“He is very honest and upfront, and at times, delightfully naïve. This often gets him into ‘trouble’ but it defines his character. He will not die wondering. It’s true this at times puts him in at odds with the ‘establishment’... but he is delightfully refreshing and challenging.” Senior IOC member on Adam Pengilly
Adam Pengilly never set out to be an IOC member. The way he tells it, the British Olympic Association, in whose offices we meet, contacted him and asked if he’d like to stand for an eight-year term as an athletes’ representative at IOC elections that were set to take place at the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Pengilly, at the time one of Great Britain’s top male winter sports athletes and having already represented athletes, first in his own sport and then within the BOA, immediately spotted a flaw in this plan. What if he failed to qualify for Vancouver? He’d come eighth at the previous games in Turin in 2006, but qualification was by no means assured for 2010. “If I’m going to stand, you have to support me properly,” he told the BOA, which, went away and came back with an offer to take him anyway so he could stand at the election, whether he was competing or not.
In the event, Pengilly did qualify, albeit injury hampered his performance and he eventually finished 18th, to his bitter disappointment. He was, however, more successful in the elections, polling 615 votes from his fellow athletes, more even than USA’s Angela Ruggiero, a multiple Olympic medallist in ice hockey and now a rising star of the Olympic movement, who was also elected and has gone on to chair the athletes’ commission and join the IOC’s executive board.
So had Pengilly always been regarded as a leader? “I wouldn’t say I regarded myself as a leader,” he replies carefully (all his replies are like that). “Maybe I like to take the bull by the horns and make things happen: move things forward, make things better.”
Now, nearly eight years later, aged 39, he is approaching the end of his time as an IOC member, with his term due to expire formally at next February’s winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
Looking back, Pengilly says he had “no idea of what [being an IOC member] involved.” The first surprise, he says, was the amount of time it takes up (for an unpaid job, although the perks, as its critics would attest, are generous). He estimates IOC members have to give up between 60 and 80 days a year, “depending on what commissions you’re involved in.” The second surprise was “the way you get treated.” What does he mean, I ask? “I became sporting royalty,” he replies.
For a 32-year-old, from a relatively obscure winter sport, who had competed at two Olympics but won no medals and was far from a household name even in his own country, this was a highly unfamiliar experience. Does he enjoy it, I ask? “Who doesn’t like to be treated well?,” he replies. “I can see how someone would want to retain that. Everyone likes to be important, to be valued, to be treated well.”
But is it dangerous to get used to being treated in such a way, I ask? “I think across all society, human nature means that it can be,” he replies. “It’s not specific to sport, but there are inherent challenges and potential dangers with anyone who’s put in an elevated position, especially for any length of time. There are world leaders who started off doing a great job and ended doing a terrible job.”
This is why one of the innovations that Pengilly would like to see at the IOC (which failed to gain inclusion in its Agenda 2020 reform programme), is term limits for members. Pengilly won’t be drawn on a specific number of years, saying: “It could be a case of X years if you’re just a member, or X plus Y if you join the [executive] board. But it’s healthy to have an appropriate turnover. We do have quite a few new people coming in in September [nine individuals are up for election at the IOC Session in Lima, Peru], but it needs to be at the top, as well as at the bottom. You should work hard for a time, and then be out; or work hard for promotion.”
It’s this kind of outspokenness that sometimes puts Pengilly “at odds with the ‘establishment’,” in the words of the senior IOC member quoted above. Perhaps most notably, he was the sole IOC member to be seen to be going against the grain and voting against IOC president Thomas Bach’s carefully-constructed strategy (some said cop-out) for dealing with the Russian doping crisis ahead of last year’s Rio Olympic Games. This involved making the international federations responsible for deciding which Russian athletes were eligible to compete, instead of imposing a blanket ban on the Russian team, as the International Paralympic Committee did.
You should work hard for a time, and then be out; or work hard for promotion
Pengilly is the IOC athletes commission representative on the foundation board of the World Anti-Doping Agency, so he’s entitled to have strong views on this subject. Would he advocate a blanket ban on the Russian team competing at next year’s winter Olympics in PyeongChang, given repeated claims by both WADA and the IOC that the Russian authorities have not done enough to address the ‘state-supported’ doping crisis?
His reputation as a maverick, or even a rebel notwithstanding (he says some of his IOC colleagues “probably think I’m difficult, and not a team player”), Pengilly looks uncomfortable at this question, concerned that IOC protocol dictates that he should not be talking publicly about such a sensitive issue before making his views knows to the IOC in general, and to Bach in particular. “I have a clear position on PyeongChang which I believe would serve justice, but I want to speak to the IOC president first,” he says.
Yet despite his reservations over the handling of the Russian doping scandal, Pengilly argues that one area in which progress has been made since he joined the IOC (and WADA) is in the fight against doping, albeit he acknowledges that “it’s a challenge because of the environment: stakeholders, politics, sport and governments’ self-interest mean things take longer than they should.”
There are those that would argue, in view of the doping scandals of the last couple of years, that the fight against doping has actually taken a backwards step, but Pengilly will have none of this, saying: “If we hadn’t made progress, we wouldn’t even know about those things [the scandals].” But surely, I object, it’s mainly whistleblowers, not the anti-doping establishment, that we have to thank for recent revelations? Pengilly does not deny this, saying: “We have to be very grateful to investigative journalists and whistleblowers. But the field is still very new, less than 20 years old. There’s a lot to be learned, the resources are too small and in some sports the will is not there or where it should be.
“So I think progress has been made, but just not as quick as I would like. For example, I see the engagement of governments from when I first joined, compared with now: ministers of sport with other portfolios travelling for several days for pre-meetings, and then the foundation board meeting itself. It encourages me to see ministers and goverments taking sport that seriously.”
Pengilly is on the IOC’s co-ordination commission for the PyeongChang games (the commission’s ninth and final visit took place just last week). Speaking ahead of that visit, he dismisses some concerns that have previously been expressed over preparations being behind schedule, saying: “When they were behind before, they do have a very fantastic capacity to speed up and build quickly with good quality. The games will be fine: they’ll work well and run well. Ticketing is only at about 20 per cent, but if the president [of Korea] comes on TV and says, ‘people of Korea, it’s really important to buy because if not the country will look bad’, it will sell out in a few weeks.”
Pengilly’s main concern is that Korean athletes will be competitive in only a few sports and disciplines (principally speed and figure skating and skeleton and bobsleigh), meaning that it will be difficult to enthuse the Korean public. “People talk about the volunteers,” he says, “but for me the main thing is the atmosphere and crowds.”
He also argues that the legacy “has not been planned well at all,” and claims that not enough care has been taken over the budget. For example, he says, PyeongChang’s test events “cost twice as much as London’s. The root cause is they don’t want to lose face, they want to put on a good event. And they were great events. But to do it well, they had to out-source a lot and the cost went up significantly. They wanted to do things their way. But outside short track and figure skating they have not much experience.”
I fear that for all the positive stuff done with ‘24 and ’28, we’ll get a lot more bad stuff before we get to the good news
The issue of legacy, a recurring theme for the IOC as it comes under increasing pressure over finding host cities for the games, is being addressed, Pengilly claims, with the decision to award the 2024 and 2028 games simultaneously to Paris and Los Angeles, respectively. But, he adds, “I fear that for all the positive stuff done with ‘24 and ’28, we’ll get a lot more bad stuff before we get to the good news.”
On the subject of legacy, I bring to Pengilly’s attention a recent, somewhat scurrilous website article that was entitled ‘Five cities that were f***ed by hosting the Olympics’, and ask him to guess which five cities were cited (after a couple of false starts he succeeds: for the record, they’re Montreal, Athens, Beijing, Sochi and Rio de Janeiro).
Having been on the IOC’s evaluation commission for the 2022 winter Olympics, to be hosted by Beijing, Pengilly takes particular exception to the website’s claim that the flagship stadium from the 2008 games (which will host the opening and closing ceremonies in 2022), the Bird’s Nest, is neglected and under-used. “I went to the Bird’s Nest for the evaluation commission two years ago, and it was impeccable,” he says. “They’d just had a Big Air competition there and the stadium looked in good condition. It pays for itself, they said.”
As for Sochi, Pengilly puts forward the oft-repeated IOC line that the alleged costs of $51 billion for staging the games have to be seen in the context of the Russian state creating an entire winter sports resort and training facilities for its athletes, where none existed before, that will continue to serve the country for decades to come.
Yet that website article is evidence of a rising tide of criticism of the IOC for a perception that it comes to town, holds a giant party for two weeks, then makes off with any profits, leaving the city and country to foot the bill. It’s this perception, accurate or otherwise, that has led to the withdrawal of a series of cities from recent Olympic bid races and to fears that the supply of willing hosts could dry up altogether, leading the IOC to take its unprecedented double award decision for 2024 and 2028.
Along with that criticism has grown a perception that IOC members are elitist, entitled, self-serving and, at worst, irrelevant. Is Pengilly aware of that perception? “Yes, I guess so,” he says. “I don’t feel it personally. I’m not that vocal [outside the IOC]. I’d be getting more personal emails if I was more active on social media.”
One of the things I’ve become far more aware of since I joined is the incredible variety of views and perceptions of what’s OK and what isn’t
So how should the IOC address the issue? “Everyone needs to recognise it first, if we wish to deal with it,” Pengilly says, pointing out that for some other IOC members it might genuinely not appear to be a problem. “Maybe in their part of world there’s not the same perception. One of the things I’ve become far more aware of since I joined is the incredible variety of views and perceptions of what’s OK and what isn’t; the different ways of doing things.”
Pengilly argues that cities pulling out of Olympic bid races “has happened only on two continents [Europe and North America] and there are five, arguably six.” In fact, he goes as far as to claim that the disease has affected “primarily just one continent,” arguing that Boston’s withdrawal from the 2024 bid race, to be replaced by LA, was a special case and that there are other US cities still interested. “If Salt Lake City [host of the 2002 winter Olympics] got the opportunity again, it would jump at it,” he argues. “And most people you speak to around London would like to do it again, so even in western society it’s not universal. But it is a big issue, for sure.”
The problem is perhaps especially acute for the winter Olympics, which will have experienced four successive editions away from the western European heartlands of winter sports by 2022 (Vancouver, Sochi, PyeongChang and Beijing). Have the winter Olympics (obviously close to Pengilly’s heart as a former winter sports athlete), lost status as a result of being held in locations not traditionally associated with winter sports, and where the climate is not naturally best suited for hosting such games, I ask?
“I’ve not been around long enough to know,” Pengilly answers. “But I do think they need to go back to their winter heartland. I also think that the model for the winter games should be different to the summer games. There needs to be a recognition that it’s a different animal, to be approached in a different way. Quite a few people in winter sport would have a similar view. In the IOC I don’t know if summer sports would see it that way. These big questions need to be asked. The hard thing is to trial new ideas, but if we can, we should.”
Pengilly was born in Somerset in south-west England in 1977 and, he says, “I just used to love running fast as a kid.” One of his earliest memories, he says, is of a new kid joining his school and of the “cool leader” of his gang indicating Pengilly and saying to the new boy: “You said you can run fast; I bet you can’t beat him.”
Later he became a combined events athlete, but realising he was “a bit small for it,” was persuaded by a teacher to switch to bobsleigh and thence to skeleton. His greatest sporting achievement was a silver medal at the FIBT World Championships at Lake Placid in 2009.
I’ve been wondering how to introduce a subject that he has alluded to in previous interviews; but in the event he does the job for me. Discussing his two children, aged three and one and a half, and whether they might become athletes, he says: “I want them to do sport but to what level I’m not sure. It can become a religion and a god and even those who are incredibly successful can come out the other side struggling emotionally, let alone career-wise. If they want to, I’m not going to stop them but I’ll advise them to be holistic and broad in their thinking. I believe sport is a gift from God but if we let it, it can take over our lives.”
Pengilly is a practising Christian, a member of a Baptist church who made his own decision, aged four(!) that that was the path he wanted to pursue. “I try to put God first,” he says, while admitting that, when competing, “you can get into a bubble; sport can become everything, so it can be easier to lose track of important things.” Was his faith shaken by the injury that wrecked his chances of a medal in Vancouver? “No, not really,” he says. “The joy of being a Christian is that God’s adopted me into his family because of Christ on the cross. My performance is irrelevant. If I’d won, it would have made no difference to him.”
Returning to the issue of how the IOC can address the criticism that has rained down on it in recent months and years, Pengilly says: “We need to live out our values and show more humility, for example from a communications standpoint. We should lose the spin and be more candid: be prepared to say we got it wrong if we’ve got a problem we need to fix, and be prepared to take the right decisions, even when they’re difficult and unpopular.
“We also need to be best in class when it comes to governance. Every facet of the organisation and its members has to conform culturally and in application to the highest standard of governance. We need to hold members to a higher standard than if they were not members. If we do something wrong we should go through with the case. Even if the member resigns, we should go through with it and make it public.
“We need to produce and activate a strategy of how to communicate the good things the IOC does. An NOC or early bid team doesn’t have the capability to do that communication and have the information and resource at hand to have a proactive, positive campaign. If we don’t do it, the ‘no’ campaign gets ahead and builds momentum. The ‘24 and ‘28 decision is a step in the right direction; we’re asking them not to build unless they need to. But the danger is, in 30 years’ time no new facilities are being built. Sometimes they need a reason to be built.”
Is his (arguably hard-line) attitude to doping influenced by his religious beliefs, I ask? “My trust in God affects all aspects and views in my life, but even if I was not a Christian I’m sure I would still see cheating and intentional doping as wrong,” he replies.
In this series, I often ask interview subjects what sport is for. Pengilly’s answer is the first to have a basis in religion. “For me, it’s a gift from God for everyone to enjoy," he says, "and for no one to exploit or be exploited by.”