World strives to purify Olympic flame
ATHENS — If Zeus could see them now.
Given the lasting furor around the International Olympic Committee, the gods of Greek mythology might lumber down from Mt. Olympus to rekindle the spirit in which the Games were begun.
As it is, modern Greece is making an effort to do so. So are a host of other nations.
No corruption, less commercialism, and a cease-fire in the world's wars are some of the high goals Greek organizers are setting as Athens prepares to host the Olympics in August 2004 - for the first time since the ancient games were revived here in 1896.
To varying degrees, calls for a back-to-basics approach are being issued worldwide.
Events throughout the history of the Games have stolen the spotlight from sport: terrorism, boycotts, the use of performance-boosting drugs.
But none has generated as great a call for reinvigorating the Olympic tradition as the furor around Salt Lake City's vote-buying in securing the right to play host in 2002.
Toronto has appointed an ethics commissioner in its bid for 2008. Beijing, despite sharp words aimed at Sydney over the rights to 2000, has sided with Australians rather than trying to use controversy to wrest the Games away. And in Mexico City, one idea involves having rich nations help poor ones play host.
In Greece, some politicians have revived the idea of permanently bringing the Olympics back to their homeland as a way of putting a stop to the graft that has come to be associated with the act of moving the Games from one country to another.
But the proposal by Greece's right-wing New Democracy Party was rejected Feb. 10 in the European Parliament, and is even being dismissed as "romantic" by Costas Bakouris, the Greek business executive in charge of getting Athens into shape for the Olympics in 2004.
"We're trying to do everything we can to make it more democratic and transparent," says Mr. Bakouris, who was recruited for the top job by Greece's prime minister. "We want to give it the historical balance that only Greece can give."
The Greek Ministry of Sports will hold a Youth Festival earlier that summer at the actual site of ancient Olympia with 4,000 athletes under the age of 18 forsaking beach volleyball and the like for classic Olympic events.
Greece will also try to institute a cultural Olympiad between 2000 and 2004. This new period of international cultural exchange would be hosted by whichever country was holding the Olympics.
And, most boldly, Athens 2004 and the Greek Foreign Ministry are trying to revive the idea of an Olympic-inspired military truce to recapture the nonbelligerence competitors agreed to during the ancient Games.
"We, of course, cannot stop war," says Jacques Rogge, a Belgian who serves as the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) coordinating chairman for the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Games. "We can just relay the ideal of the Games to ... world leaders, but ultimately we depend on the goodwill of politicians and governments."
What could prove just as difficult is scaling back commercial endorsements. Many sponsorship contracts have already been given out. And the idea of limiting profits may be a hard sell in Greece, the poorest member of the European Union.
Bakouris insists he will have limits: "We won't commercialize the torch relay," he says, criticizing Coca-Cola's place on the back of the torch-bearer's T-shirt at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
"If they want to do that, they can hang me from the Acropolis," he says.
Elsewhere, the desire to win the Games somewhere down the line appears undimmed, though a new care is being applied to bringing them in.
Toronto's 'city-building' hopes
Bid organizers in Toronto express hope that whatever reforms within the Olympic movement are introduced in the wake of the current corruption scandal will only work to Toronto's benefit as it seeks to win the 2008 Games.
Before the scandal over the selection of Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Games, TO-Bid Committee chairman David Crombie says, the conventional wisdom was that Toronto's approach to wooing the Games was too high-minded to be effective.
"They kept saying to me, 'You're going to look too much like a Boy Scout,' " he says. "Well, maybe they'll be looking for some Boy Scoutism now."
In the near term, Mr. Crombie, a former mayor of Toronto, says, "there will inevitably be some confusion as to what the rules of engagement are." The site of the 2006 Winter Games will be chosen this July, on the basis of new rules to be officially introduced in March, he notes.
Competition for the 2008 Games doesn't officially open until this fall, and so the IOC and the prospective host cities will have a chance to go through a complete cycle under the new rules before Toronto has its turn to compete, he adds.
Inevitably, he suggests, there will be modifications to the new rules that will govern selection of the 2006 site. And the problems within the Olympic movement, which he refers to as a "culture going through some crises," may take some time to clear up.
The TO-Bid Committee has just announced the appointment of its ethics commissioner: Charles Dubin, a former chief justice of Ontario who led an inquiry into the doping scandal involving runner Ben Johnson in 1989.
One of Crombie's other hats is as chair of the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, which aims to redevelop Toronto's Lake Ontario waterfront, the site the bid committee has in mind for the Games. Crombie sees a great opportunity for "city building" if Toronto does win the Games.
The 1976 Games in Montreal offered a similar city-building opportunity there, but Jean-Claude Marsant, an architect and University of Montreal professor, suggests that the opportunity was largely muffed. Nine years before the Games, Montreal had hosted Expo '67, the occasion for building the subway system and other infrastructure, as well as a new stadium - which was subsequently torn down. Professor Marsant laments that the Olympic construction program didn't build on Expo's but rather was located farther away from the city center.
The Olympic Village, a "mixed blessing," in Marsant's view, is still in use for mixed-income housing. "It's worked reasonably well, but it's so isolated, sort of out there in a field. Housing like that really should be more integrated in the city."
Sydney recalls Melbourne success
Meanwhile, in Australia, Sydneysiders are having to come to terms with revelations that their own bid for the 2000 Games was not as aboveboard as they thought. But, however their Games play out, they are unlikely to provide the same kind of coming-of-age moment for Sydney as the1956 Games afforded to Melbourne.
Melbourne at midcentury was painfully conscious of its remoteness and backwardness; its people worried what their international visitors would think of them.
In the end, it is widely agreed, it all worked out. David Studham, librarian of the Melbourne Cricket Club, one of the principal venues for the Games, says: "The real benefits, I believe, were cultural.... The Olympics had a great effect on the start of multicultural Melbourne." He cites culinary diversity as one benefit.
"One other major social legacy of the Olympic Games is television. It was finally introduced into Australia for the Games."
Europe's pocketbook approach
The recent corruption scandals may have dimmed the Games' popular appeal in much of Europe, but officials in major towns all across the Continent are as eager as ever to host the biggest show on earth.
Paris, Seville in Spain, and Istanbul have already thrown their hats in the ring for the 2008 Summer Games, and other cities such as London and Manchester in England are still considering putting their names forward.
"The Olympic Games give a formidable boost to the economy, the tourist industry, and the image of any city," says Jean-Pierre Labro, spokesman for Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi.
"The problems with doping and corruption don't stain the image of the Olympics themselves, just some of the organizers," he adds. "What's happening today has not reduced our interest in hosting the Games one bit."
"These are ancient Games," says Jane Price, a sports official with Manchester City Council. "You go through hiccups in the evolution of any organization, and hopefully this is just one of those hiccups."
At the moment, though, the things that have gone wrong with the Olympic Games are uppermost in many minds. "Who knows, maybe Paris has already been chosen for 2008," joked Magaline Vermalet, a provincial municipal employee visiting the French capital on Tuesday. "With all the corruption that swayed the last few choices, who knows?"
Some Paris residents are also worried about the cost: Three-quarters of the investment needed to host the Olympics here would be borne by central and local government. "If the Games are held in Paris we'll see it in our tax bills," warns pensioner Macelle Laville. "I've got a friend in Grenoble and she's still paying for the 1968 Winter Games."
But for city officials, the price is worth paying. "Just going through the process of applying [for the 2000 Olympics in a failed bid] improves the confidence and morale of a city," says Ms. Price. "We attracted a huge amount of publicity and we put Manchester on the world map."
Different lines from Beijing
Chinese citizens and media are lashing out at the IOC scandal and the possibility that Beijing narrowly lost its bid to host the 2000 Olympics because of Australian vote-buying: Sydney beat out Beijing by two votes in the International Olympic Committee's 1993 vote on who would host the so-called millennial Games.
China's state-controlled television and newspapers have given wide coverage to charges that an Australian businessman funneled more than $30,000 each to two IOC delegates on the eve of the vote.
"The Chinese Olympic Committee should strongly protest the scandal, and ask for a new vote on whether Beijing should host the 2000 Olympics," says a Beijing taxi driver surnamed Li.
While Mr Li's proposal is being echoed across the Chinese capital, it is being muted in Beijing's corridors of power.
Chinese officials instead are focusing on Beijing's new application to stage the 2008 Olympiad, and voicing support for the IOC's decision not to strip Sydney or Salt Lake City of the right to host the Games because of bribery allegations.
The official newspaper China Daily recently quoted a China Olympic Committee leader as saying, "The two host cities have made huge efforts to prepare for the Games, and should not be denied due to several [IOC] members' misconduct."
But the newspaper added in an editorial that "The IOC bribe-takers have shown us that trading power and rules for favors is rampant," and it called for a "thorough house-cleaning" and "serious soul-searching" within the IOC's leadership.
Beijing is unlikely to press for a new vote on the 2000 Olympics now, when the authorities are orchestrating a crackdown on the fledgling opposition China Democracy Party.
On the eve of the IOC's vote on Beijing's first bid six years ago, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the sports body to reject China's candidacy because of its widespread human rights abuses.
Yet most pro-democracy activists here say they strongly support Beijing's efforts to stage the 2008 Olympics.
"Allowing Beijing to stage the Olympics will accelerate China's integration into global society," says Bao Tong, the most senior Chinese official to be imprisoned for allegedly backing democracy demonstrations here in 1989.
Mr. Bao, onetime secretary to the Communist Party's all-powerful Politburo, adds that "awarding Beijing the Games will strengthen those who back political reform within the party and open China to observers from all over the globe."
For Japan, it's the economy
The Olympics have been good to Japan. The 18th Olympiad was held in Tokyo in 1964 - giving the country a chance to shine on the world stage less than two decades after the end of World War II. People here took pride in showing off a rebuilt and technologically advanced country.
Just eight years later, the city of Sapporo was the first Asian city to host the winter Games, underscoring Japan's return to the community of nations.
But Japan's more recent attempts at Olympic-hosting glory - the winter Games at Nagano last year and Osaka's bid to host the 2008 Summer Games - have had more to do with local economic ambition than celebrating national achievement.
The world may never know just what the Nagano bid committee did to win the right to host the Games, thanks to the incineration of key documents in 1992, but intimations of bribery and influence-peddling haven't shocked too many Japanese. This is a culture where lavish entertainment and gift-giving are routine; many Japanese are much more upset about government officials receiving such largesse.
Even so, a handful of critics here say the entire movement has become too corrupt and should be disbanded.
"I heard from many people that they were very disappointed at the beginning [of the IOC scandal], but they also realized that they ... were only disappointed with the management of the IOC and not with the Olympics itself," says Tetsuo Oyama, an official of the Japan Olympic Committee.
Mr. Oyama says he understands the motivation behind proposals to host the Games in Athens, but disagrees. "As represented in those five circles, the site should move from one place to another over different continents. We learn a lot about other countries that way."
Mexico City calls for openness
At the Mexican Olympic Committee's headquarters and training grounds in Mexico City, the athletes aren't too busy to enter a lively discussion on corruption in the IOC and the role of money in the Olympics in general.
The image of the world's greatest sports event is tarnished and damage has been done, all agree. But solutions do exist for returning to the Games their luster, athletes and trainers say - starting with a greater democracy and transparency in the Olympics' governance.
"The damage done affects all of us, because it reinforces the idea that the Olympics' values are being lost," says Bernardo Segura, a bronze medalist in distance walking at the Atlanta Games. "One danger is that sponsors will consider the Games' reputation so blackened that they will stay away, and that will hurt everybody."
The dismissal of six IOC members was the correct "initial" action to be taken, Mr. Segura says, but a more extensive "cleanup" is necessary, he adds, and one that is not carried out behind closed doors.
"Everybody knew the corruption existed, and the only way to demonstrate to the public that it's being weeded out is to be more open," he says.
Mexico City's summer Games of 1968 - the only time the Games have been held in Latin America - are remembered by many Mexicans with great pride, as they offered Mexico the opportunity to strut its accomplishments as a modernizing oil power on the world stage.
That pride is clouded by the memory of violent disturbances that pitted university students against soldiers in the weeks before the Games. The protests weren't directly aimed at the Games, but many historians believe the government's fear of seeing its big international moment disrupted was at the origin of its deadly repression.
Despite those events the Games were positive for Mexico in a way that shouldn't be denied other countries, especially the world's less wealthy ones, many observers in Mexico say. "The '68 Games remain a source of pride for Mexicans just as much of the sports facilities built around the city [for the Games] remain in heavy use," says Jos Arturo Isunza, chief spokesman for the Mexican government's National Sports Commission.
Giving the Games a permanent home, as some critics of the site-selection process have suggested, would also diminish their cultural dimension and the opportunity for thousands of athletes, spectators, and TV viewers to get to know different parts of the world. For Pedro Aroche, a trainer with Mexico's walking team, the answer is to establish a rotation among the world's continents for hosting the Games.
"Why not establish a fund where the richest countries would help the poorer to pay for hosting the Games?" asks Mr. Aroche. "That way the same international solidarity that is behind the Games would also be part of their location."
*This article includes reports from staff writers Ruth Walker in Toronto and Sydney, Peter Ford in Paris, Kevin Platt in Beijing, Cameron W. Barr in Tokyo, and Howard LaFranchi in Mexico City.