During his 21 years as head of the International Olympic Committee, the late Juan Antonio Samaranch presided over boycott, scandal and the kinds of backrooms in which someone with his political pedigree—Spain's ex-ambassador to the Soviet Union; former factotum for Generalissimo Franco—would feel right at home. The IOC still counts plenty of vain men among its members, and Samaranch was the prototype. "There he goes, lobbying for a Nobel Peace Prize," a Dutch broadcaster said over the air as Samaranch spoke during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
It is against his predecessor that Jacques Rogge, who'll step down as IOC president in September 2013, figures to be judged most flatteringly. Since he took over from Samaranch just before 9/11, the 70-year-old former Olympic sailor from Belgium has been as inconspicuous as Samaranch was front-and-center. Rogge fumigated the membership after the Salt Lake City bid-rigging scandal. He launched the Youth Olympic Games, whose nearly equal numbers of male and female athletes helped pave the way for the breakthroughs of London. The IOC now sits on reserves of $558 million, enough to ensure that if the Olympics were canceled due to some global calamity, they could be restarted from scratch. The Olympic brand, recognized and trusted throughout the world, is healthier than ever, and London delivered record TV ratings. Meanwhile, under Rogge, the IOC awarded the Olympics to South America for the first time, to Rio de Janeiro for 2016; with his insistence on strict caps on delegation size, a nation even more modestly endowed than Brazil might someday land the Games. "I'm known within the IOC as Mr. No, because there are many requests for more athletes, more sports, more this and more that," Rogge says. "And I say, 'No.'"
Of course it doesn't hurt that next to that other Swiss-based global sports macher, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, Rogge seems like Albert Schweitzer. In fact, Rogge prefers a style in keeping with his profession as a surgeon. First, he says, listen. Then observe. Then diagnose. "The last phase is to propose treatment. You need the buy-in of people who are affected."
To get that buy-in can take time, and that's why Rogge could seem phlegmatic. It took his entire term before he felt ready to confront countries that excluded women from the Games. But the Saudis, the most resistant delegation, knew that Rogge was prepared to ban them if they continued to flout the Olympic Charter. The early favorite to succeed him, Germany's Thomas Bach, is a garrulous lawyer who would likely bring a different style.
During the first week in London, after urging Olympic VIPs to take public transport, Rogge himself rode the Docklands Light Railway to Olympic Park. His example soon caught on. At any given moment 90% of volunteer drivers would have found themselves sitting around the motor pool with little else to do except watch or listen to action via the BBC. But that reflected Rogge's primary goal for the Olympic movement, which has been to keep athletes at the center of the Games. Instead of chauffeuring muckety-mucks, volunteers beheld great performances. It was something inconspicuous and quietly achieved, but emblematic of Rogge's tenure.