Saturday, February 13, 1999

Olympics just another money club

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Olympics were never as pure as Olympians pretended. The modern Games were founded as a diversion for dilettantes, an elitist event for those who could afford to compete without compensation.

        The Games are more inclusive now — sweaty professionals can compete with pristine amateurs — but exclusivity remains an issue. Only an organization as clubby and unaccountable as the International Olympic Committee could be capable of corruption on-demand, of supplying fresh scandals for every news cycle, of making a mockery of the very ideals it presumably exists to promote.

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        Salt Lake City surely prostituted itself in its efforts to win the 2002 Winter Games, but this was only possible because of IOC solicitation. The 300-page report released Tuesday by the independent Board of Ethics implicated 10 more delegates in the burgeoning bribery scandal, raising the total of IOC members allegedly on the take to 24.

        What was once chagrin has escalated to outrage. What was once a transcendent sporting spectacle turns progressively tawdry. Juan Antonio Samaranch presides over an organization that is simultaneously as sanctimonious as House Republicans and as duplicitous as Bill Clinton. It is as if Cardinal Richelieu were reincarnated as a committee.

        “I would never dream that something so wonderful had a bad side,” Cincinnati Julie Isphording said Friday. “The Olympics, for me, always seemed bigger than life. I never realized how fragile the thing was.”

Damage has been done
        Like most marathoners, Isphording has been around the block a few times. Yet 15 years since she made the U.S. Olympic team, she retains a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the Games and their purported goals. She serves on the board of Cincinnati 2012, Nick Vehr's effort to bring the Summer Games to the banks of the Ohio. Still, she wonders about the long-term damage being done by the stewards of international sport.

        “You have athletes at their best and leaders at their worst,” she said. “It's so contrasting. I really think this takes away from the whole image that we have of the Olympics, that wonderful feeling that this is what dreams are made of. It makes you wonder about the future: Where are the sponsors going to be? What is this going to do to other athletes? What is it going to do to children?”

        The Olympics are so popular, and lately so prosperous, that their longevity is not really at issue. Though the John Hancock Insurance Company has canceled negotiations for Olympic advertising, other sponsors have remained in line. The Games will survive this crisis as baseball did the Black Sox and basketball has its point-shaving scandals. The trouble is that when it's time for an IOC housecleaning, who can you trust to wield the broom?

        “It's largely a world without rules,” said David Jordan, of the Board of Ethics. “Some function well in a world without rules. Some don't.”

        Narrowly defeated in its bid to land the 1998 Winter Games, Salt Lake City's bid committee decided to adopt the aggressive courting approach of its victorious rivals from Nagano, Japan. (Nagano's ledgers were burned, effectively limiting the scope of IOC scrutiny).

Like taking steroids
        The Board of Ethics report suggests Salt Lake's efforts to win votes were both extravagant and sloppy. Little effort was made to legitimize expenses, and less effort was made to cover embarrassing tracks.

        Three couples with IOC ties were treated to a trip to the Super Bowl by Salt Lake organizers, at a cost of $19,991. Nancy Rignault Arroyo, the divorced daughter of Ecuador's IOC delegate, was subsidized $23,000 for living expenses. Jean-Claude Ganga, a delegate from the Republic of Congo, received an estimated $250,000 in benefits, $70,000 in cash.

        “Isn't exchanging money for votes every bit as anathema to the spirit of the Games as taking steroids to get stronger?” gold medal swimmer Betsy Mitchell wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal. “Why is it too difficult for leaders to behave consistently with the policies they establish and espouse?”

        Good questions, these. They deserve good answers.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at

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