No Youth Olympic Games, says Richard Pound: “It’s a very nice holiday for some very nice kids, but it adds nothing to the international sports structure”

In the second and final part of the Canadian’s interview with Around the Rings, the former WADA president recalls how Juan Antonio Samaranch cheated North Korea and how overnight he had to learn the business of television.

FILE PHOTO: International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Dick Pound, poses in his offices in Montreal, Quebec, Canada February 26, 2020.  REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Dick Pound, poses in his offices in Montreal, Quebec, Canada February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/File Photo

When Juan Antonio Samaranch decided to end 21 years as head of the International Olympic Committee, Richard Pound thought his time had come. Not so, the members elected Jacques Rogge. But the Canadian does not hesitate to say what would be different today if he had won the presidency: the Youth Games would not exist.

“There would be no Youth Olympic Games, nothing like that”, Pound said during an interview with Around the Rings in which he talked about how he believes the IOC should function today and recalled the years when, side by side with Samaranch, they changed the history of the Olympic body.

Pound, who turns 80 in March, will be required by IOC statutes to retire in December 2022 after 44 years as a member of the IOC.

- What are you going to miss from the IOC?

- Well, it’s been a fascinating experience, and I’ve been lucky to have been there for 40 some odd years. When I joined, we had no money, I had to pay my way in meetings, hotels, we even had to pay a subscription to support a small staff. And to see that develop – when I got involved I was in America, I’m a lawyer and an accountant – and I was involved in television and then marketing. I remember the phone rang and Samaranch saying “Dick, listen you are now chairman of the television negotiations.” “I don’t know anything about television negotiations”. He said “none of us do. But it’s going to be our biggest task.”

- Do you remember what day, what year was that?

- This would have been in 1983.

- So you were candid, you said “I don’t know anything about this.”

- Entirely candid. And about a year later, another phone call and Samaranch said “Dick, you are now the chairman of the Marketing Commission.” I said I don’t know anything about marketing, I’m a tax lawyer. Since we had all of our eggs in the television basket... And at that time if we have 95% of our income coming from television, 95% of that 95% comes from one country and it’s the country that tried to ruin the Moscow Games. So we need to diversify. The learning curve went very steeply both for television and for marketing, and it was fun, we were creating... We actually developed and invented the Olympic flag because we needed it with sponsors. They weren’t sure what it was they were buying. They were excited, but they didn’t know what it was and I said, well, these are the values that you’re buying into, and most of those are our values in your corporation.

- Like the five rings, I mean you kind of enhanced them.

- We said: the public is not going to accept just slapping five rings on things and then buying it. If you make it clear in your marketing that you’re helping athletes prepare for the Games, you’re helping organize the Games and you use the Olympic symbols, the consuming public will accept that. And we found the real values that made people interested were not world records, not Olympic champions, but this youth we see peacefully as aspirational, the softer values. We said: “this is what you’re buying into”, and we have a fantastic photographic record since 1896 of official films, television of previous Games, and you can use that imagery to develop the promotional programs for your products. If you’re promoting things on Visa or Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, who is supporting the Olympics, we benefit from that. So the Olympic brand grows and grows and grows, and that’s why the television revenues went up, it’s why the TOP [sponsors] program now is several billion dollars over each quadrennial. Getting money down to the smaller NOCs and supporting the international sport systems, supporting the Games themselves.

- And you have now OBS and the Olympic Channel...

- OBS was the final step in the evolution, which is how do we make sure that what NBC pays with television rights is worth all that money? And it’s worth all that money if the production is first class. If we can help NBC and the other broadcasters reduce their expenses... because the calculus for television rates, for example, is really quite simple. Advertising revenue, that’s the mission. You have a cost of production and you have profit, and the lower your cost of production is, the more you can afford to spend on the rights fees. So it’s a win-win.

- You’re kind of helping yourself.

- Yes, helping ourselves by helping the broadcasters and helping promote.

- So that was the system back then. You received a call from Samaranch and something new happened?

- Well he got elected on three things in Moscow. He first said “we’ve got to make the Olympics as universal as possible”, so it means you’ve got to get the Sri Lankas and you’ve got to get the East Timors, you need every country, not just the big ones. Number two: we saw in Moscow that if the Olympics came together, it could resist all of these government pressures to move the Games, to cancel the Games. We held the Games then because we stuck together. And the third thing, he says we have to become financially independent. If we depend on the governments for our money, there’s nothing we can do. So the television was one of them, and the marketing was another. This is how we developed our own financial independence. And that’s grown and grown, to the point now where a big percentage of the international federations depend on the IOC television revenues for their existence. It’s not entirely a healthy position, but the IOC went from having zero influence on many things to having quite a lot of influence now, simply because we have money.

- You just said that when you started as an IOC member, you had to kind of finance yourself. Can you enter into some details? Because there might be some new IOC members that are not aware at all about how it was. So how was it?

- Well, it was a mixed blessing. I was a young lawyer who was 36 years old, I didn’t have a lot of money. That’s why there were lots of millionaires and royal families involved in the early stages of the IOC. And it wasn’t until, I think it was the television rights from Moscow, which NBC actually paid for even though they weren’t able to broadcast the Games. That enabled us for the first time to pay the travel expenses of the IOC members. And we had the Congress in 1980, that was Samaranch’s first experience with winning this vote. And the 1981 Congress in Baden-Baden was a very good one, organized well in Germany. That was actually a residue, a legacy, something from the Munich Games, which had been very, very well-organized. It set the scale, there were really no significant changes between Munich and Montreal. And then we had Moscow, which was going to be different anyway, and then followed by the Los Angeles Games, at which point the revenues through the understanding of the Olympic brand grew.

Juan Antonio Samaranch at the IOC session in Copenhagen, 2009
Juan Antonio Samaranch at the IOC session in Copenhagen, 2009

- And the boycotts era coming to its end

- The impact of boycotts was diminished. Boycotts in Montreal, Moscow, the retaliatory boycott was not very successful in 1984. And then in 1988 Samaranch stepped over, so after Los Angeles he said to the Koreans, “let me run that. We’ll pretend this is just a discussion between the IOC and the two National Olympic committees in the Koreas”. Everybody knew it was entirely different. Much, much more serious, but the South Koreans agreed to let Samaranch run it and he said “I guarantee you, there will be no Games in Pyongyang. But it’s important for the so-called ‘nonaligned countries’ that we are paying attention to the concerns of their group, and so we’re entertaining discussions with the DPRK.” And then they did it. As only can happen in these dictatorships, they did it. Instead of saying “Games in Korea are terrible, terrible, terrible”, no, “Games in Korea are good, but they must be shared and we in the DPRK will take the opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies, track and field, swimming, gymnastics. You and Korea are going to have archery”.

- Amazing.

- So we said well, that’s not possible, but let’s talk. And Samaranch kept them talking, talking, talking, never closed the door up to the opening ceremony through the Games, never closed the door. And so in Seoul the only two countries of any importance that did not participate were DPRK and Cuba. And that’s because the Russians had stopped funding Cuba, and the DPRK was funding Cuba. So, you know, if the person who’s paying all your bills says don’t go, Cuba didn’t go. t’s been an evolutionary political scaling. All of a sudden, governments were saying “they managed that pretty well. They were able to do something that we were not even able to do. Like the two Chinas. The IOC managed to keep both Chinas in two separate Olympic teams. Politicians could never do it. So over time, there’s been a recognition that the IOC is not entirely stupid.

- There’s been some talk about a joint bid from both Koreas. Then it faded. Do you really think it’s possible for 2036, for instance?

- Hard to say, I mean there are long periods of gradual warming with relations, then they go cold again, which they did very recently. But now all of a sudden, they’ve decided to talk again. I’m not sure how much enthusiasm there really is between the two Koreas to get together. Not unlike Germany, when the DDR and the Federal Republic started, a certain Federal Republic realized how much it’s going to cost to reintegrate the DDR into Germany. But they agreed to go ahead with it and you know maybe at some point that would happen in Korea. Problem is, all the traditional values in Korea remain in the North, the cultural values and so on. All of the economic wealth is in the South. It would be a very difficult negotiation.

Florence Griffith-Joyner of the United States celebrates winning gold in the Women's 100 metres final event during the XXIV Summer Olympic Games on 25 September 1988 at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea.  (Photo by Russell Cheyne/Allsport/Getty Images)
Florence Griffith-Joyner of the United States celebrates winning gold in the Women's 100 metres final event during the XXIV Summer Olympic Games on 25 September 1988 at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Russell Cheyne/Allsport/Getty Images)

- It will be. I just asked you what you will miss from the IOC. What won’t you miss?

- Generally, I’ve enjoyed it all. I mean, it’s been an education and I’ve had interesting things to do. Almost all of it has been fun. I mean, it was not fun, the Salt Lake investigation of colleagues, not fun, but it was absolutely necessary, and it had to be done. Or otherwise, the IOC was existentially threatened. Building the marketing, building the television, I was involved in the early days of our environmental concerns. We had a Prime Minister in Canada who said “you can’t have a foreign policy unless you have a domestic policy”. So I said “we can’t have an environmental policy unless we have our own and then we can talk about international ones”. What else? WADA was fun.

- Yeah, but interesting, right?

- Very interesting and building and starting from zero to build up an international organization of both public authorities and the sport movement was a great challenge. The development of a single set of rules that apply to all countries, all athletes, all the sports world, in an anti-doping code. Making that happen was fun. Meeting people from all over the world – if you’re a tax lawyer in Montreal, it’s not much of an international platform, so I had a lot of fun.

- You wanted to be the IOC President. Are you relieved you haven’t?

- In some respects, yes. Immediately I’m sure it would have killed my marriage and standing.

- Yeah, you’re certain?

- My wife has her own... she didn’t want to come live in the Lausanne Palace hotel because if you’re the IOC President you’re either in Lausanne, or you’re on an airplane. And that’s not good for family life, so... I was disappointed because I thought I was the best. I knew more about all of the issues than any of the other candidates. I was disappointed to come third.

- After the Korean.

- Finishing after the Korean, I didn’t like that very much, but you know, there’s only been one non-European President in the history of the IOC, as you know, a brief period of Avery Brundage. So I was realistic about that aspect. Jacques Rogge asked me to stay on with WADA, I said “OK, I’ll stay on with WADA, but only on condition that I get 110% support from you”. He said “you’ve got that”.

- And you had it?

- I had it, it was good, they did not interfere and supported me.

- Had you been IOC President, would the IOC look different in some very important aspects today?

- Oh, for sure.

- What, for instance?

- There would be no Youth Olympic Games, nothing like that.

- There would not be? You don’t like them?

- I think, when we put it all together, it’s a very nice holiday for some very nice kids, but it adds nothing to the international sports structure. Because it was supposed to be the IOC’s answer to the couch potato. And I said in order to be eligible for the Youth Olympic Games, you have to be part of the sports federation. How does that get one couch potato off the couch? It’s fairly expensive. It’s fun, but...

- You’ve been to the last one in Buenos Aires?

- I went to Buenos Aires, I’ve only been to two, I went to Nanjing. And we were giving them all to big cities; Singapore, Nanjing, Buenos Aires. These should have been cities of maybe a few hundred thousand people.

- Smaller than Brisbane, even?

- Smaller than Brisbane.

- What else would have been different with you in the presidency?

- I would have tried to involve the Vice Presidents more, and not have everything... The nature of the IOC is they’ve got what, 150 members, 200 countries, meeting once a year, maybe twice if you’re on a commission. In business, with the range of activities, it’s not possible for ordinary IOC members to make a meaningful contribution to the development of policy, or even consider policy once somebody has done a draft of it. And we have a very, very capable administration, it’s not like the days of the president and a couple of secretaries. So it’s too big an operation for individual members to have a meaningful policy role. What we need to do as IOC members, if you take it as a corporate type of model, is to pick the right President, pick the right people who will be the government for the IOC on the Executive Board, to pick where we have the Games, to pick which sports will be on the program. That’s what you need the IOC members for and you need to have people with some understanding of the range of the activities we do and the economic and political ramifications of what we do. So it’s quite a different organization from what it was in 1896, from what it was in 1978 when I joined, to what it is in 2021, now.