"You Can Cure Cancer, But You Can't Cure Doping and Illegal Betting"

The most powerful man in world sports is purging corruption. Jacques Rogge, who succeeded Antonio Samaranch as President of the International Olympic Committee in 2001, prizes transparency. He's also on the forefront in the fight against doping, and trying to root out illegal betting.

With his wire-rimmed glasses and measured speech, Rogge -- a Belgian, former surgeon and Olympic yachtsman -- cuts a distinguished figure. He met Metro for an exclusive interview at the IOC's headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Sports like beach volleyball are now part of the Olympics. Do the newly added sports really just bring athletic value to the Olympics, or is it a matter of aesthetics as well?

Beach volleyball is a very intense and physical sport. When we add a new sport, we always look at how the new sport interacts with the general program. There must be a balance between team sports and individual sports. There must be a balance between combat sports, racquet sports and water sports. Then we look at a series of criteria, most importantly universality: is this a sport that's practiced around the world. Expense is another criterion: is the sport costly to organize, and does it need a lot of infrastructure? Also, is it dangerous? We also look at the general ethical behavior of the sport. And we look at how the sport works on TV.

This year you warned of illegal betting and match-fixing. Can we trust that the Olympic results are accurate?

We have a special observation unit, which we had in place in Beijing and Vancouver as well, that will monitor all the betting operators. Whenever there's a suspicious peak in betting the monitoring unit will tell us. At the same time we'll have experts watching the match who will be able to see if there's something unusual going on. And we'll work with the betting companies, who will have permission to freeze the money if the match is suspicious. There was nothing suspicious in Beijing and Vancouver, and I hope there won't be anything in London either. But our observation unit will monitor all the results.

Illegal betting is far-reaching, with organized crime benefiting from it. How big a threat is it to world sports?

It's a serious danger. Together with doping it's now the biggest threat facing sports. Almost every day there's news about yet another police arrest of gangs involved in illegal betting. Even in my country, Belgium, there was an attempt at cheating in the second division of football. We've had it in Germany, Italy, Turkey, China, Singapore, Korea. Illegal betting is everywhere.

Whose job is it to fix it?

Many countries have passed laws banning illegal betting, and national governments work with the police, the sports movement and national Olympic committees to deal with the problem. As a sports federation, we can point out suspicious behavior in matches. Then comes the second phase: the support of the government. Only the government can tap phones, issue arrest warrants and search baggage. Only the government can infiltrate crime networks. Sport needs the government and the government needs sport: only as an alliance can we fight illegal betting.

In a way it's the IOC versus the Mafia. Can you win?

Yes. It's not that different from anabolic steroids. These days anabolic steroids and amphetamines are distributed by criminal gangs. We work with the police on this. If we find anabolic steroids or amphetamines in our doping tests, we try to find out who gave the athlete the substance. The athlete is never alone. He or she received from someone and was advised by someone, mostly unfortunately an unethical doctor. Then there's the collaboration between sport and government. It isn't easy, but it's increasing and it's the solution for the future. In addition to the IOC, FIFA is doing a good job; UEFA is doing a good job; the international tennis and equestrian federations are doing a good job. In early February we'll have a third meeting with all the governments here in Lausanne.

You're a surgeon. Is it accurate to compare illegal betting to a cancerous tumor?

As a surgeon, I'll tell you that you can be cured from cancer but we'll never be able to cure the world from doping and illegal betting. It's criminality, and the world will never be free from criminality. There's no society in the world that functions without police, laws and judges. It's part of human cheating, and cheating will never disappear. But doping and illegal betting is a dangerous disease for world sports, and we're doing our best to fight it.

Why is it so hard to a have a clean leadership of international sports?
Corruption comes from money, and there's money in sports. The IOC paid a heavy price for corruption in the Salt Lake City winter Olympics. After that we established a zero-tolerance policy for corruption and a code of conduct. We've put in place a very strong ethics committee. And we haven't hesitated to expel people when it was needed. Eleven people were expelled in 1998-1999. Every now and then we discover something and people are either expelled or suspended.

French tennis legend Yannick Noah recently suggested that doping is so hard to trace that we should just give in and allow it, so as to create a level playing-field. Do you agree?

I hope he didn't commit doping when he won the French Open! I don't think he did. But his recent comments are not constructive.

But dishonest athletes will keep cheating. Is there a better way to root out doping than the methods we're currently using?

You can't deal with it any other way than what we're doing right now. We're educating athletes about doping and illegal betting. The Youth Olympic Games are coming up very soon, and education of those 15-18-year-old athletes is a focus for us as well. We're educating them to prevent doping and illegal betting. They're at an age where they can accept that message. Trying to educate a 29-year-old athlete is much harder. But in addition to education, of course, you need testing and sanctioning. Doping is no different from other youthful criminality in life. Criminality will never disappear. Sports isn't different from society.

Corruption, doping, illegal betting: does your job ever feel like a hopeless task?

No. I look at it from my perspective as a surgeon. As a surgeon, you know that the disease will continue, and that people will continue being affected by it. You can treat one person, but the next day there's another person with the same disease, and then another one. But you don't get discouraged. You're there to help people. World without crime, prostitution or doping is utopian! I'm here to solve problems, one after the other.

In a new book IOC board member Arne Ljungqvist points to gene manipulation as an emerging threat to world sports. Is that a correct portrayal?

Yes, but we've developed a test that's now almost ready. There's no evidence of genetic doping happening today, but it may come 5-10 years from now. The test will be ready by then.

What does gene manipulation do to an athlete's body?
There are many ways of doing genetic doping. One way is to have a machine that produces more EPO than a normal human being produces. You could also have gene doping where you create new cells to treat injured tendons and other body parts. You can also have genes that increase muscular power.

Sochi, which will host the next winter Olympics, is close to the breakaway region of Abkhazia. Should geopolitical considerations be given more consideration when Olympic host cities are selected?

Our first concern is always the well-being of the athletes: what does the location mean for them? We do the Games for the athletes, not the general public. Security is obviously an important consideration as well. Since the terrorist act at the 1972 Munich Games, that has been very important. And then there's the legacy that an Olympic host city will give to its country and region. There's a whole series of criteria. When we voted for Sochi people knew about the situation, and based on the information we had, their assessment was that these would be good Games.

Do you worry that violence will break out?

There's always a risk of violence. Just look at a country like Norway. Who would have thought that in Norway somebody would kill 77 people. My own home country, Belgium, is very quiet and peaceful, but just the other day there was a massacre.

The British government has 13,500 soldiers that will provide security during the London Olympics. It will even have warships and anti-aircraft missiles. Has terrorism become a threat to the Olympic movement?

Such measures have been taken in the past, even before 9/11. Hijacking of planes during the Olympics is one of the scenarios that have been studied by the security services for many years. If you want to provide secure Olympic Games, you have to look at all the methods terrorists could use. And we have to live in the real world. The real world since 9/11 is a world where security is of paramount importance. Just look at the way we fly now: we have to take off our shoes and our belts, we can't carry liquids and so on. And we accept it because we know that security has to be protected.

Doping, illegal betting, corruption terrorists... what brings you joy in your job?

Joy? You have two options: you can say, "it's a difficult world, I'm just going to stay home by the open fire with hot chocolate and read a book. I don't care what goes on in the world." Or you make sure that life continues, that young people can practice sports, that people can have education. The IOC is contributing to the fact that the world is going on. We have issues, and we live in a difficult world, but we don't give up. We allow young people to have a normal life, the life that I had when I was young.

In the West Bank, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is building sports facilities as a way of building Palestine. Is sports a cure for regions affected by wars and conflicts?

The IOC is contributing to those facilities, and I spent a whole day with Salam Fayyad this fall. He's a very nice man. We organized a big football match between Palestine and Jordan. The stadium was full and it was very exciting. Sports is hope, and it gives happiness. In countries with a lot of problems sports brings not only dreams and happiness but also all the educational values associated with sports: respect for social values, for other people, for the environment. The day after my visit to the West Bank I went to Israel and met with the President and Prime Minister; among the things we discussed were athletes' ability to travel between the West Bank and Jerusalem; they've had difficulties obtaining Israeli visas to do so. As a result, Palestinian athletes can travel more easily than before.

Are there other countries where the IOC can contribute to building society?

Sports can't enforce peace or even maintain peace. It contributes to a peaceful atmosphere. It brings people together and fosters mutual respect. But don't ask sports to do what generations of politicians, diplomats and heads of state haven't been able to do. Of course, there have been football matches between countries at war, and in Sydney the North and South Korean teams marched together. Events like that won't solve the underlying situation, but they ease the tension.

You're the first IOC President to have stayed in the Olympic village. Where will you stay in London?

For the most part I'll stay in the Olympic village. I can't be there every day because sometimes I have evening meetings in the official hotel, and in my representational role where I meet with prime ministers and presidents. But when I'm not doing that I'll be in the Olympic village.

What do you most enjoy in your interaction with athletes?

I've been at the Olympics as an athlete and a team leader in the past. There's a wonderful atmosphere in the Olympic village, with people from different religions, genders and political systems come peacefully together. When I'm in the Olympic village I usually arrive in the evening, after having meetings all day. I go to the restaurant, get a tray, put my food on the tray and sit down at a table. Automatically, five to six athletes immediately come and say "President, may we join you?" I say, yes, of course, and then they start telling me, "the rooms should be bigger, the transport should be better," and so on. But the most common message is: "Please continue your fight against the doping. We want sports to be clean."

Previously published in Metrowww.metro.lu