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Tall tasks await new Olympics czar

By Justin Brown Special to The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 2001



Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the last 21 years, did his job. He put the world's best athletes on the playing field, filled the Olympic coffers with money to help the poorest participants, and navigated a bumpy course through the cold war.

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"He brought political competency to the Olympics," says John MacAloon, a historian at the University of Chicago.

Now it's time for him to move on. On Monday, the former Spanish diplomat will step down at age 81. Then the committee's 122 delegates will choose the eighth IOC president. It's perhaps the most important job in sports - but also a thankless post without a salary, more likely to draw criticism than flattery.

The front-runner is Jacques Rogge, a Belgian doctor with a reputation for fairness. Other candidates with a chance to win are Canadian Dick Pound and South Korean Kim Un-yong. The long shots are Hungarian Pal Schmitt and Anita DeFrantz of the United States.

Whoever it may be, the new IOC president will surely benefit from the forward leaps made by Samaranch.

But he or she will also face difficulties that could never have been envisioned when Samaranch took office in 1980. At the time, the IOC was wracked with financial problems. Montreal had just lost big money on the 1976 Games, and Moscow was about to play Olympic host in the shadow of a boycott by the US and 64 other countries.

"Samaranch brought the Olympics so far into the 21st century that the new president will have a different set of challenges," says Sandy Baldwin, the president of the US Olympic Committee.

Today the problem isn't money - the IOC is rich enough that it can give out $200 million every four years to developing countries. Thank TV for that. The issues of today are more philosophical - ethical questions about the nature of the athlete and the role of the Games.

At their best, the Olympics can inspire us, as Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman did in Sydney. At their worst, the Olympics can seem like a competition among robots fighting for cash - a cross between Steven Spielberg's "A.I" and NBC's "The Weakest Link."

The first and foremost issue is doping, which only seems to get more prevalent and complicated. It begins with the values system that drives athletes to succeed. It ends at the cutting edge of technology, where genetic manipulation and performance-enhancing drugs easily outrun testing and enforcement. It's hard to even imagine what science will be capable of doing to the athlete in 10 years. It could dwarf the Ben Johnson scandal. (In 1988, Johnson won Olympic gold in the 100-meter sprint, but subsequently failed a drug test and had to forfeit his medal.)

"We are faced not just with doping scandals, but with the greater question about the nature of the human being who enters competition," says John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an Olympics expert. "The genetic manipulation of athletes will be the single overarching issue for the next decade."

Hoberman wants to approach the problem through the culture of the elite athlete: Find out what drives athletes to take performance-enhancing drugs, why they are willing to risk their health for success, he says, and you find out how to stop it.

Others, like US Olympic president Baldwin, focus on the need for more resources and greater support for organizations like the World Anti-Doping Agency, which began operations in 2000. Baldwin says IOC officials need to "encourage the money that it takes to [do] research. If you can't do that, you can't keep up with new drugs that are being developed - and it's easy to chase the wrong substances."

Then there's the issue of doping enforcement. Different countries have different laws. What you can do in France (and has been done at the Tour de France), you can't do in the US.

"The major challenge is dealing with a complex world with different legal systems," says sports historian MacAloon. Aggressive search-and-seizure programs have been successful in France, for instance, but those tactics would violate British and US laws, MacAloon says.

The doping question is related to other issues facing the next IOC president, including the size and cost of the Games, commercialization, and corruption.

The price of the Olympic Games is ballooning out of control, partially because of the increasing numbers of athletes and events. The 1996 Atlanta Games included 29 sports and cost about $1.7 billion. The 2002 Salt Lake City winter Games, with far fewer events and only eight sports, will cost nearly the same amount, $1.4 billion.

There's lots of profit to be made, but the front-loaded price tag also means poor countries are left out of the action.

"If this continues to escalate, very few governments will be able to afford to put on Olympic games of the same scale as today," Baldwin says.

Critics also worry that the games are getting too commercial. Too much money is involved, too many words from the TV sponsor. That leads to corruption. In Salt Lake City, 10 IOC officials were caught taking gifts from local bid officials trying to secure the 2002 winter Games. In other words, the city was trying to buy votes, and the committee members obliged.

Some IOC officials resigned; others were expelled.

Asking the next IOC president to resolve all these issues is probably not fair. More realistically, he or she can face up to some of the problems, and at least begin the fight to contain them.

The rest is up to the athletes, as it should be.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor