The International Olympic Committee, at a general meeting in Mexico last week, discussed a proposal to drop three sports — baseball, softball and the modern pentathlon — from the 2008 Beijing Games, but in the end decided to postpone a decision until after the 2004 Games take place in Athens. IOC members who attended the meeting expressed dissatisfaction, saying that not enough time had been spent on proper discussions. They insisted that the reasons for the proposal — for example, the popularity of those sports and the cost of building facilities — were too vague and abstract.
The IOC’s program committee only proposed dropping these sports in August, so its attempt to reach a conclusion in only three months was rather hasty. Because there was no serious questioning of the pros and cons of dropping those sports and in the end the matter was shelved, the leadership skills of IOC President Jacques Rogge have been called into question.
However, it is wrong to criticize Mr. Rogge for mismanagement simply on the basis of the outcome of this session. The Olympics are becoming bloated as the number of sports, events and participants continues to rise, and commercialism is now rampant. And then there is the logrolling displayed by IOC members, their lack of seriousness and the abominable scandal over the Salt Lake City bid.
Mr. Rogge was appointed IOC president in July 2001 with the mission of halting these trends and finding a new image for both the Games and for the IOC. But only a half a year later he seems to have stumbled. Inevitably comparisons are made with his predecessor, Mr. Juan Antonio Samaranch, who, with a long career in diplomacy, could skillfully lay groundwork and display forceful leadership. But no sports have been dropped from the Olympics since polo made its final appearance in Berlin in 1936.
Mr. Rogge is trying to break this taboo — something that his predecessor, who thought only of adding new sports, did not contemplate. If Mr. Rogge’s plan at the recent general meeting was to find a quick way to Olympic reform, the outcome was feeble. But his effort did yield fruit in the sense of pointing the way toward a downsizing of the Games. There was a counterproposal that baseball, which faced the prospect of being dropped altogether, should be greatly reduced in scale from 12 days to five. It was also suggested that baseball should share facilities with softball.
Apparently the proposal to reduce the scale of baseball also raises the possibility that U.S. Major League Baseball players would then be able to participate, as hoped for by the IOC. As for sharing facilities, this would have the merit of reducing the financial burden for hosts, who have to bear the enormous cost of new construction. This facility problem is a headache especially for countries where baseball is not a common sport.
Apart from the question of dropping certain sports, the program committee also proposed that some events be scaled down. A compromise was reached with the International Equestrian Federation, which suggested that the field for the combined equestrian event should be greatly reduced and the course shrunk to one-fifth its current size. The International Swimming Federation, meanwhile, vehemently opposed a proposal to abolish the synchronized-swimming team event, so although the proposal is scheduled to be discussed again in February 2003, its abolition will not be easy.
Rather than talking about the breakdown of negotiations, however, we really should be giving high marks to the progress, albeit small, that was made. In an extremely short time sports organizations have responded to serious questions. The general meeting decided to review Olympic sports and events every four years from now on. This should be viewed as a major step forward.
Mr. Rogge himself seems to have been a bit perplexed by the whole affair, and his policy of dropping some sports from the Games has become blurred. Maybe he was caught between an eagerness to promote reform on the one hand and intense lobbying by sports organizations on the other. The weakness of his support base within the IOC has been exposed. Most of the IOC members are also representatives of sports organizations, so it is not going to be easy wooing the opposition over to the reform camp.
Some IOC members who are disappointed in the president’s failure to display leadership may drift away from him. So the prospects for Mr. Rogge, a plastic surgeon and therefore an idealist by trade, appear rather bleak. To ensure that the drive toward reform does not end in empty talk, he must reorganize his position and try again.
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