Philip Hersh: A Candide conversation with IOC President Jacques Rogge
He gets a copy of not only the 18th-century satire, titled "Candide, or Optimism,'' but also of "Home on the Range,'' for seldom was heard a discouraging word from Rogge during a 30-minute conference call today about the upcoming Vancouver Winter Games.
Sorry about the mix of Voltaire and the motto on Kansas' vanity license plates, but you get the idea: fromhis answers to the questions I asked during the teleconference, Rogge's view makes pretty much everything look for the best in this best of all possible Olympic worlds.
Q. IOC member Dick Pound of Canada recently said figure skating is a "nightmare sport'' and is far from resolving the problems that caused the pairs skating scandal at the 2002 Winter Games. Will there be another Winter Olympic figure skating scandal in North America, or is it likely everyone will be satisfied -- or as satisfied as anyone can be with judging in the sport-- with the the results in Vancouver?
Rogge: You know there was some commotion and emotion in Salt Lake City. We upgraded the Canadian pair, [Jamie] Sale and [David] Pelletier, and we also asked the ISU [skating's international federation] to change the judging system.... By and large, I would say the athletes are happy with that and that the national federations are happy with that.... I think today the public can be confident in the fairness of the results.
Q. Is anyone at a higher level going to ask the Russian Figure Skating Federation or Russian Olympic Committee if its ice dancers might reconsider the choice of a costume that has offended the Australian Aboriginal community and caused worldwide controversy [for its cultural insensitivity]?
Rogge: As far as the costume is concerned, I must admit very frankly I will look for information. I have seen it in newspapers. I have heard something about that. I cannot tell you frankly at this stage whether someone will intervene.... I rule out nothing. I declare nothing either.
Q. There is a lot of doomsaying in the United States about the Olympics and particularly the upcoming Winter Olympics. NBC has said they overbid for [rights to] these Games and they are going to lose $200 million. There was great disappointment in Chicago's first-round elimination [in the 2016 host-city bidding]. There is not much buzz at all in the U.S. about the Winter Olympics. As you look toward negotiations for U.S. television rights to the 2014 and 2016 Games, what do the Vancouver Games need to do to revitalize interest in the United States?
Rogge: I never heard a broadcaster and a rights-holder being optimistic before the Games. They always complain there will be a deficit and, at the end of the day, after negotiations, they join again. The negotiations for 2014 and 2016 will depend on the economic climate in the United States. We expect the economy to improve, but we are not in a hurry. We do not need to negotiate tomorrow. We will wait for our partners to be in a better financial situation.
As far as the interest and the buzz of the American public, I am not too pessimistic because I know you have very, very good athletes, and the first medal will definitely foster a lot of enthusiasm. To the question of what could trigger the interest, [it's] just basically the performance of the athletes. They are the ones that are going to create the magic.
Rogge better hope the designated U.S. star, alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, gets off to a fast start in what some are calling "The Vonn-couver Olympics.'' Her first of five races, the combined, is the second day of competition, Sunday, Feb. 14. If Vonn wins that, with her best events (downhill and Super-G) up next, NBC will be able to send its hype machine into full gear.
Unless, of course, the weather in the mountains doesn't cooperate, a real possibility given the proximity of the alpine venues to the sea, the relatively temperate winter climate of the Pacific Northwest and the relatively low elevations (5,400 feet at the men's downhill start, 5,120 at the women's) of the courses in Whistler-Blackcomb.
Even Rogge couldn't go all glass-half-full on that one. To another reporter's question, he said, "Hopefully the weather will be fine, because the weather is always an important factor in the Winter Games.'' But he quickly reverted to optimist mode, saying his latest reports from Vancouver gave him confidence "the competitions will take place as scheduled.''
Ah, that explains why the music before the call began sounded to me like the chorus from Leonard Bernstein's version of "Candide," with this minor lyrical adjustment: "What a day, what a day, for a slide on a sleigh.''
Photos: Top, IOC President Jacques Rogge presents President Obama a plaque thanking Chicago for participating in the 2016 Olympic bidding. (Chicago Tribune / Michael Tercha) Middle: Kansas vanity plate. (Kansas.gov) Bottom: Lindsey Vonn's helmet with stickers marking her World Cup wins this season. Vonn has added two more, for a total of 10, since this picture was taken. (Samuel Kubani / Agence France-Press)