She is the most powerful woman in Canadian sport. But 56-year-old Carol Anne Letheren looks wan and tired behind her desk in the Toronto office of the Canadian Olympic Association. No wonder. Since the Salt Lake City bribery and corruption scandal exploded almost three months ago, Letheren has spent countless hours defending the Olympic movement. As chief executive officer of the COA, she has had to soothe the concerns of corporate sponsors worried that the stench of scandal might taint their products. Ever the loyal foot soldier, Letheren has defended IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, calling the 78-year-old Spaniard “a good leader” while others around the world were calling for his head. “The whole Olympic movement should not be tarnished,” Letheren insists. “I’m having difficulty with the mudslinging—it is getting carried away.”
These are trying times for anyone officially associated with the five rings, but they are doubly so for Letheren, who is under attack at home for perceived conflicts of interest. Critics charge that she cannot effectively stand up for COA initiatives while also sitting as
a member of the International Olympic Committee. As well, The Toronto Star recently reported that 12 years ago, when she was serving as a volunteer vice-president of the COA, Letheren secured a paid consultancy with Toronto’s failed bid to get the 1996 Summer Games. The COA itself is also under fire for botched fund-raising initiatives such as last year’s money-losing Olympic lottery. Then there was the embarrassing pre-Nagano reception— to the chagrin of team members, the video presentation, which Letheren previewed and OK’d, was almost entirely in English.
Letheren refutes rumours that she, too, benefited from Salt Lake’s largesse. An anonymous memo recently circulated to the worldwide media alleged that Letheren had been given a free face-lift, valued at $50,000, by the Utah bid committee. Letheren scoffs at the charge and says the rumours were floated by the son of a fellow IOC member, Kim Un Yong. Kim was considered with Canadian Richard Pound to be among the leading contenders to replace Samaranch atop the Olympic movement. But Kim’s chances were hurt when he was implicated in the Salt Lake scandal and was “severely censured” at
Amid the IOC scandal, Canadian Olympic boss Carol Anne Letheren faces allegations of conflicts of interest at home
last week’s IOC meetings in Lausanne,
Switzerland. Letheren says the rumours were just sour grapes. ‘They can have a look for the scars,” she says. ‘That story would be so foolhardy to put out there because it’s so easy to disprove.”
Letheren also denies any conflicts of interest connected to her work with the Toronto bid. Back in 1987, she says, when a company she co-owned, M.I.
Research, was hired by the Toronto bid committee, she was neither an IOC member nor the top executive of the COA— although she was one of the association’s eight volunteer vice-presidents. At that time, Letheren was a consultant, parlaying her international experience in amateur sports into a profitable business with a client list of more than 50 sports organizations. For 15 months, the Toronto bid paid Letheren’s company $8,000 a month to devise communications and marketing strategies to woo Olympic delegates who would later vote on which city would get the 1996 Games. “We did all kinds of stuff,” says Letheren. “I was a sports person. I made my living in a business I’d been in since I ^ 1979. That’s what I did and I did it well.”
Norman Seagram, who ran the Toronto bid’s finance and audit committee, told Maclean’s that his organization benefited from Letheren’s extensive experience in the Olympic realm. Her contract was terminated, he said, only when members of the Toronto group discovered she was also consulting for the city of Hamilton, which was then attempting to attract the Commonwealth Games. (After she stopped being paid as a consultant, he says, Letheren continued to work for the bid as a volunteer.) Still, the recent allegations prompted Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman to order an audit of the failed bid. “I don’t want to condemn her for something she may have done over a decade ago,” said Lastman. “I’m not even certain there’s a scandal yet.”
Letheren paid her dues on the way to the top. A physical education graduate from the University of Toronto, she worked in the 1960s as a volunteer coach and official in archery, volleyball and synchronized swimming, then gained prominence in gymnastics, judging at world and Olympic competitions in the 1970s when the sport was riding the popularity of standout competitors such as the Soviet Union’s Olga Korbut and Romania’s Nadia Comaneci. Letheren joined the COA in the early 1980s, and in 1988 she was named chef de mission of the Canadian team at the Seoul Summer Games—an appointment, it turned out, with a high profile. As chef she announced Ben Johnson’s positive drug test that stripped the sprinter of his gold medal. Over the next six years, she became the unpaid president of the COA, was named an IOC delegate and, in 1994, was hired to run the COA.
Letheren says the recent attacks go with her lofty Olympic profile— she has made enemies in her 35 years in amateur sport. “They’re bringing something that happened 12 years ago into today’s context, but 12 years ago I was a nothing,” Letheren said before flying to Lausanne to attend last week’s IOC meetings. “I’m being targeted now because of my position. I think there’s a move to unseat me.”
Among Letheren’s loudest critics is Canadian skiing icon Ken Read, a former Crazy Canuck who is now a Calgary businessman. Read says Letheren should step down from one of her two positions, claiming that her IOC duties conflict with her job at the COA, a nonprofit organization with assets of $96 million. “She’s got to make her choice,” Read said last week. “She
should either be the paid employee of the COA or a member of the IOC. There are a number of times when these jobs conflict, when issues of TV revenues and sponsorships come up and what’s in the interest of the IOC is not in the interest of the Canadian Olympic Association.”
Insiders say the Letheren-Read feud has been brewing since 1990, when Letheren k was chosen to replace Jim Worrall as ¿ Canada’s second IOC member. At the 1 time, Read backed one of Letheren’s oppo| nents, Calgary’s Roger Jackson, a gold d medallist rower at the 1964 Olympics who had been president of the COA for eight years. But Read contends that while Pound lobbied against Jackson, Worrall promoted Letheren—and Samaranch chose her as a result.
Read maintains that Jackson would have been a powerful IOC presence. “He might have cast a shadow over the star of Dick Pound,” said Read. But others see Letheren’s election to the IOC as a hard-earned reward for the years she put in as a volunteer in the trenches of amateur sport. “Carol Anne was technically very qualified,” said Marion Lay, a former Olympic swimmer and medallist at the 1968 Olympics who now chairs Vancouver’s national sports centre. “She’s been an administrator and official at the highest levels of sport. She had a strong understanding of the system.”
For all the speculation, no one is sure exactly how Letheren was chosen—there are no hard-and-fast eligibility rules. Generally speaking, potential candidates lobby current members who then appeal to Samaranch. Critics say the organization needs to adopt a more accountable member-selection process to reach its goal of reform. Letheren says she does not know for certain if Pound supported her candidacy, but she does say that Worrall thought it was time that Canada put a woman on the IOC. Still, Letheren agrees the selection system has to change. “This is part of what has to be looked at,” said Letheren. “The entire structure and governance of the IOC should be under review.”
The continuing Olympic controversy is killing corporate fund-raising for Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Olympics. To date, only $6 million of the $29 million needed to finance the bid has been raised from the private sector. Toronto city council, which once unanimously supported the bid, is now wavering until the IOC announces how it plans to change the flawed bidding process. The bid received another public blow when Pound, who headed the IOC investigation into Salt Lake’s corrupt 2002 bid, confirmed that he had resigned from the Toronto committee almost three months ago. ‘Toronto is shooting itself in the foot, toe by toe” said Seagram.
Optimists, however, hope that last week’s reform initiatives and a successful Games in Australia next year will restore public confidence in the IOC—and support for a Toronto bid. That would be welcome relief for the embattled Letheren, too, although she doubts the challenges to her leadership will go away. “Anyone who has done anything has got enemies,” she says. “I don’t think it’s going to stop.” □
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