COVER/ESSAY

BUSINESS AS USUAL

What’s surprising is how small the IOC bribes actually were

ROSS LAVER February 8 1999
COVER/ESSAY

BUSINESS AS USUAL

What’s surprising is how small the IOC bribes actually were

ROSS LAVER February 8 1999

BUSINESS AS USUAL

COVER/ESSAY

What’s surprising is how small the IOC bribes actually were

ROSS LAVER

Eleven years ago in Seoul, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson became the scapegoat for drug-enhanced athletes everywhere. Now, it’s Juan Antonio Samaranch’s turn to take the fall for an Olympic movement that is so doped up on TV revenues and sponsorship dollars that it’s a wonder anyone has any time left for sport.

Like Johnson, Samaranch deserves to be censured. The current controversy may, in fact, prove to be his undoing as president of the International Olympic Committee. But getting rid of the 78-year-old Spanish marquis will not wash the stench of greed and commercialism from the Games, any more than stripping Johnson of his gold medal solved the problem of drug use on the track, in the pool and at other Olympic venues.

The reason is obvious: the Olympics, like it or not, are a business. Billions of dollars are at stake, primarily because would-be host cities and money-hungry broadcasting executives have fallen over themselves in the rush to cash in on the public’s appetite for televised spectacle. And with money comes corruption—sometimes serious, often rather petty. Free flights, lavish entertainment, the occasional greased palm? Isn’t that how business is done around the world? Why should anyone imagine that the Olympics, the ultimate overblown marketing opportunity, would be any different?

What’s surprising is how small-time many of those so-called bribes actually were. Former IOC official Piijo Haeggman of Finland resigned her position recently when it became known that she and her then-husband had lived rent-free for 20 months in a small house in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., not exactly a popular destination for the world’s jet set. The organizers of Salt Lake City’s bid for the 2002 Winter Games arranged free surgery

and university scholarships for relatives of some IOC members. During Quebec City’s unsuccessful campaign to land those same Games, a visiting African delegate hinted that his country would appreciate a few thousand dollars’ worth of new exercise equipment for a gym built with aid from the Canadian International Development Agency.

In the Quebec City case, the organizers declined to go along with the delegate’s request. But it’s unclear whether, had they complied, they would have been doing anything wrong. As part of a program called Olympic Solidarity, the IOC actively encourages donations of humanitarian aid, sports equipment and athletic scholarships to poorer

countries. Thanks to the program, African nations received $54 million in handouts between 1983 and 1996. The U.S. Olympic Committee, for example, provided English lessons for Mongolians and Russians attending the Atlanta Games in 1996, as well as airfare for Sudanese athletes to train at the USOC complex in Colorado. “There shouldn’t be a rush to judgment here,” protests USOC spokesman Mike Moran. “The situation is a lot more complex than calling something a shoddy bribe.”

The same argument could perhaps be made for the two $43,000 'Q. offers of athletic aid to two IOC § members on the night before SydI ney, Australia, won the 2000 Sum| mer Games. Representatives of “ the cities that lost out to Sydney Ë have criticized those donations as bribes. Assuming the money actually reached its intended beneficiaries—athletes in countries that lack proper training facilities—a more accurate description might be philanthropy, even if suspiciously timed.

With a few notable exceptions—such as the Republic of Congo official who pocketed a reported $270,000 in gifts and services from the Salt Lake City bid committee— most of the other examples of Olympic payola appear to involve offers of hospitality rather than straight payoffs. Many people have expressed outrage at the fact that members of the IOC—which, after all, is a private club answerable only to itself—often fly first class, stay in five-star hotels and dine at fancy restaurants, courtesy of the host cities. In the business world, however, similar offers are commonplace. And when a Canadian politician goes abroad at the expense of a foreign government or corporation, you can be sure he or she doesn’t stay at some downmarket bed and breakfast. ‘We talk about excessive, but the question is excessive compared to what?” a senior Japanese Olympic official said last week in defending Nagano’s successful bid for the 1998 Winter Games. ‘What was offered was definitely not excessive. It was normal. In business, entertainment is far more extravagant.”

Therein lies an irony. Now that the reputation of the IOC has been sullied, pressure is building for a complete overhaul of the committee and its procedures. And who will wield the most influence in the debate over the future shape of the IOC and the Olympic movement in general? Why, the sponsors and the networks, of course, by virtue of the fact that they put up most of the cash. Behold the new moral guardians of the Olympic flame: Madison Avenue and some TV industry hotshots. □