The Alchemist

Richard Pound, BCom'62, BCL'67, is a volunteer extraordinaire, with an ethic that demands that all good things turn to gold. Now if only the IOC appreciated his youth.
by Ann Gibbon

There aren't many people who could get the Premier of Quebec to say sorry.

Richard Pound did.

Last January, the Montreal lawyer, McGill graduate, former Olympic swimmer and International Olympic Committee vice-president was publicly branded a crackpot for suggesting the proposed Quebec referendum on sovereignty would hurt Quebec City's bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Guy Chevrette, the Parti Quebecois urban affairs minister, had read Pound's comments in a Canadian Press wire story. Il est craquepot, Chevrette declared afterwards to reporters.

Faster than you can say libel suit, Pound fired off letters, in English and French, to Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau. This is unacceptable, he wrote. Although a believer in a united Canada, Pound was not using his IOC position as a federalist soapbox. He was frankly stating his view. Chevrette's epithet was too much. Pound wanted a public apology from the premier. If not, he would quit Quebec City's bidding committee for the games.

Shortly after, the apology was delivered.

The incident is a testament to the temperament, style and, above all, enormous influence of Richard Pound. The 53-year-old is tough, no nonsense, singleminded and a powerhouse in international sports. He is the IOC's chief negotiator for its multi-million-dollar broadcast rights and the person responsible for the Olympics' lucrative sponsorship and licensing deals. He is the man who was pivotal in regaining the gold medal for Canadian synchronized swimmer Sylvie Frchette after a judging error in the Barcelona Games. His name is mentioned worldwide as the next President of the IOC.

Most relevant to Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau, however, was that an influential figure such as Pound represented Quebec City's single best chance for winning the 2002 Winter Games. And even though Salt Lake City ultimately won out, Quebec always believed it was a top contender. Richard Pound says we have the best bid, said Ren Paquet, president of Quebec 2002, before the decision, as if Pound's word could carry the day. Quebec City placed last in the running. Pound says he was one of the seven IOC members who voted in favour of Quebec City. It would have been a perfect place for the Olympics, he commented afterwards.

The administration of the Olympics is only one area where Pound's weight is felt. His reach extends into the Montreal law firm Stikeman Elliott, where he is a partner and full-time tax lawyer, and into his alma mater McGill University, where he chairs the Board of Governors and the McGill Athletics Board. He seems to have three full-time jobs, says his stepson Keith Flavell, a lawyer who works at the law firm Heenan Blaikie, across the street from Pound in downtown Montreal. He uses his time very, very well, comments McGill's past-principal David Johnston.

Indeed, free time is not in the lexicon of Richard Pound, a towering former Olympian (his resume lists his height as 6'2", weight as 200 lbs) who squeezes activities into his day like excess gear into an Olympic sports bag. Time is a foe to be conquered. He has admonished those with long voice-mail messages: My, that's a veeeeery long voice message, young lady. He has also been known to grouse when given less-than-precise directions to an event where he was scheduled to speak.

The mastery of time began in the swimming pool. Richard Pound was born in St. Catharines, Ontario, on March 22, 1942, the eldest of four children. With a father in the pulp and paper business, We lived in small smelly towns all over Canada, including La Tuque, Quebec, then Ocean Falls, B.C. Living in that city, its shoreline carved out by inlets, was literally a case of sink or swim. You were forever falling into a lake or the ocean, he said during an early morning interview in his downtown office. If you couldn't swim, you disappeared.

Pound did anything but disappear. When he was 14 the family moved back to Quebec, a province he loves and ultimately chose to make his home. This time it was Trois Rivires, where he began to win high school swim meets. In 1958, he was the Canadian junior champion. That same year he began a commerce degree at McGill, all the while continuing to swim, lap after lap after lap. He dedicated his life to it, recalls Derek Drummond, BArch'62, director of McGill's School of Architecture, whose longtime friendship with Pound began at university. He calls his friend Richard, though most people call him Dick.

Drummond marvels at how Pound could combine studies with long hours of training. Then, as now, Pound's discipline was steely. No beer-swilling frat parties for him, says Drummond. He wouldn't go near a drink. The only toxic liquid in his life was the chlorinated water in the pool. Soon he was qualifying for world competitions. In 1959, he entered the Pan Am Games in Chicago, where, with typical self-deprecation, he recalls that I was outstanding in my mediocrity.

Then came an experience that touched him like no other: the 1960 Rome Olympics. The games were troubled by politics, mainly over the South African presence, but they didn't take away the magic for the 18-year-old Canadian swimmer. It was remarkable.

The Olympic Village is so important, with all these athletes from all countries and sports together at the same time. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

He came in sixth in the 100-metre freestyle, at 56.3 seconds, and his relay team came in fourth. But simply being there was like dying and going to heaven. At the 1962 Commonwealth Games, in Perth, Australia, he did win a gold, plus two silvers and a bronze medal.

During the often tedious training, he continued his studies. He earned a commerce degree from McGill in 1962 and tacked on an arts degree from Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) in 1963. (He needed an arts degree to enter McGill law school and found he could complete the necessary Latin and philosophy courses faster at Sir George than at McGill.) He became a chartered accountant in 1964 and received his bachelor of civil law from McGill in 1967. Along the way he picked up a clutch of academic honours.

Soon he had to choose between athletics and career. A big decision was whether to compete in the 1964 Olympics the year he started law school. Ever the pragmatist, he opted for law and was called to the Quebec Bar in 1968. He found a way to keep the Olympics in his life in 1968 when he was asked to be secretary of the Canadian Olympic Committee, and was elected president in 1977.

The next year would be pivotal for him: at age 36, he was named to the international sports world's most illustrious body, the International Olympic Committee. Founded in 1894 to make Baron Pierre de Coubertin's idea of rekindling the first Greek Olympics a reality, the IOC is the Olympic movement's governing body. It decides where the games will be held, how they will be celebrated, and what sports will be included. The IOC began in Europe but has since expanded worldwide. The IOC is a much more heterogeneous, political and divisive organization than it was at the turn of the century, observe Donald Macintosh and Michael Hawes in Sports and Canadian Diplomacy (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994). The authors also argue that world politics is being conducted more frequently through transnational organizations, such as the IOC, rather than formal diplomatic channels. This makes its members influential, though unpaid, statesmen.

Pound was an unlikely choice for the IOC, given that the average age of members is 70 and their average incomes contain more zeros than the Olympic flag. As Pound says, there was a hefty representation of lords, kings and dukes. But he proved to be an asset. With his legal and tax background he was given responsibility for commercial matters such as marketing, sponsorships, coin programs and broadcast rights. The latter alone accounts for half of the IOC total income. In 1983, he became one of 11 executive board members. Pound has helped move the Olympics from a money-losing event to a big business, where total revenues from 1992 to 1996 will reach up to U.S.$3 billion. He proved to be tough and powerful, able to handle fat contracts. When Dick Pound competed in the Rome Olympics, the CBS television network paid $400,000 for the television rights; last year he negotiated a U.S.$456 million contract with NBC for the 1996 Atlanta summer games.

He's without a doubt one of the more remarkable people in the world of sports, says Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports in New York, who has sat across from him at the negotiating table. Soft around the edges, Pound isn't, says Ebersol. He's blunt you always know how he's feeling about a particular subject. This man will never come at you from your backside.

Some say the Games have become overcommercialized, that the big-bucks television rights are now the key force behind the games. Pound disagrees. The focus is still on the athletes, he argues. But you can't expect the public sector to pick up all the costs of an international event like the Olympics. So you look for tasteful sponsorships. That means dealing with those who take an active role in the games. For instance, Kodak provides the photo labs used by the media.

And despite events like the boycotts, the 1988 Ben Johnson drug scandal (which Pound views as an important turning point in the doping issue) or the tawdry antics of Tonya Harding and company, he is an impassioned supporter. It's an ethically driven movement, it's international, it involves youth of the world and it is supported at its base by hundreds of millions of volunteers. I don't think there's anything to compare with it.

Other sports organizations like the National Football League might be all about business and entertainment but the Olympics are ethical because of their respect for rules and fair play, Pound says. Listen, we have our cheaters, too, he adds, as if anticipating skepticism about his remark. But there is a lot less than in any other organization. That's why the stigma of cheating is greater.

But despite his faith in the movement, there are some Olympic battles even Dick Pound can't win. As a former Olympic athlete, Pound is adamantly against boycotts. He lobbied the Canadian government to ignore the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but was unsuccessful. It's demoralizing to the youth of your country to have that opportunity ripped away. Often, a boycott effort gets mired in hypocrisy, he notes: In 1980, Canada could not go to Moscow but we sold more wheat to the Soviets that year than ever before.

But sometimes the IOC wins spectacularly in international politics, as in the case of Seoul. Pound wrote a book, Five Rings Over Korea, which documents how, against great odds and despite the volatile situation with North Korea, Seoul got the 1988 games. The IOC managed the diplomatic feat of getting the North's biggest allies, the Soviet Union and China, not to boycott the games, and they were pulled off without violence from the North, and with some 160 countries taking part. The unrelenting global media scrutiny upon the games is a factor that can push some host countries closer to democracy, for instance, he says.

Cynics say Pound wrote the book on Seoul to curry favour with IOC president Samaranch (to whom it is favourable) and thus stand a better chance of getting named president when Samaranch retires. Pound dismisses such criticism but not the notion of being president. If nominated by IOC members, I'd look very seriously at it. Definitely, I think he would like to be head of the IOC, affirms stepson Flavell. The possibility is now further away. Last spring Juan Antonio Samaranch managed to get the the retirement age raised from 75 to 80, allowing him to stay on.

Pound campaigned against the idea saying that it would make the IOC a laughingstock. He also noted, By IOC standards I'm a mere child. The presidency is a volunteer job; Pound says he would want to combine the law practice with the presidency.

It would be merely one more top job for Pound to wedge into a life that also includes three children, Trevor (who can now beat his father's best swim times), Duncan, BA'94, and Megan, and two stepchildren, Keith and Christina. Pound lives in Westmount and is married to his second wife, Montreal author Julie Keith.

Keith Flavell says his stepfather often comes across as dead serious in public but at home he's a fun-loving person. When Flavell was younger (his mother, Julie Keith, married Pound in the seventies), Pound would often stroll in on his stepson's poker games (wagers: two cents) and join in. He just wanted to be one of the guys. But with more familiar audiences, Pound has mastered the art of self-deprecation, often referring to himself in some varying form as a fattened sports administrator. (Now when I'm in the water, I resemble something in danger of being harpooned, he declared at the spring dedication of Tomlinson Hall at the McGill Athletics complex.)

Pound also provided Flavell and the other children with opportunities most kids don't get. All five attended the Los Angeles and Barcelona Olympics, for instance, while Keith, Trevor and Duncan have all had summer jobs with the IOC at its base in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Though Pound negotiates in the big leagues, he is not above giving his time at lesser levels of volunteerism. He is Chair of the McGill Athletics Board. Members recall Pound sitting patiently through lengthy discussions about the McGill varsity team logo which used the head of a native warrior. It was eventually deemed racist and changed. Pound only lost his cool when the graduate student representative said it was apartheid to have a separate weight training room for varsity athletes. (Pound later brought in the donation by Ben Weider.) He has played an active role in The McGill Twenty-First Century Fund, visiting prospective donors and securing funds for various projects. He even swam in the Friends of McGill swim meet last year. Observers say he did not embarrass.

Pound's highest profile role on campus is as Chair of its Board of Governors. After the Principal, the Chair of the Board of Governors has the most influence, says Gretta Chambers, McGill Chancellor. Pound is known for quickly grasping the issues and keeping the meetings moving along with good humour. He acts as a consultant for Principal Bernard Shapiro and the two are said to be alike in their manner: direct, decisive, no-nonsense kind of people who see fiscal responsibility as sacred.

Gretta Chambers recalls that Pound and her late brother, Geoffrey Taylor, were great friends with a common drive. They were the type of people who always had to do better, and who had to be successful, not in other people's eyes, but in their own eyes.

Dick Pound might say that's what the Olympic ideal is all about.

Ann Gibbon is a journalist with the Report on Business section of The Globe and Mail in Montreal.