The pressures and pitfalls of bidding to host Olympics

In Salt Lake City, site of 2002 Games, evidence of payoffs sparks an international outcry

From city council chambers here in Salt Lake City to boardrooms in far-off Switzerland, the International Olympic Committee is coming under unprecedented scrutiny for how it chooses cities to host the Olympic Games.

The selection process has always been controversial, dating back to the decision in 1896 to hold the first Olympics in Athens instead of Budapest, Hungary, because Greek shipping barons could foot the bill. But today, critics are leveling their barbs at Salt Lake City, where officials on the local Olympic committee recently said they awarded scholarship money to relatives of wealthy International Olympic Committee (IOC) members.

Now, with more and more cities scrapping for the right to hold the Olympic Games - increasing the incentive to bend the rules - many observers are calling for the IOC to rethink its city-selection process.

"The degree of potential corruption is now greater than it has ever been," says John Lucas, a retired Penn State professor and an Olympic historian. "The IOC is blessed with multiple millions of dollars in Swiss banks because of its unprecedented success. There's so much money and so much temptation for corruption."

Indeed, during the past few weeks other accusations of bribery to win Olympic bids have surfaced. Australian newspapers are reporting that there were monetary bribes during Melbourne's unsuccessful bid for the 1996 Olympics, and a senior IOC official, Marc Hodler, has said bribery has been common practice among a few IOC members.

Mr. Hodler has charged that agents were bought off in the election campaigns for the 1996 Atlanta, 1998 Nagano, and 2000 Sydney Games.

Investigations

Meanwhile, here in Salt Lake City, a recent audit showed that $400,000 was spent on 13 scholarships, including six relatives of IOC members.

The IOC has started its own investigation - which could be expanded to look at the Atlanta, Nagano, or Sydney bids - led by vice president Richard Pound. At the same time, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee has activated a volunteer and advisory ethics panel that, until now, has dealt only with issues of procurement and conflicts of interest. The city council is calling for its own probe, and the US Justice Department is investigating the allegations.

For critics of the Salt Lake Olympics, the admissions have offered an opportunity to say, "I told you so."

"The Olympics are going to be dragged through the mud for the next year," says Steve Pace, founder of Utahns for Responsible Spending. "That's got to put top sponsorships at risk, and we don't know yet how badly that will damage the value of the franchise."

Indeed, a local editorial cartoon depicts Olympic organizers unveiling a hot, new Olympic mascot - "Tickle My Palm, Elmo."

Mr. Pace's group has been critical of the decision to bring the Olympics here since the 1989 vote to divert tax monies to the Salt Lake Olympics. It was part of a 30-year effort that culminated in the successful 1995 bid.

Olympics organizers, however, counter that no public money was used for the scholarships, which were never detailed in the budget.

"I think that we realize now, even if our motives were pure, the appearance was bad," says Salt Lake Olympic Committee spokesman Frank Zang.

Still, Pace, who has long warned that Utah will be saddled with Olympic debts, would like to see the Olympics contract renegotiated so the IOC shoulders more of the burden. Some city council members, though, would be satisfied with the resignations of those responsible for the scandal.

As for the IOC, a diverse body of 115 members who travel the world sizing up contenders, it has simply become too big to rein in rogue members, some critics say.

"It ... makes it more difficult for the executive board of the IOC to know exactly, in every single case, who is a true believer who cannot be bought in any way shape or form," Dr. Lucas says.

He suggests that the IOC form two groups of "Elliott Ness-like untouchables." "These would be two small groups of incorruptibles, one to select a winter site and one a summer site, and brush off any bribes or forms of corruption," he says.

A wake-up call?

The common wisdom is that someone will have to pay for the 1998 Christmas scandal, and that damage control is imperative to rescue millions of dollars in sponsorships. And many who have watched it unfold say it is all cause for reflection about IOC procedures on an international level.

"In an obtuse sort of way, they'll thank Mr. Hodler for stirring up the Olympic pond," Lucas says. "If the image is deepened and the wound is great and lasting, CBS and NBC are not going to offer $600 million to $800 million to host the games and Coke isn't going to be putting in $450 million to be the only soft drink.

"But I think the IOC is going to work rapidly," he adds. "Reputation is everything."

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