An insider’s look at the Olympics
There was plenty of rejoicing in the streets of Tokyo this week. The mood in Madrid and Istanbul, however, was much more restrained. The Japanese capital has been officially selected to be the host city for the 2020 Olympics despite some worries over the potential after-effects of the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis (Tokyo bid leader Tsunekazu Takeda insisted that radiation levels in Tokyo are comparable to those in London, New York and Paris). Japan’s relatively stable economy, coupled with concerns over how Turkey and Spain dealt with recent doping scandals, gave Tokyo the edge, says Chancellor Emeritus Richard Pound, a long-time member of the International Olympic Committee.
According to press accounts, Pound asked Madrid’s Olympic organizers some pointed questions about their country’s anti-doping efforts. He has made it clear that he wasn’t pleased with a Spanish judge’s ruling earlier this year to destroy 200 blood bags seized in a raid of a doping operation whose alleged clientele included top athletes. The judge cited privacy concerns.
The illicit use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) has been a longstanding concern for Pound, the former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency. He recently chaired a working group for WADA that issued a report this summer examining the progress that has been made in the pursuit of elite athletes who use PEDs. The report’s conclusions were grim. Though the number of drug tests being carried out has increased substantially since WADA was created in 1999, the number of positive results for PEDs remains strikingly low – less than one percent. In Pound’s view, that low number simply doesn’t correspond to the number of athletes who are using banned substances to improve their performance levels. He recently spoke to McGill News editor Daniel McCabe, BA’89 about his report and about recent Olympic news.
How did Tokyo win?
I think Tokyo covered all the bases in its presentation, conveyed its emotional attachment to the bid and had clear, positive and decisive answers to the questions posed. Madrid had an excellent presentation, but did not provide good answers to the questions on doping, and I think that may have cost it some support.
Each of the three cities in the running had their strong points. Istanbul was attractive. It has a long history as the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Madrid made a very interesting low cost proposal. They came on strong towards the end and turned it into a three horse race. These are difficult decisions to make and it’s often much closer at the end than the “experts” think. I remember for 2012, the pundits were all so certain that Paris was going to be chosen, the media flocked around the French contingent, then went racing towards the London representatives when London was announced as the winning city.
How are host cities selected for the Olympics?
It’s more of an art than a science. One of the first things to look for is whether or not the city has had some experience in running an international sporting event. [Prospective host cities] need to know what they’d be in for and what’s required. Cities have to have the proper facilities, the requirements for the media, hotel accommodations. Access to the country can’t be a problem. You want to know that the country is stable. You also want to know that they are, in fact, enthusiastic about hosting the Olympics and they would provide a welcoming environment.
One of the things that we try to do now is to have a preliminary triage near the beginning of the process, when cities first send in their expressions of interest. There are a lot of well-meaning places that just don’t have a hope because of some of the requirements I mentioned earlier. We try to identify those places early-on, so they don’t spend millions of dollars campaigning when there is no hope of winning.
What is some of the advice that the IOC gives to prospective host cities?
One of our concerns is that they don’t build white elephants – something that’s used for the two weeks of the Games, and then it’s an albatross thereafter. If you don’t need it afterwards, don’t build it. Don’t build a 250,000 seat stadium, especially if you already have a perfectly fine stadium that seats 75,000. Look for ways to get as much use out of what you already have in place. When you build something new, use it for more than one purpose.
For many host countries, it’s not a question of “How much will this cost me,” as it is “How can we use this opportunity to change the city for the better.” The Olympic Games can provide an opportunity to rethink your urban planning and infrastructure. A perfect example of that would be London. Londoners had been wondering about what they should do with the east end of the city since the Second World War. The east end witnessed an enormous transformation as a result of the London Games.
What kind of political impact can the Games have on a host country?
Going back to Moscow in 1980, the Soviet Union, at the time, rarely allowed foreign media into the country. I believe [the Olympics] changed the Soviet Union. It’s not unrelated that, nine years later, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded. Look at Seoul and South Korea. A military dictatorship there evolved into a full democracy at an almost revolutionary pace. The [Games] can have a huge impact. When you open yourself up to the international community in that way, it’s very hard to go back. It will take a while, I think, to fully appreciate the impact the Games had on China.
In the wake of Russia’s recent legislation against “gay propaganda,” some have called for a boycott against the Sochi Games.
Everyone I know thinks this particular law is particularly odious. But the people calling for boycotts tend to be comfortably sitting on their sofas, sipping their wine, as they enlist athletes, who dedicate years of training to these events, to be soldiers to their cause. I don’t think that’s fair. Human rights issues are definitely a factor when we look at potential host cities. We have evaluation commissions that look at [prospective host cities] with IOC members, athletes and independent experts, and they examine things like freedom of association for the athletes and freedom of the press. These are the things that we insist on. That said, if I was the chef de mission of Canada, I would sit down with my athletes and I would say, “You are going to be a guest of Russia for two weeks and while you’re there, you are subject to their laws.”
According to media reports, Russia has assured the IOC that gay athletes will not be discriminated against. Is the IOC confident that gay athletes will be treated respectfully during the Sochi Games?
Regarding your work on the recent report for WADA, who has the upper hand right now, drug cheats or the people trying to catch them?
Well, in a situation like that, the initial advantage always goes to the perpetrator, because they know what they’re planning right from the start. It’s like bank robbers and the police. The bank robber knows which bank he is going to rob and when he is going to rob it ahead of time, so the police are always at an initial disadvantage.
Still, all the necessary elements are in place for an effective system. We have WADA. We have the world anti-doping code. We have sophisticated labs that can detect even minute traces of doping substances. What we lack is the political will to really get this done.
What’s the biggest obstacle?
The frustrating element is that those in charge in individual countries have no real interest in catching anybody. There’s no incentive for Canada to catch Canadian athletes and that goes for every other country out there. The result is that everybody pretends they’re doing a good job, everybody talk about how robust the system is. People take refuge in the large number of tests that are being done, but the overwhelming number of those tests are not intended to catch anybody.
If I’m an athlete and I fail a test at a major competition, then I’m really failing two tests – a drug test and an IQ test. The people who use steroids or growth hormone, they time these things very carefully. They look at a calendar and they start planning backwards. They make sure everything is flushed out of their system before an event. We need a testing system that is 7/24/365 and that’s just not being done.
Right now, we have a self-assess system. One thing we can do is to give power to WADA, not just to monitor and report on how countries are complying, but to issue actual suspensions in cases where there is non-compliance. That’s one way to get the attention of governments.
Knowing what you know about the prevalence of PEDs, are you still able to take pleasure from watching sports events, or is there always a question in the back of your mind whenever you see an athlete do something remarkable?
I don’t watch the Tour de France anymore. I just don’t care. I rarely watch track and field events, except at the Olympics. When you see an exceptional performance, you can’t help but ask yourself, “I wonder if that was drug-assisted?” That’s the price that [the sports world] has paid for letting this get out of control.