Going for the Olympic green
How the Games evolved from pure competition to big-stakescommerce
CHICAGO — In the beginning, the idea seemed simple and yet profound. Find a way to celebrate amateur athletes doing their best, performing "Citius, Altius, Fortius" - swifter, higher, and stronger - in a way that would bring inspiration beyond personal accomplishment or national boundaries. The world would watch a Jesse Owens or a Babe Didrickson and take shared pride in the outstanding displays of skill and spirit.
But along the way, the modern Olympic Games have become big business. Very big business indeed, involving billions of dollars in commercialism and barely the pretense of amateurism. And major scandal as well, with a series of investigations continuing to reveal instances of apparent bribery in the selection of cities holding the games.
"The Olympics have become this very volatile amalgam of politics and business, money and power - and you could probably throw a bit of sex in there," says Jeffrey Segrave, an Olympic historian at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "Over the last 20 years, the stakes have become so high, and people have overstepped the mark."
Over the weekend, Olympic officials in Switzerland struggled to respond to evidence that about a dozen of the International Olympic Committee's 115 members had accepted more than $600,000 in gifts and favors in exchange for approving Salt Lake City's bid to host the 2002 Winter Games. It was also revealed that Australian Olympic officials had offered $70,000 to two International Olympic Committee members the night before the IOC had approved (by just two votes) Sydney over Beijing as host city for the 2000 Summer Games. At press time, two IOC members had resigned and seven more were suspended. The full membership will vote on their expulsion in March.
What are the commercial pressures that have led to this sullying of a high ideal? And is there a way to abate them?
Mass Olympic commercialism is a relatively recent phenomenon since Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French education reformer, re-established the ancient Olympic Games in 1894. The first of these modern games was held in 1896 in Athens, and cities didn't begin competing for the Games until 1920. Governments took pride in hosting the Games, even if (as was almost always the case) more money was spent than earned.
The 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles - the first to be privately financed - changed all that.
Under L.A. Olympic organizer Peter Ueberroth, corporate sponsors paid from $3 million to $10 million each - in advance - for the right to claim a piece of the dream, to use the Olympic rings in their promotions and to buy coveted television advertising during the Games. In the end, the city earned an unprecedented $233 million in profits.
As a result, says Anita DeFrantz, a vice president of the IOC and a former Olympic rower, the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles (which received about 40 percent of the surplus) has put $90 million back into the community and accumulated an endowment of about $180 million.
L.A. officials insist they did not do anything illegal or unethical in convincing members of the IOC that their city should host the Games.
"IOC members came to L.A. at their own expense and paid their own hotel bills," says John Argue, who is heading the city's effort to win the 2012 Summer Games. Ms. DeFrantz has a reputation for scrupulously refusing to accept the often-expensive "gifts" that IOC members find in their hotel rooms when visiting cities bidding to become Olympic sites.
More recently, Atlanta went all-out to win and then host the summer Games of 1996. Like Los Angeles, its budget - $1.7 billion - was all from the private sector.
While no bottom-line figures have been issued in Atlanta, officials estimate that total spending (by the organizing committee and visitors) had a regional economic impact of about $5 billion. Specifically, Atlanta gained a new stadium now used by the Braves baseball team, plus Centennial Park in the heart of the city.
Despite some negative press coverage (concerning preparations for the Games and the bombing at Centennial Park), the 1996 Olympics has been seen as a boost for a city trying to gain recognition outside the South.
"It increased our stature in international commerce," says Atlanta City Council member Lee Morris. "They used to confuse Atlanta with Atlantic City [N.J.]. They didn't know if we were famous for gambling or for Tara."
According to Robin Spratlin, manager of new business development for Georgia Power, the program resulted in 34 expansions or new business locations, employment of more than 5,600 people, and a capital investment of more than $250 million.
Polls show a more favorable impression of the city among business executives and potential foreign visitors. "That is the intangible legacy," says Mr. Morris.
Local officials deny charges now being investigated by the IOC that Atlanta may have crossed the bounds in winning the Games.
"There was a lot of hospitality," says Charles Battle, director of international relations with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. "As far as bribery? No!" Mr. Battle, who played a key role in bringing the Games to Atlanta, estimates the bid effort cost about $8 million, a relatively low amount. "We spent less money than any city except Belgrade."
With television rights and sponsorships, the Games stand to generate enormous revenues as well as revitalize cities, so no one should be surprised that the ultimate cost in Salt Lake City (and perhaps other cities) was lost idealism, says Mr. Segrave, chairman of the Department of Exercise Science, Dance, and Athletics at Skidmore College.
"This is business as usual. Salt Lake City was playing the game, accepting the culture - although that's no excuse for corruption," he says. "The Olympic Games sort of set themselves up for this because of the disparity between organizational conduct and ideals."
Many critics have pointed out that the IOC, under the leadership of Juan Antonio Samaranch, has become a clique accustomed to royal treatment, including expensive perquisites when visiting cities trying woo their vote. The IOC is responsible to no authority but itself, and some members of the "Olympic Family," as the organization is known, apparently are used to expecting if not demanding special favors for themselves and their families. These reportedly included scholarships, real estate deals, medical treatment, jobs, and access to prostitutes.
How Olympic cities are picked is likely to change - perhaps involving a small executive committee making visits and IOC members voting openly.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it's a clean procedure in the future because they're going to be operating under a microscope," says John Hoberman, professor of Germanic studies at the University of Texas, Austin, who has written on the Olympics. "They really don't have any choice - the corporate sponsors are talking to these people in an unprecedented way. Corporate executives are telling them there is profound unease and the value of the Olympics could drop precipitously."
Athletes still enthusiastic
For now, the athletes who dream of Olympic gold are trying to stay focused on the science and art of what makes these Games extraordinary - to adhere to the Olympic motto of "Citius, Altius, Fortius."
"At whatever venue the Olympics is to be held, the job of the athlete is to show up and do their best," says Jeanette Bolden, women's track-and-field coach at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a member of the women's gold medal 4x100 relay team at the 1984 L.A. Olympics. "So no matter what happens, it won't tarnish their enthusiasm and determination to show up, compete, and do their best."
And yet most observers think there is unlikely to be any major turn away from the large amounts of money now spent on - and sought from - the Olympics.
"I don't think this will slow the commercialism of the Games," says Segrave. "My sense is there will be a significant cleansing ... that the IOC will institutionalize new policies, procedures, and practices in regard to hosting the Games, and the integrity of the Olympic movement will be strengthened."
"This will all blow over," he adds, "and we'll move on from there."
James Blair in Los Angeles, Roxanna Guilford in Atlanta, and Katharine Biele in Salt Lake City contributed to this article.