SALT LAKE CITY — The eyes of the world through the end of this month are on Syndey, Australia, which is playing host to the Olympic Summer Games. Athletes from some 200 countries are running and jumping, swimming and sweating as they compete for the gold, silver, and bronze medals with which world champions in 28 sports, 40 disciplines, and 301 events are rewarded.
Australians are a direct, no-nonsense lot and will give us a forthright accounting of whether the Games go badly or well. We must hope that it is the latter, for the Olympic ideal badly needs a boost after the scandal of bribery and corruption that has beset it for the past two years.
In some 500 days, the Games will return to American soil in Salt Lake City, Utah, whose girdling mountains will challenge the skiers and skaters competing in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Utahans are hoping that successful Games in Sydney will help refocus attention on the nobility of Olympic athletics and dispel preoccupation with the sleazy vote-buying that accompanied Salt Lake's campaign for the winter Games.
In its bid to win the Games, with all their prestige and publicity, Salt Lake lagged for some years behind competing cities. Finally, in 1995, it was named host of the 2002 Winter Games.
Although Salt Lake is well qualified by climate, location, and facilities as a host city, officials of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee (SLOC) left little to chance by proffering a variety of favors to International Olympic Committee (IOC) members whose votes would determine the outcome.
There was expensive wining and dining. There were costly gifts. There were university scholarships for sons and daughters of IOC officials. There were individual cash payments up to $50,000 from a special fund earmarked to promote the city's cause. There were lucrative land deals which netted as much as $60,000 to the "investor." About a million dollars went toward perks calculated to win votes.
In 1998, the scandal erupted in the Salt Lake media. In a Mormon-dominated state renowned for its strict morals and ethical business dealings, public reaction was shock and anger.
A series of investigations began, resulting in firings of, and resignations by, top SLOC officials. The FBI and the US Department of Justice began a long probe, which recently resulted in the indictment of two top former officials on bribery charges.
The scandal seeped upward to the IOC, where some recipients of the bribes were disgraced and toppled. Some reforms have taken place, but they are relatively mild.
Mitt Romney, a millionaire Republican businessman who gave Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts a close run in his 1994 Senate reelection campaign, was brought in to clean up SLOC. He is handsome, politically astute, deft at public relations, and personally squeaky clean. Where previous SLOC officials were intent on concealment, Mr. Romney is open, and he's frank about SLOC's past failings. When the Salt Lake Games are over in 2002, Romney says he will return to Massachusetts, where many believe he has political ambitions yet to fulfill.
But though Romney is building an impressive personal record, his problems at SLOC linger. Unless some accord is reached between the defense and the prosecution, the trial of two top former SLOC officials could extend into 2002 and continue even as the Winter Games take place.
Hundreds of pages of documents, some embarrassing in their lists of payments made, could become public. Prominent personalities might be called to the witness stand, for the defendants' case seems to revolve around the argument that they acted with the direction, knowledge, and support of their superiors and board members.
Meanwhile, SLOC under its new management is struggling to produce the sponsorships and income that will enable it to produce an effective winter Games without leaving the state of Utah with unpaid bills. Romney has slashed the budget by $200 million, but it is still $76 million in the red, and he's warned the Games "won't be a testament to excess."
Salt Lake City aside, the problem underlying the whole Olympic movement is that it has transformed from a once relatively modest test of international amateur athletic skills into a mega-business.
The Olympics generates $900 million a year in revenues. NBC is paying $3.5 billion to broadcast the next five Games. The network has sold a record $900 million in commercial time for the Sydney Olympics. Now it is time for the athletes to show that the Olympics' original idealism remains uncorrupted.
*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society