Olympic problem: a governing clique

An ethics panel sees autocratic ways of IOC as root of scandal.

The Olympics may soon have a new event - the marathon change in ethical culture.

Three months after the first reports that bribery may have helped Salt Lake City land the 2002 Winter Games, a series of tough investigations has made clear that a few greedy people are not the root of the problems.

It's the antiquated, autocratic governance of the Olympics that has allowed cronyism and cash "gifts" to flourish, former Sen. George Mitchell, chairman of an ethics panel created by the US Olympic Committee, charged yesterday.

The Olympic Games need a modern culture of openness, democracy, and accountability, say Mr. Mitchell and others who have studied the problem. Right now, it's as if the quadrennial extravaganzas of sport and marketing are being run by a clique from the old Soviet Politburo.

"Olympics ethical government has not kept up with the rapid growth of the Olympics movement," Mitchell said.

A March 17 meeting of the International Olympic Committee could give an early hint of the movement's willingness to grapple with its faults.

If the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and its US member group, the US Olympic Committee (USOC), don't move fast enough for Washington, Congress may try to prod them along.

Key senators, among them Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R) of Arizona and Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, are discussing holding hearings on the Salt Lake City bribery allegations. Among their potential weapons: ending the tax-exempt status of the IOC and USOC in the US.

"That would be a serious financial threat to both organizations," says Jeffrey Segrave, an historian of the Olympics at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Meanwhile, the continued connection of "Olympics" with "scandal" in media reports may already be causing the movement some financial harm. Corporate sponsors and television networks are not currently providing the usual amount of money and air time to skiing, skating, and track and field competitions - between-Olympics fare that features possible Olympics stars.

"Athletes are being overlooked when they could really use the support," says John Naber, president of the US Olympians, the alumni group of US Olympic athletes.

Utah self-criticism

Salt Lake City has been struggling to regain some positive momentum as it pushes toward 2002. The city has had to postpone such basic moves as the choice of a mascot as it struggles just to keep the Winter Games.

Earlier this year, an internal Salt Lake City Olympics Committee ethics report found that the city's effort to get the games in the first place led to more than $1.2 million in gifts, payments, and other inducements to about one-fifth of the total IOC membership.

For instance, it charged that IOC member Agustin Arroyo of Ecuador accepted $19,000 from Salt Lake bidders for himself and his family, and took generous travel payments when visiting Utah. Mr. Arroyo denies any wrongdoing.

The leader of the city's Olympic effort, Frank Joklik, resigned. The IOC expelled five members and is investigating 13 others in connection with the case.

Ex-Senatorial criticism

The ethics report released Monday by the panel headed by former Senator Mitchell was commissioned by the next step up the Olympics ladder from the Salt Lake local Olympic leaders, the US national Olympic Committee. While the study did level some criticism against the USOC, its main target was the culture of Olympic governance, in general.

In doing so - by charging that the USOC and every other Olympics organization have participated in cozy, questionable financial relationships for too long - it highlighted "something that has not been highlighted before," says Mr. Segrave.

That the Olympics are now immersed in a political culture of bidding has been made clear by ethics studies and media reports from Sydney, Australia, site of the next Summer Games, and various losing bid cities.

Solutions?

Preventing hand-outs will in essence require moving from an authoritarian to a democratic model for Olympic governance, says Sen. Mitchell.

Salt Lake City Olympic organizers "didn't invent this culture. They joined one already flourishing," says Mitchell.

Among the changes that the Mitchell report urges are that a substantial number of the members of the IOC be elected by members of individual nation Olympic Committees, that there should be a greater representation of athletes in the IOC, and that the organization's leaders should be subject to periodic elections, with term limits.

That last point could be seen as a jab at longtime IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. But Mitchell and other members of his panel stopped short of calling for Mr. Samaranch to step down.

"We believe the emphasis should be on changing the system, not any individual," says the former Democratic senator from Maine.

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