class in three Olympics – Mexico City 1968, Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976. He also played 10 years on Belgium’s national rugby team.
Rogge began his career in sports administration at the age of 34 as an athlete’s representative on Belgium’s national Olympic committee. As Belgium’s team leader for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, he resisted pressure to adhere to the U.S.-led boycott following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Belgian team went to Moscow and competed under the Olympic flag.
Rogge headed the Belgian Olympic Committee from 1989-1992 and was president of the European Olympic Committees from 1989-2001. He became an IOC member in 1991 and won praise for his role as chairman of the coordination commission for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Rogge was made a count by Belgium’s King Albert II in 2002 and received an honorary British knighthood in London in 2014.
The IOC said the Olympic flag will be flown at half staff for five days at Olympic House in Lausanne.
“Following a private family ceremony, a public memorial service will take place later in the year,” the IOC said, “where members and friends of the Olympic Movement will be able to remember his life and his great contribution to sport.”
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