The Olympics' Toughest Tests
Official sees drugs, commercialism, and sheer size and cost as the big issues for Barcelona
ON the wall of a smallish office here on the 39th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Montreal, framed mementos reflect Richard Pound's commitment to the Olympic ideal.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Set apart from the encroaching stacks of books, papers, and diplomas, they represent Mr. Pound's membership on the International Olympic Committee - and more than a decade of pondering how to promote and protect the greatest of all international sporting events.
As a builder of international unity, "I think they are underrated," says Pound of the Olympics, his large hands framing his thoughts as he speaks. "I think the Games make an astonishing contribution to international communication in a larger sense. And there isn't an event on the scale of the Olympics in any other field that actually works."
A former Canadian Olympic swimmer turned tax lawyer and partner in a high-powered law firm, Pound was a finalist in two Olympic swimming events in the 1960 Rome Games. Since 1978 he has been one of the most prominent and outspoken of the 90 IOC members around the world. Until last year he was vice president of the IOC's powerful 11-man executive board.
Known for his straight-from-the-shoulder observations, Pound says illicit drug use by athletes, the threat of commercialism, and the sheer size and cost of putting on the Games are among the big issues facing the Olympics as the Barcelona summer Games near - and on into the 21st century.
"The focus on the Olympic Games makes it possible for all sorts of things to happen on a political level," he says. "The democratization process in South Korea accelerated beyond all measure because of the Olympics. And the relations that the South Koreans were able to establish with communist countries after the Games could not have been possible without the Olympics."
But as Canada's best-known Olympic official, Pound has also thought plenty about the dark side of the Olympics, including the scandal and soul-searching that followed the 1988 100-meter-dash victory of Canadian Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his medal for using steroids.
"Twenty years from now we're going to look back and realize that Ben Johnson's abuse was cave-man stuff," Pound says. "The genetic engineering and blood-doping now available is scary. I don't think it just applies to sport; it applies to society as a whole. The medical profession is going to have to take a look at itself in terms of what it does. This [ethical self-examination] ought to be sport-driven" as much as by society overall.
About the impact of the Johnson episode on the Canadian Olympic movement, he is similarly blunt:
"It's a tremendous embarrassment to Canada, and it's had an effect over the last four years, because everyone spent a good deal of their time sitting around looking at their navels and not really getting on with the job of focusing on sport....
"Not that one shouldn't worry about it, but it's been ... four years. The result is that we will not be as far ahead in sport preparation for '92."
EVEN as the multibillion-dollar cost of holding the Olympics has steadily risen, so has the intricate, multimillion-dollar, multi-year process of wooing officials to gain the right to be the Games's host city.
"We're trying to cut down on the travel ... receptions, and shows, and things that they put on in exhibits that cost a fortune," Pound says.
"They used to send us these incredible books promoting a city where they'd spend $300,000, $400,000, or more on a book that's being read by 100 people. We just don't permit that anymore."
With so much money tied to the Games from the outset, and the cost of building the infrastructure to support them in the billions, Pound has been prominent among Olympic officials embra cing corporate sponsors as a way to defray costs.
McDonald's Inc., for example, paid to build a racing pool at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. A dozen companies are paying $170 million to sponsor the 1992 Winter and Summer Games. Television fees and other revenues have brought total 1992 income to about $2 billion.
"It has to be watched," Pound says of commercial sponsorship. "You have to watch it in the sense that people in business will get the most they can for the bucks they spend, which is fair enough. What we have to do is make sure that while we get the private sector involved, we don't let the private sector run the sports decisions that are involved."
Pound does not mind, for example, small logos on athletic garments representing a company's sponsorship of an athlete. But he remains adamant that certain advertising is out of bounds.
"I just don't think you should have to look against the background of a whole bunch of signs in order to find your athletes," he says of the suggestion by some that billboards be permitted to adorn stadium walls. "That's what separates the Olympics from everything else."