High road may not lead to an Olympic host city

Sunday, December 13, 1998

Nick Vehr
Nick Vehr prefers the high road. He wants to sell the world on Cincinnati rather than buy the votes to land the Olympics.

The man hoping to bring the Olympics to Cincinnati is an optimist. He is an idealist. He may be a trifle naive.

"I don't think you ever have to break the rules to win," Vehr said. "If you do, you shouldn't be in the game. If we have to do stuff like that to get the Games, they're really not worth having. But I don't believe it's that way."

The evidence would suggest otherwise. Officials of the organizing committee for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games have been summoned to Switzerland to explain a scholarship fund that looks alarmingly like a slush fund. Saturday, Marc Hodler, a senior member of the Intenational Olympic Committee's executive board, alleged widespread corruption within the IOC itself.

Facts are still being gathered, but appearances are awful. Rebuffed in its effort to win the 1998 Games, Salt Lake organizers created a scholarship fund that bestowed almost $400,000 in educational and athletic grants to 13 students, six of them relatives of IOC delegates. To Hodler, among others, the scholarships smack of bribery.

IOC Vice President Dick Pound, the Canadian lawyer leading the inquiry, has refused to rule out Salt Lake City could be stripped of the Games if found guilty. While such a penalty would seem improbable, given the logistical and legal problems it would create, the scandal could have a profound impact on future American bid cities.

The United States Olympic Committee, stung by criticism of the tacky commercialism of the 1996 Atlanta Games, has already resisted local efforts to bid on the 2008 Summer Games for fear of an international backlash. A problem in Salt Lake City could further delay and possibly doom the next U.S. bid.

Or it might prove what some close to the Olympic Movement have long believed: That the IOC is tainted by members on the take; that votes can be bartered and bought; that the true Olympic ideal is the dollar sign. Hodler estimates between 5 and 7 percent of the IOC's 105 members have openly solicited bribes.

If Cincinnati is serious about staging the Games, Vehr may want to put a bag man on his payroll.

"I have no idea if it (bribery) is the standard," Vehr said. "It's just impossible for me to gauge that. And I've certainly heard that things like this occur.

But, of course, there are dozens of Olympics that go by where you never hear of anything like this.

"This is a high-stakes games. There are a lot of egos involved, a lot of money involved. With that always comes great interest and intrigue."

Bruce Baird, who supervised Sydney's bid for the 2000 Summer Games, says he was offered the opportunity to buy the votes of unspecified African delegates.

"I said, 'This is not what the Sydney bid is all about,' " Baird said. "And he said, 'You may well lose,' and I said, 'I would prefer Sydney lost than won on those grounds.' "

Bid committes are forever proclaiming their innocence and constantly lavishing expensive gifts and first-class junkets on IOC members. Efforts to control this expensive courtship process have been consistently ignored.

The Chinese government spent an estimated $50 million on Beijing's unsuccessful bid for the 2000 Games, and went so far as to shut down 4,000 coal-burning factories to minimize pollution during a visit of IOC delegates.

"For me there is only one purpose: winning the games," Greek tycoon Spyros Metaxa said of his quest to bring the Games to Athens. "I will do whatever is necessary to win the Games - if it costs me $100,000, $10 million or $100 million."

The Japanese city of Nagano, which hosted the 1998 Winter Games, allegedly bought off at least 15 IOC delegates. When a bribery investigation was launched, the ledgers accounting for the $24 million Nagano spent on its bid were conveniently "lost."

Nick Vehr would like to think the Olympics can be won honestly. He may find, however, that the high road is a handicap.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

Olympics official says Games bought and sold