Olympic club starts some heavy lifting

World still waits to see if scandal leads to deep enough change.

From its start over a century ago, the Olympic movement was something of an "old boys" sports club with a blue-blood cast. But there's been a persistent rapping at the door of the Old World chateau here - and the members of the International Olympic Committee who work inside can ignore no longer it.

Now, as the IOC opens the door and answers allegations of bribery and corruption surrounding how it selects host cities for the Games, a key question remains: Are the proposed reforms sufficient, or will this insular committee, accountable to no one but itself, prove unable to accomplish the top-to-bottom housecleaning that some critics say is needed?

"As long as the Olympics are part of the sports-entertainment industry, [reform] is going to be very hard," says John Hoberman, an Olympics expert at University of Texas, Austin. "You would have to change ... the nature of the Games."

The IOC executive board has now expelled six members (pending approval by the remaining 106 members). Three others had already resigned amid allegations of receiving "improper" gifts in connection with the selection of Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Games. The board also announced the formation of an ethics commission and reforms for the site-selection process for 2006.

But experts say the IOC must go further if it is to regain the respect of millions who cherish the Olympics.

While removing implicated members signals a bold new intolerance of bribery, many expect it will be difficult to change the entrenched culture of lavish perks that led to the scandal. That culture evolved, some analysts say, from the commercialism that has surrounded the Games during the tenure of current IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. Moreover, because the IOC comes under no other authority, reform must be voluntary.

The great unknown, however, is whether any criminal charges will be filed in connection with the Salt Lake City matter - a development that may spur reform beyond what the IOC currently envisions. Among the groups investigating the Salt Lake City bid are the FBI, the US Justice Department, and the Utah attorney general.

The Olympics did not start out as a commercial venture. But when Mr. Samaranch took over as IOC president in 1981, he needed to bring the Olympics back from the brink of bankruptcy. The lofty goals seemed to dim amid the hundreds of millions of dollars generated.

Lucrative sponsorship practices and the movement's elitist aura and secrecy combined to create a powerful entity that lacked accountability. The IOC has described itself as a "supreme authority," not having to answer to national committees, sports federations, or even athletes who question its decisions.

Even though the Games have been rocked by some serious drug charges, most notably sprinter Ben Johnson's positive test at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the IOC has brushed problems and allegations of corruption aside. The current scandal was preceded by many rumors and some outright finger-pointing, but no reforms were undertaken to streamline a process in which any, or all, of the 100-plus committee members have been flown, lodged, and dined by bidding cities.

Under scrutiny as never before, the aloof, patrician Olympic movement is beginning to make some painful changes. With proposals announced Sunday, the selection duty would be removed from the general membership in favor of a smaller "election committee" of 15 people, including eight IOC members, three athletes, and four other sports officials. In a possibly more significant change, visits by IOC members to the bidding cities would be barred, and officials from those cities could not visit IOC members. No member of the IOC's 11-member executive board would be part of the new host-city selection panel. The IOC's controversial 78-year-old president would head the group, but would not vote.

This trial procedure for 2006 Games could be extended. Curbs on the bill-footing practices will be submitted to the full membership at a session March 17-18.

TO SOME, restoring confidence in the Olympics is a simple matter. There should be enforced limits on hospitality, but an outright ban is not necessary, says Jeremy Pope, executive director of Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog group. At the same time, "the IOC should keep public records of the hospitality its members receive, and the bidding committees should keep their own public records," he says.

Mr. Pope adds that successful cities such as Salt Lake City should be made to refund the expenses of the unsuccessful bidders. "Those who broke the rules should compensate those who lost out because they broke the rules."

Doubts remain about whether Samaranch's continued presidency is doing the tainted Olympics any good. Samaranch, who carries the title of Marquis, was sports minister under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. He negotiates with heads of state over athletic participation and regularly hobnobs with royalty and business barons.

Samaranch's critics urge his departure, saying it is the only way for the movement to truly cleanse itself. Samaranch, president for 18 years, insists he will stay at the helm, but will face a confidence vote at the March session.

While he advocates jettisoning Samaranch and his executive board, Mr. Hoberman of the University of Texas says that alone won't solve the IOC's problems. "Right now the Olympics Games are, first and foremost, an advertising vehicle. You would have to change the whole purpose - the nature of the Games."

Peter Ford in Paris and Katharine Biele in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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