Olympicgate: Why It Happened

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The surprising aspect about Salt Lake City Olympic organizers giving cash payments, scholarships, medical services, shotguns, skis and God-knows-what-else to International Olympic Committee members is that anyone should have found it surprising. The Olympic movement became corrupt long ago, in ways that go beyond recent revelations of a few IOC members selling their votes for Games sites. So a little history is in order before we delve into the sports equivalent of Washington's impeachment drama, wherein dishonest IOC members stand in for Bill Clinton, tale-teller Marc Hodler is Linda Tripp, bidding cities act like Monica "It wasn't real sex" Lewinsky, and chief Olympic investigator Dick Pound is a marshmallow version of Ken Starr. Even the FBI is in the plot.

Earlier in this century, the Olympic Games symbolized the purity of amateur sports. The organizers wanted athletes to shed their national identities, compete as individuals and live together in a village. That estimable ideal has evaporated. In its place, the Olympics now often represent a jingoistic competition to see which country can win the most medals-a corruption championed by Hitler in 1936 and left unchallenged by a succession of IOC leaders, including the current president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, a one-time sympathizer of Franco, the deceased Spanish dictator.

Amateurism has similarly evaporated. The notion that Olympians should be doctors and engineers quadrennially displaying their athletic skills for no financial reward has been radically transformed over the decades into the spectacle of Brobdingnagian millionaire basketball players squashing less professional opponents. "Amateur" ski racers competing for Olympic medals long ago made more money than their professional cousins. Olympic athletes and coaches make use of performance-enhancing drugs, so much so that the IOC recently had to turn its attention away from the site-bidding, money-for-votes scandal to convene a world conference on doping.

The IOC itself has become the General Motors of sports marketing, flogging costly sponsorships to multi-national corporations like Coca-Cola. NBC is paying $3.5 billion to televise three Summer and two Winter Games between 2000 and 2008. To recoup these mammoth costs, NBC sells commercial time to restaurant chains and auto makers, which advertise their products between up-close-and-superficial interviews with Hans, the slalom gold medal winner.

The Olympics have become big business, having little to do with sports. Massive budgets now literally change the landscape of the host cities. Like Lillehammer ($1.4 billion) and Nagano ($10 billion plus), the Salt Lake Olympics, in reality, is an urban renewal project. "At a cost of $1.45 billion, it (the Games) will modernize the city," says Marc Hodler, who headed the International Ski Federation (FIS) for 47 years and who now chairs the Committee of Coordination between the IOC and Salt Lake City. "There will be new hotels, highway exits and infrastructure, by which the city can organize conventions and great sports events in the future. So there is much to lose if a city loses the Games."

Given the huge financial commitments, the cost to an Olympic candidate city of securing a dozen or so swing votes is small potatoes. As well, many IOC members come from cultures where "favors" bestowed on visitors are not considered bribes.

Thus there is a certain inevitability about the venality practiced by the 2002 Winter Games promoters. The Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) doled out $400,000 in scholarships and athletic training for 13 people, including six relatives of IOC members. Other emoluments are under investigation, including an alleged Salt Lake land deal, cash payments and the rumored purchase of a $10,000 diamond brooch for the wife of an IOC member. A former SLOC employee has said that most IOC members visiting Salt Lake broke the organization's own rules. Even IOC chief Samaranch saw nothing wrongith accepting a gift of firearms worth more than $1,000, unembarrassedly offering the excuse that he doesn't vote on host cities. IOC rules restrict members to gifts of not more than $150 in value and visits not longer than three days accompanied by not more than one person.

Hodler, 80, is an IOC life member and in charge of the rules affecting candidate cities. It was Hodler who alerted the world press to the fact that agents were soliciting money from bidding cities and that 5 to 7 percent of IOC members might be guilty of selling votes.

"Over the years, the names of the same people kept coming back," Hodler told me. He had a couple of reasons for breaking the story to the press. "Recurring rumors were confirmed for the first time by legally sound evidence, contained in a document stolen from the files of SLOC," he said. And, Hodler believed, the resulting scandal could become the means to reform the IOC. "History shows that when there is fear and disgrace, revolutions become possible," he said.

Skiing's confrontations with the Olympic movement go back 50 years, highlighted in 1968 by Hodler's battle with crusty IOC President Avery Brundage, who wanted to rid the Winter Games of skiing altogether. Brundage attacked ski racers as professionals paid by manufacturers to use their equipment, while the IOC conveniently ignored state salaries paid to East European athletes.

Hodler argued that "broken-time" money paid to ski racers was justified because they had to travel far and spend months on training, and had no chance to make a living. Later, skiing executives and Hodler modeled a formula by which all athletes could be fairly compensated for training time.

Not that skiing's house has been a model of cleanliness. FIS delegates have long had a penchant for staying in first-class hotels and basking in lavish entertainment by resorts bidding for major races. Sestriere, Italy, a ski resort owned by the Turin-based Agnelli family, which controls the Fiat automotive empire, was chosen as the site of the 1997 FIS World Alpine Championships after Fiat gave cars to FIS delegates. (Fiat denies the charges.) Another 1997 candidate town paid an agent, who then failed to deliver the bloc of votes he promised.

"The FIS experience with bribery was terrible," says former U.S. Ski Team CEO Howard Peterson, who is still active in FIS affairs. "As many as 24 of 90 votes might have been purchasable at one time." Following Sestriere, the FIS finally decided to change the system. Its members agreed to surrender their right to vote on site selection. The recent World Alpine Championships in Vail was the last site selected by the entire membership.

Now, the FIS's 18-member Council does the voting, aided by site technical evaluators. Peterson believes the restricted ballot works, if for no other reason, he says, than "when you have a small group, any bribery becomes transparent." It is this system that Hodler wants the International Olympic Committee to adopt, taking the vote away from its 114 members and giving it to the 11-member IOC executive board.

"It's the only remedy possible," insists Hodler, who says IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch is in agreement. He scoffs at The New York Times editorializing that it is not a credible solution because "the executive committee and Samaranch were running the IOC when the alleged corruption was taking place."

Canadian lawyer and IOC vice president Dick Pound is not so sure that giving the vote to the IOC executive board is beneficial. Pound, 56, who may succeed the 78-year-old Samaranch as IOC President in two years, believes there may be a loss of "geopolitical" perspective and sports expertise in limiting the vote to 11 people.

Pound heads the IOC's Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry into abuses by its members. The Commission, due to offer its report as SKI goes to press, doesn't seem to be armed with much teeth. It relies on bidding cities and witnesses to come forward and volunteer information about transgressions. Such appeals have yielded little in the past. As Hodler points out, the winning cities never reveal anything because they have a bad conscience, and the losers don't volunteer information because they need members' votes when they run again.

"We have no power to compel anyone to say anything," says Pound, who seems as irritated about his fellow executive board member Hodler talking to the press as Hodler is irritated that anyone should think he said anything wrong.

As for the legal force of his investigation, Pound says, "We have no power of subpoena." Factual evidence of wrong doing is more likely to come from FBI and IRS investigations of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, or from the USOC inquiry headed by former U.S. Senator and Majority Leader George Mitchell.

I asked Pound if he were in possession of facts about abuses, would he expose the persons responsible? "That may be something that happens in your business (journalism), but not mine. I'm not going to act like Ken Starr."

"Wouldn't you say there is at least a serious public relations problem?" I asked him.

"Yes, and I would certainly prefer not to have it. But the media are unfair to take bad apples and characterize the entire barrel as bad. And whatever the peccadilloes of a few of its members, the IOC doesn't make mistakes in picking good host cities."

That assessment is not necessarily supported by skiers. The FIS repeatedly criticized the IOC's choice of Nagano as last year's Winter Games site, with its fog-shrouded mountains and shortened downhill. Why did Nagano win the 1998 Games? One high-ranking FIS official told me that the Japanese city's organizing committee cannot account for $17 million in spending.

Europe's dean of ski journalists Serge Lang, in an interview on Swiss television, decried the mess in international sports. "While the site selection bribery is bad," Lang said, "what is worse is the whole corruption of sports . . . skiing, boxing, the Olympics. The leaders do nothing."

Lang proposes a Draconian solution. "For a year, there should be no sports," he says. "No Olympics, no World Championships. Then they should come back with other people in charge."

Spain's Samaranch is due to step down at age 80. Among the favored candidates to replace him is Dick Pound, who cannot be directing the current investigation without an eye to how it may affect his election prospects.

As with Monicagate, Americans thunder about the moral deficiencies of the players while Europeans react with a sang-froid shrug of the shoulders. Cynics abroad are already saying that the 2006 Winter Games candidate, Sion, Switzerland, no longer has a chance this June when the entire IOC membership, perhaps for the last time, chooses a city. That's because IOC members will not have forgotten that the Swiss Hodler made them look unsavory.

And Turin probably will not win, laughs Lang, because if IOC members did pick the Italian city, everyone would think it was because Fiat gave them cars. As in Washington, an absence of prudent governance leads to ridicule.

John Fry, former editor-in-chief of SKI, has reported on five Winter Olympics and seven FIS World Alpine Championships.

SLOC Scrambles To Reassure Sponsors
The controversy over Salt Lake's vote-buying favors to IOC members is not expected to do serious financial harm to the 2002 Winter Olympics. But there have been casualties. In a bold housecleaning move, the top two officials in the Salt Lake Olympic Committee-President Frank Joklik and Senior Vice President Dave Johnson-resigned earlier this year. Before that action, U.S. West had decided to withhold a $5 million sponsorship until the extent of the scandal was learned.

In the big picture, however, broadcast rights of $445 million have mostly been sold. And of the $608 million in sponsorships projected for the Games, $432 million was already committed at the beginning of this year by 15 companformation about transgressions. Such appeals have yielded little in the past. As Hodler points out, the winning cities never reveal anything because they have a bad conscience, and the losers don't volunteer information because they need members' votes when they run again.

"We have no power to compel anyone to say anything," says Pound, who seems as irritated about his fellow executive board member Hodler talking to the press as Hodler is irritated that anyone should think he said anything wrong.

As for the legal force of his investigation, Pound says, "We have no power of subpoena." Factual evidence of wrong doing is more likely to come from FBI and IRS investigations of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, or from the USOC inquiry headed by former U.S. Senator and Majority Leader George Mitchell.

I asked Pound if he were in possession of facts about abuses, would he expose the persons responsible? "That may be something that happens in your business (journalism), but not mine. I'm not going to act like Ken Starr."

"Wouldn't you say there is at least a serious public relations problem?" I asked him.

"Yes, and I would certainly prefer not to have it. But the media are unfair to take bad apples and characterize the entire barrel as bad. And whatever the peccadilloes of a few of its members, the IOC doesn't make mistakes in picking good host cities."

That assessment is not necessarily supported by skiers. The FIS repeatedly criticized the IOC's choice of Nagano as last year's Winter Games site, with its fog-shrouded mountains and shortened downhill. Why did Nagano win the 1998 Games? One high-ranking FIS official told me that the Japanese city's organizing committee cannot account for $17 million in spending.

Europe's dean of ski journalists Serge Lang, in an interview on Swiss television, decried the mess in international sports. "While the site selection bribery is bad," Lang said, "what is worse is the whole corruption of sports . . . skiing, boxing, the Olympics. The leaders do nothing."

Lang proposes a Draconian solution. "For a year, there should be no sports," he says. "No Olympics, no World Championships. Then they should come back with other people in charge."

Spain's Samaranch is due to step down at age 80. Among the favored candidates to replace him is Dick Pound, who cannot be directing the current investigation without an eye to how it may affect his election prospects.

As with Monicagate, Americans thunder about the moral deficiencies of the players while Europeans react with a sang-froid shrug of the shoulders. Cynics abroad are already saying that the 2006 Winter Games candidate, Sion, Switzerland, no longer has a chance this June when the entire IOC membership, perhaps for the last time, chooses a city. That's because IOC members will not have forgotten that the Swiss Hodler made them look unsavory.

And Turin probably will not win, laughs Lang, because if IOC members did pick the Italian city, everyone would think it was because Fiat gave them cars. As in Washington, an absence of prudent governance leads to ridicule.

John Fry, former editor-in-chief of SKI, has reported on five Winter Olympics and seven FIS World Alpine Championships.

SLOC Scrambles To Reassure Sponsors
The controversy over Salt Lake's vote-buying favors to IOC members is not expected to do serious financial harm to the 2002 Winter Olympics. But there have been casualties. In a bold housecleaning move, the top two officials in the Salt Lake Olympic Committee-President Frank Joklik and Senior Vice President Dave Johnson-resigned earlier this year. Before that action, U.S. West had decided to withhold a $5 million sponsorship until the extent of the scandal was learned.

In the big picture, however, broadcast rights of $445 million have mostly been sold. And of the $608 million in sponsorships projected for the Games, $432 million was already committed at the beginning of this year by 15 companies, including General Motors, Budweiser and Delta Airlines. Altogether, as much as two-thirds of the $1.45 billion in commitments Salt Lake and the USOC need to stage the Games without a financial loss appears to have already been raised.

Can scandal-wary sponsors pull out? "No," responds John Krimsky, Jr., USOC deputy secretary general, who says the only way a sponsor can exit the Games is if they're canceled or U.S. athletes don't compete. "Neither will happen," Krimsky says.mpanies, including General Motors, Budweiser and Delta Airlines. Altogether, as much as two-thirds of the $1.45 billion in commitments Salt Lake and the USOC need to stage the Games without a financial loss appears to have already been raised.

Can scandal-wary sponsors pull out? "No," responds John Krimsky, Jr., USOC deputy secretary general, who says the only way a sponsor can exit the Games is if they're canceled or U.S. athletes don't compete. "Neither will happen," Krimsky says.

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