BORN: St Catharines, Ontario • 22 March 1942
The time is 1894; the place is Paris. A handful of aristocrats are hatching plans for the modern Olympic Games with a spirit so remote from today’s games that, in hindsight, they seem hopelessly naive. The games, they announce, will feature world-class competition, but above all they will be friendly and stress good sportsmanship.
Gentleman amateurs will compete under national colours; professionals will not be welcome. Sport for sport’s sake will be stressed. The first Olympic Games is scheduled for Athens in 1896, the home of the ancient competitions. About 245 athletes from fourteen countries will take part.
Fast forward to 1996. In Atlanta the centennial Olympic Games are the biggest cultural event ever staged. They are a capitalist carnival: the budget is Si.5 billion and garish adver¬ tisements assault the senses from every direction. Television cameras record everyone’s every move.
About 10,000 athletes take part, representing 197 countries. Many have become rich from sport. Almost all, in some form or other, are corporate- sponsored: by shoe companies, film companies, soft-drink companies. The Olympic Games have become one of the biggest businesses on earth.
A good deal of the credit—or blame—for that develop¬ ment rests on the shoulders of Montreal tax lawyer and IOC vice-president Dick Pound. For Pound, the climb up the Olympic greasy pole began in the swimming pool. After his family moved to Montreal when he was fourteen, he joined a swim club and in short order was the fastest 100 metre swimmer in the country.
His athletic career peaked with a sixth-place finish in that event at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He quit competitive swimming in 1962 and proceeded to speed through law school and chartered accountancy exams. With his professional life just starting to take shape in 1968, he accepted a volunteer post with the Canadian Olympic Association.
By then the Olympics were a good deal bigger than their founders ever imagined, but they had failed to live up to some of their loftier goals. They were also in a lot of trouble. The IOC was chronically broke and, increasingly, political protests were stealing headlines away from the competition itself.
Questions about the purported “amateur” status of Eastern-bloc athletes were also harming the event’s credibility.As Pound grew up with the Canadian Olympic move¬ ment, things went from bad to worse: the 1972 Munich Games were marred by murderous terrorism, and the 1976 Montreal Games were skipped by much of Africa. A U.S.—led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games threatened to sabotage the Olympics for good.
That year, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain was elected president of the IOC with a mandate for reform. To help in this task, he enlisted Dick Pound—by 1980 head of the COA and a rising young tax lawyer in Quebec. Pound was unusual among the volunteer IOC brass: young, middle class, and a former Olympian himself, he seemed well suited to help modernize the games.
The tonic that Pound found for the games was television. In 1984 Los Angeles hosted the summer Olympics that no other city wanted—and, against the odds, turned a tidy profit. On their own initiative, local organizers staged the first commercial games by finding advertisers to pump millions into the operating budget.
The real target of the ads was the U.S. television market, and Pound’s job was to keep the dollars coming in. Though the Olympics had been on television in some manner for thirty years, the trick now was to turn the games into a truly made-for-TV event. Accordingly, Pound supervised an Olympian change in approach.
Professionals were gradually welcomed to the games to create events that people around the world wanted to watch. Schedules and events were geared to the at-home audience—less entertaining sports were gradually ditched, and events of dubious stature such as beach volleyball were added.
Then, all Pound had to do was open up the bidding for the right to televise the Olympics. By 1996 he had sold TV packages to networks around the world, increasing the games’ revenue ten- and twentyfold. Already, the American network NBC has paid $2.3 billion for the right to televise the games in 2004, 2006, and 2008.
Television was only the beginning: Pound also success¬ fully built up IOC revenues in non-Olympic years. In 1986 he launched the “The Olympic Program,” a marketing scheme that allowed major sponsors to associate their products with the games for a four-year period. For what now amounts to $40 million apiece, several companies have lined up to give the IOC their money.
The Olympics have travelled a long road from 1894 to today. No one talks about gentleman amateurs anymore, and sport for sport’s sake is a creed useful more in the saying than the doing. The games are just another big entertainment production, now on a global scale, and TV ratings seem as important as medals and competition.
For better or for worse, however, the only significant quadrennial interna¬ tional athletic competition in the world has survived. For Richard Pound, now favoured by some to be the next IOC president, it has been a job well done.