Time to clean up the Olympics

The olympic games, usually the setting for idealism, international fraternity, and national pride, have become the subject of scandal and the butt of late night comics' humor.

Said Jay Leno the other night: "The rumor is, the Chicago Bulls were going to pay Michael Jordan $37.5 million this year. Where else in sports can you make that kind of money? Other than being an Olympic official in Salt Lake City?"

Meanwhile, Salt Lake is overrun with journalists from Britain, Japan, Australia, Canada, and a string of other countries. They are investigating the bribes and other improprieties that apparently went into securing the 2002 Winter Olympics for Salt Lake over vigorous competition from other, competing cities.

The other day, as a somewhat questionably perceived local expert on the story, I gave interviews to three different Australian radio stations, Radio New Zealand, the BBC, NPR, a radio station in Quebec, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Almost without exception, the visiting reporters want to know how Salt Lakers have reacted to the scandals.

The answer is simple. They're disgusted.

Their state of Utah prides itself on a good work ethic and honest dealings. It's the home of the Mormon Church, the predominant religion in the state, which sets strict moral standards for its followers and demands integrity from them in their business affairs.

Four separate investigations are under way to get to the bottom of everything - one by the Salt Lake Olympic Committee (SLOC), another by the national committee (USOC), and another by the international committee (IOC), along with the US Department of Justice, which has the FBI poring over records and canceled checks. The IRS is poking around too.

Although some of the reports are expected momentarily, we know enough to establish that university scholarships were offered to, and accepted by, the children of IOC members who would vote on Salt Lake's bid to be host of the 2002 Olympics.

The money came from a $400,000 fund used by the committee to promote Salt Lake's cause. There were also free medical treatment for IOC members, expensive gifts, and elaborate wining and dining. One African IOC member got $50,000 in cash and was cut into a lucrative land deal in Salt Lake City that may have netted him $60,000. Another IOC member, from Chile, got $10,000, which may have been used to help to finance his election campaign for mayor of Santiago.

In the face of all this, the top two officials of SLOC have resigned. The mayor of Salt Lake City has announced she will not run for reelection at the end of this year.

Utah's governor, Mike Leavitt, who has a squeaky-clean reputation and extraordinary voter support, is leading a campaign to redeem Utah's reputation. The scandal "didn't start in Salt Lake," he says grimly, "but it's going to end here."

What the governor is referring to is encouragement and acceptance of bribes and favors by nine of the IOC's 115 members, which may result in their early expulsion.

There are rumors that other cities competing over the years to become Olympic sites have offered perks and favors, and that the IOC members whose votes could determine the outcome have both solicited and accepted bribes.

None of this makes Salt Lakers feel any better about what their own Olympic committee did to try to get the Games.

What it does underline, however, is that the original idealism of the Olympics has become sullied by the huge amounts of money that go into the making and staging of the event.

Clearly, some votes are for sale. But even when individual corruption is not involved, the Olympics are big business, and big business pressures are in play.

When the pie from Olympic television contracts is split up, whether or not the host city is on American soil can make a difference of $100 million in revenue to the US organizers

Even governments participate in the drive to secure Olympic host sites. American ambassadors are mandated to sponsor programs in their assigned countries that would encourage them to favor Olympic sites within the US.

When all the facts are in, there will be some housecleaning. There will be some expulsions from the IOC. There may be reforms. But the challenge of recapturing the Olympics' original idealism remains formidable.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

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