The Callum Murray Interview - Dick Pound
There are those that think Dick Pound is the best president the IOC never had. He talks to Sportcal Insight about LA and Paris, the IOC’s precarious reputation and the future of anti-doping. Author
12th July 2017, 15:36

“I’m regarded by the IOC’s inner circle as a dangerous nuisance and by the silent majority as a person prepared to push the executive board when necessary,” says the International Olympic Committee’s longest-serving member - its 'doyen', as he is now called.

Elected in 1978 at the age of just 36, Canada’s Dick Pound has never been afraid to speak his mind, a trait that probably cost him the presidency of the organisation, when he was beaten to the top job in 2001 by Belgium’s Jacques Rogge, regarded in hindsight (and perhaps even then) as a continuity or stability candidate after the barnstorming, sometimes controversial, reign of Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Pound is famously seen, at least by journalists, as the journalist’s friend because of his tendency always to tell it like it is, regardless of the consequences. Does this mean he’s viewed as a traitor by his peers, I ask? “Not a traitor,” he says carefully. “There’s some culture in North America [of giving a straight answer to a straight question] and they’re not used to this in other societies, and you’d [journalists] get nothing out of it.”

Then expanding on why he never shirks a difficult question, Pound (who was twice an IOC executive board member and twice a vice-president, but is currently neither), says: “The executive board has got to the point where everything is unanimous. Nothing makes me more nervous than a stream of unanimous decisions. Samaranch used to encourage discussion, which he saw as wide-ranging, fulsome, healthy. He would say we’re not in a hurry. The only time the IOC tends to make mistakes is when it acts too quickly.”

Is this a criticism of the incumbent president Thomas Bach? It certainly sounds like it.

So would Pound describe himself as the conscience of the IOC, I ask? “That would be presumptuous,” he replies. “I would like it to work because its potential is so enormous and it makes me wonder how other people don’t see it.”

We’re speaking ahead of this week’s extraordinary session of the IOC in Lausanne, at which the IOC decides to proceed with the radical course set by the executive board of awarding both the 2024 and 2028 Olympics simultaneously to Paris and Los Angeles, though not necessarily in that order, at the (scheduled) session in Lima in September.

IOC president Thomas Bach with French president Emmanuel Macron ahead of the IOC Session

Pound has strong opinions on the plan (he has strong opinions on most things). “It can be a good idea, if we get it right,” he says. “If candidates can agree on the order, that’s perfect. Next best is if each declares itself neutral: if they don’t win one [edition], they’ll be happy to take the other. If not, if it’s ‘arranged’ in some sort of way, the risk is that someone says they’re only in it for 2024 and will think about 2028, but not commit – that’s a disaster of our own creation.”

Publicly, both LA and Paris have stuck to the line that their bids are for 2024 and that that edition is the only one they’re considering. So how can the issue be resolved if a deadlock emerges over which city hosts which games? “I don’t know the answer to that,” Pound says. “I would have thought the LA bid is more robust in the sense that it can be held together for four years. I’m not sure that is the case with Paris.”

As everyone knows, the IOC is facing a crisis of confidence among potential host cities over the costs versus the benefits of hosting the Olympics. This is not helped by the much-reported figure of $51 billion that is alleged to have been spent on hosting the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, and by the economic crisis in Brazil that overtook Rio de Janeiro’s hosting of last year’s games, leaving behind damaging images of empty and already-decaying facilities.

“I think we’ve got to put Sochi and Rio in the rear-view mirror,” Pound says. “Each was special for different reasons. With Sochi, the price tag was a long-term play that the Russian government made to create a winter sports centre in the Sochi area. That’s the way it was presented to us [at the IOC Session at which Sochi was selected to host the games] in Guatemala in 2007. Putin himself came and said, ‘We’re an important winter sports country but we have no facilities. We have to start from scratch. I’m prepared to do that but I need the excuse of having the games’.

“But we didn’t get the story out. It was the typical IOC thing of only reacting [not acting] – then the thing went viral. With Brazil, when we pulled the trigger, it was on a huge economic upward curve, with all the experts predicting it would be the fifth-largest economy in the world by 2016. Then oil prices went down and it got into a chronic cycle.”

If this works it gives us an eight-year period during which we can fix, improve or evolve the process of awarding the games  

So even if agreement is reached with LA and Paris over which city hosts which games, how will this solve the IOC’s long-term problem of attracting bidders for future games, I ask? “If this works it gives us an eight-year period during which we can fix, improve or evolve the process of awarding the games,” Pound replies. “The tendency has been to wait to see what bids come in, not go out and recruit. To encourage a bid, we need to do a bespoke approach to it. Eight years? I hope it wouldn’t take that long. We would have a winter bid coming up [for the 2026 games] as it is.”

To attract more bidders in future, Pound says, “we have to make sure it’s understood that the Olympics is not an event designed in Lausanne - that that is the only model that can be considered, and so you end up with all kind of demands and requirements that are probably way beyond the pale and probably unnecessary, and in most cases almost certainly unenforceable.

“Samaranch used to say there’s a ‘yes, yes, yes’ period until the games are awarded, then all the yeses turned to nos. The IOC is not very good about explaining the host city contract, which is a pretty daunting brick. It’s not good at saying why it is that this or that provision’s in there.”

Nevertheless, Pound isn’t asking for a really radical solution to hosting the games, such as the IOC taking full control of them and staging them in a location of its own choosing, perhaps one that that it actually owns itself. “I would not favour that,” he says. “The phenomenon of the Olympic Games in an inchoate world is that everybody wants to be part of it and countries like to aspire to hosting it. It’s not bad, going to [relatively small economies like] Greece and Australia, and it can also be done for the winter games, which is a smaller operation. I like the idea of moving around; how to select and cull candidacies is something we have to get better at doing.”

Bach with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti

I’m curious as to how Pound, whom probably even his enemies would describe as a man of principle, regards the present slump in the reputation of the IOC and the games. There are plenty of people who think that all IOC members are over-entitled and complacent, if not actually corrupt, while (at least in the many parts of the world where soccer is king), the games are often seen as at best irrelevant. What can the IOC do to reverse this trend?

“It’s a good question,” says Pound. “I think there’s certainly a sense that the IOC’s reputation has slipped. The shit surrounding Fifa spreads and people think all sports organisations are poorly governed. We came very close to the brink in 1999 [with the Salt Lake City bribery scandal]. It’s only because we responded quickly that we emerged from that. If you asked most knowledgeable observers about IOC governance, they would say it’s straight.”

Yes, but why do there always seem to be IOC members involved in some kind of corruption scandal, such as, at present, Frankie Fredericks (linked to allegations of vote-buying in relation to Rio’s bid to host the games) and Pat Hickey (involved in an alleged ticketing conspiracy at the same games)?

“It’s embarrassing when colleagues are in situations like that,” Pound admits. “I appreciate justice has to play itself out, but in the meantime mud sticks and it affects the organisation as a whole. Every time this happens it affects all of sport. It’s discouraging.” Yet we should not fall into the trap of assuming that all IOC members are “like that,” he insists, adding: “That’s a very easy syndrome. It’s much easier to be negative than positive.”

I can see why football fans would not be turned on by the Olympics because they’re not getting the best athletes  

As for soccer fans, Pound says it’s no wonder they regard the Olympics as irrelevant given the quality of the Olympic soccer competition on offer (essentially an under-23s, not an elite, tournament): “I can see why football fans would not be turned on by the Olympics because they’re not getting the best athletes,” he says. “If I’d ever become king of the mountain I’d have had a conversation with Fifa to say: ‘Either let the best athletes compete or explain to football fans why it’s in the Olympics’.”

So, given that the best athletes don’t compete, should it be dropped from the games? “Yes, the question certainly bears asking,” Pound replies. “And if you’re trying to limit the numbers [the IOC is embroiled in a long-term effort to halt the Olympics’ tendency towards gigantism], it’s an obvious source of extra beds. But my preferred outcome is that it would be there.”

This is the first of several ‘If I ruled the world’-type remarks that suggest that Pound thinks he could have done a better job than some of the IOC presidents whose reigns he has observed (he was appointed by Lord Killanin and served under Samaranch - the most successful president ever, he says -  plus Rogge and now Bach.

How would the IOC have been different had he, not Rogge, been elected in 2001, I ask? “I would have involved more people in decisions, that was really strong under Samaranch,” he says. “Jacques said, ‘I’ll work with anyone you elect’, as opposed to Samaranch who said, ‘there are some people I have to have on the executive board’.

So does he still regret not having been elected? “Yes and no,” he says. “It would have ruined my career [he’s a partner in a Montreal law firm] and probably my family life and it would have taken me out of a lot of things I like to do: a happy marriage, McGill University [where he was chancellor for 1999 to 2009].”

Besides, he says, “I would be a hard person to elect. There are too many parts of too many anatomies I’m not prepared to kiss. I didn’t schmooze with the members.”

The late Juan Antonio Samaranch with Jacques Rogge, who beat Pound to the IOC presidency

But we’re not here to talk about the past. I want to get his take on the present and future of the IOC and the Olympics. The games, he says, need “more promotion of the [Olympic] values. The Olympic Channel concept is good in that sense, if properly executed. Part of the problem is not seeing Olympic athletes, day after day, week after week. You’ve got to make that special, aspirational, to make people think: ‘One of the things I would really like to do is represent my country at the Olympic Games’. There’s nothing like it.

“There are evolving tastes in sport, but you have to be careful about not overreacting. Today’s little dears have the attention span of a fruit fly. You don’t want the Olympic Games to turn out to be like a circus. We’ve probably gone as far as we should [on the road towards introducing new sports to the programme]. What is the matter with running fast or swimming fast, if you can generate the interest? The problem is there’s no one out there doing the work. It’s like Steve Jobs said: ‘What do I care what the public thinks? We haven’t yet told them what they want’.”

Pound, who was responsible for negotiating some of the IOC’s biggest TV deals in the past, is now on the board of the Olympic Channel, launched by the IOC after the Rio Olympics last year. The problem with the channel is that, so far, it’s all costs and it’s unclear where the revenues will come from, I suggest. “Yes, we’ve got the cost model pretty well figured,” Pound says with a laugh. “The advantage is that it keeps our presence out there in two-minute soundbites or whatever it is these folks absorb. That’s the upside. It seems to resonate with the sponsors as well. Monetising all of these things is something everyone’s trying to figure out.”

One nightmare scenario that some doomsayers envisage is that the value of the IOC’s TV rights, by far its biggest source of income, goes into a steep decline as the ‘little dears’ referred to by Pound find other, more instant and often free, ways of consuming sport. Pound says: “We’re going to have to go up to 10,000 metres to take a look. What is this ball of Jell-O we’re trying to hold together? It’s certainly a possibility, to which we should be attuned. It hasn’t happened so far.”

Pound believes that there are lessons to be learned from the early blockbuster TV deals negotiated by him and others with broadcasters such as NBC in USA. “One is that you’re not dealing with a commodity; you’re dealing with partners and people,” he says. “The reasons we were so successful in that period when the IOC was taking over the negotiations [from the local organising committees] was the relationships. They had confidence we would perform in good faith. With the first multi-games deal with NBC in the mid-90s, we said to NBC, ‘We don’t know what the TV world will be in 2008; we have to do a contract that recognises there might be cataclysmic change in the industry, but you’re our partner and we’ll work in good faith to adjust it’. That change was the internet.

“[At the IOC] they liked the idea of the money and they thought all you had to do was shake a tree and it would fall. But if you’re going to get real value, and get it off a charitable basis, you have to show a return on investment. They [broadcasters] have to understand what it is. It also took a long time for sponsors to articulate the value package when linked to Olympics. Why is this good for Coke, for Visa? It took a lot of education, but once we got them we’ve had an astonishing record of keeping them.”

Not being elected IOC president meant that Pound could accept the job of becoming the first chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency between 1999 and 2007, which, he claims, has made “a huge amount of progress” in the fight against doping.

Yet, the worldwide anti-doping movement is in crisis, many observers would say. “The system we’ve put together is actually pretty good,” Pound, who remains the IOC representative on WADA’s foundation board, counters. “The problem is the people. People don’t want that system to work, so they won’t buy into it. It’s not helped by the Russian investigations [over the last couple of years into an alleged massive, state-supported doping conspiracy there]. There’s no doubt whatsoever about what we found, but there’s a surprising reluctance on the part of the IOC to respond. Here we are perilously close to PyeongChang [the winter Olympics in February next year] and we haven’t even got Sochi sorted out.”

You can’t cure an alcoholic unless the alcoholic acknowledges the problem, and they [the Russian authorities] have not done that  

Pound has been outspoken in his criticism of the pace of reform of the Russian anti-doping system, following the scandal. So should the IOC ban the Russian team in its entirety from competing in PyeongChang? His answer is unequivocal. “You can’t cure an alcoholic unless the alcoholic acknowledges the problem, and they [the Russian authorities] have not done that. I think they’re a long way from getting reaccredited, and I don’t know what the IOC thinks it will learn in Lima [when a decision is expected to be taken].”

The IOC controversially handed over the decision on which Russian athletes were eligible to compete at Rio 2016 to the international federations concerned, in defiance of a WADA recommendation that the entire Russian team should be banned, and Pound adds: “That’s the recommendation that WADA made for Rio and I don’t think there’s been enough change. What brings about change in conduct is consequences, and there have been no consequences for Russia so far. If we start losing the confidence of athletes in the willingness of WADA to stand up for their rights, it’s a serious blow.”

The doping scandal has created friction between the IOC and WADA, with each criticising the other’s response to the issues it has raised. WADA has come under fire over alleged conflicts of interest, given that its board members represent a variety of sporting or geographical interests. “The IOC launched attacks on WADA, but it’s not a governance or conflict of interest issue at all,” Pound argues. “The way it’s marketed as a conflict of interest is that the people promoting sport can’t be the same as the people enforcing the rules. I never understood that. If you’re selling honest, clean sport, it’s up to you to deliver what you’ve promised. To allow that to get bifurcated so that promoters have no responsibility for what they’re selling is insane.”

Some of WADA’s bitterest critics come from the ranks of the international federations, which are at the sharp end of testing (and paying for testing) athletes, but Pound gives them short shrift, saying: “It’s because WADA is after them to fix their problems, and they don’t want to do that. If you want to find out where the problems are, see who’s attacking WADA.”

Bach has proposed setting up a global independent doping testing authority, but Pound says, “That’s silly. You’re getting further and further away from sport taking responsibility for anti-doping. Why the IOC doesn’t want to declare anyone guilty of doping but to push it off to CAS [the Court of Arbitration for Sport]... Why do we not want to take our responsibilities seriously?”

Following in the footsteps of Craig Reedie, the incumbent WADA chair, Nicole Sapstead, the chief of UK Anti-Doping, this week called for Olympic sponsors and broadcasters to contribute to the costs of anti-doping. But in another of those, ‘If I ruled the world’ statements, Pound goes much further, saying: “What I would have done ages ago is get all the broadcasters and sponsors and people of that ilk together and said: ‘We’re concerned that you might not think we’re delivering what we’re supposed to. How much of your rights fee do you believe is required to ensure doping-free and corruption-free sport?’

“You can’t ‘tax’ commercial sponsors, but they could say, ‘we’re not satisfied that you’re delivering and we think that 10 per cent should go into delivering what you promised, and if you don’t do that we’re going to re-think’. If I were responsible for the IOC I would already have had that summit. What are we missing here and how do we solve it? If we deliver what we say, that’s a huge contribution to sport, but if not and we’re turning people off, that’s a very serious thing and it’s our responsibility to solve it, not to contract it out.”

There’s a whole bunch of people out there attempting to deliberately cheat and in the process screwing clean athletes. That’s a fight, not a persuasion  

Returning to the concept of the independent testing authority, Pound is naturally lukewarm, given that he rejects the allegations of a conflict of interest in the first place, but does concede: “Maybe an independent testing authority can be made to work, if it’s just a variation of [WADA’s existing] compliance review committee. I don’t think it’s necessary, but if that’s going to make people think we’re doing better, let’s try it. I know this is a fight. It’s not going to go away by everyone going ‘om’ [he mimics a Buddhist chant]. There’s a whole bunch of people out there attempting to deliberately cheat and in the process screwing clean athletes. That’s a fight, not a persuasion.”

The dispute over the future path of the anti-doping movement over the last year or so has threatened to drive a wedge between WADA and sport more widely, and Pound argues: “If the sport movement brings down the agency it created to be independent, that is a massive failure on the part of sport. WADA is doing exactly what it was supposed to do. It’s taken a lot of time for WADA to acquire the necessary powers. Until 2015 it couldn’t even investigate, and that’s because the stakeholders didn’t want that. I think the threat can be addressed by backing off and letting WADA do its job, and not trying to run it out of Lausanne. There’s a group of organisations and people that are uncomfortable with a vigorous independent organisation.”

Pound meets members of the US press after the IOC decision on the 2024 and 2028 games

So how did Pound get into sport, and why does he care so much? He was born in 1942 in St Catharines, Ontario, but his father’s job as an engineer in a pulp and paper business meant that, at the age of six, the family moved to Ocean Falls, a town in northern British Columbia, that could only be reached by boat. “The mills generated power by building a dam, and at the bottom of that was the ocean,” Pound says. “The town took the view that every kid would fall in sooner or later, so they should learn to swim, and it built a 60-foot swimming pool and hired a coach.

“As a result,” he continues with some pride, “on every Canadian swimming team between 1948 and 1976 there was at least one swimmer from Ocean Falls, a town with only about 400 children.” Pound was one of those swimmers and went on to represent Canada at the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago, the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia.

After his swimming career finished, Pound, who in the meantime had qualified as a chartered accountant, was approached to become secretary of the Canadian Olympic Committee in 1968 and subsequently became president of the COC between 1977 and 1982. His appointment as an IOC member in 1978 he describes colourfully as a Sistine Chapel-like ‘hand of God’ reaching out and tapping him on the shoulder.

Asked what sport is for, Pound replies with a much-used quote attributed variously to Mark Twain and (bizarrely) Vidal Sassoon, the hair stylist: ‘The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary’. “Sport is a creative outlet for discipline,” Pound continues. “Those values are transportable to all aspects of life: having measurable objectives. As an athlete, you always know whether you put out everything you have. No one else knows, but that’s hugely valuable. [Athletes are] people who understand teamwork and planning and that nothing is for free, and that makes for a better society. If it’s ethically based, that’s better still.”

Pound reaches the IOC members’ age limit in 2022, so will have to retire then. What does he think future Olympic Games, beyond those of 2024 and 2028, should look like? He answers this one by saying what they should not look like, which is, he says, “a carnival and something put together in a studio. Getting all these athletes of all sports together in a single unity of time and place is a quite remarkable experience and one of the reasons I’ve stayed in sports administration. Anything I can do to help someone else have as fabulous experience as I had, I’m willing to work my butt off for.”