Athletes fret over the Games

Angry about the Salt Lake scandal, they hope it will at least spur realreforms.

After his early-morning workout on the frigid Potomac River a few weeks ago, Olympic white-water canoeist Davey Hearn saw the headline on a newspaper in a neighbor's driveway: "Olympic scandal: trading votes for money."

"I was deflated because I have to work so hard to train, eke out a living, and raise money to compete every year, while the Olympic organizers are ... getting gifts and perks," says the holder of 13 world champion-ship medals. "I don't like the way the whole Olympics has been marketed at the expense of the little-guy athlete like me."

As investigators attempt to pry the lid off the role of vote-buying in Salt Lake City's successful bid for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the athletes - and their opinions on the scandal - have been largely forgotten. Now, many of them are beginning to speak out about an Olympic movement they feel has lost its way.

From swimmers to skiers, joggers to gymnasts, Olympians are expressing anger and feelings of betrayal over a system they say gives money and preferred treatment to International Olympic Committee officials and their families while it leaves athletes to struggle economically.

At the same time, interviews with athletes in the US and abroad reveal that many welcome the current scrutiny, hoping it will help end corruption and bribery. And while many athletes feel they are being tarred with the same brush that has brought shame to the Games as a whole, most say they are moving ahead undeterred in their quest to make it to the Olympics.

"Coaches and athletes all across the world of Olympic sports are beside themselves with anger and frustration, because everyone gets shown in the same negative light," says John Naber, winner of four swimming gold medals at the 1976 Olympics and now president of the United States Olympic Committee Alumni Association. "At the same time, they realize this could bring the formal scrutiny for a revamping of the International Olympic Committee movement, [which] they feel has been unaccountable to anyone for far too long."

Future of the Games

Athletes are also expressing concerns about the future of the Games in terms that are both intangible - such as "honor" and "excellence" - and practical. They ask whether the fallout will diminish the interest of corporate sponsors that produce the Games every four years and support the training of thousands of athletes between Games.

"The big sports will always get sponsors, but I wonder about the smaller sports now," says Elliot Weintrob, who competed for the US team in whitewater slalom canoeing in 1992.

John Hancock Insurance has temporarily suspended millions in advertising, putting the IOC on notice that no more funds will be forthcoming until current practices are condemned and eradicated. U S West temporarily delayed a $5 million payment to the 2002 Games in wake of the scandal. Other advertisers have adopted a wait-and-see posture about supporting the Games.

The organizers may not be the only ones to lose out if corporate America loses faith in the Olympics. Shoe companies and athletic-apparel outfitters have helped many athletes continue training by paying them money to wear their equipment. And while critics argue that those ever present logos have hurt the spirit of the Games, many athletes say sponsorship is vital.

"That's been part of the Games for a long time. It hasn't all necessarily been bad and there's a trickle-down effect," says Ed Eyestone, a US distance runner at the 1988 and 1992 Games who has had contracts with Reebok shoes and Oakley sunglasses. "Some of the athletes have been able to make a living out of doing Olympic sports that they wouldn't otherwise have been able to do."

Still, the scandal "won't make a lick of difference" in the actual sporting competition itself, says one athlete. And others say it doesn't even affect them now.

"I'm an athlete. All the political stuff is not my concern," says Anita Nall, a swimmer preparing for the 2000 Olympics at a training complex in Tempe, Ariz.

"My job is in the pool," she smiles. "I have too much to worry about getting where I want to be."

Indeed, many athletes are wondering when the focus of public and media will shift from host cities and sponsors to the real purpose of the Games: showcasing world-class athletes.

"Athletes are outraged partly because the scandal is tarnishing the Olympic movement as a whole, while it has nothing to do with the athletes themselves," says Vince Poscente, a Canadian skier who competed in 1992. "This is not about an athlete who took performance drugs or tried to club a competitor. It has to do with the organizers."

Many say the excesses now being spotlighted in Salt Lake City - that nearly $3 million in money and other lucrative benefits was spent by local officials on IOC members or their families - are not a new or isolated phenomenon. "One of my lasting memories of competition is how the athletes were all crammed like sardines into teeny dorms and shuttle buses, while IOC members arrived at events by limo and stayed in cushy hotels," recalls Poscente. "It was like royalty versus the masses."

Likewise, cross-country skier Marcus Nash tells of surviving on a $3,000 yearly income while training, and of sleeping on the floor of a budget motel room with six other skiers. He contrasts that with the reported $2.6 million earmarked for IOC officials and their family, according to budget records of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee.

Despite all this, perhaps the athletes' primary concern is that some of this money could be used for competitions. "We have had to fight and scrape to get our event into the Olympics," says Hearn, recalling a 20-year hiatus for canoeing events partly because of the cost of maintaining facilities.

Partly to assuage worries among athletes who believe that they are being held in lower regard by Americans, the US Olympic Committee contracted a public-opinion survey recently.

Athletes still popular

Findings showed athletes remain in good standing, but most respondents say reform is needed in the site-selection process:

*Seventy-four percent said negative stories about the Salt Lake City Games had not damaged their support for athletes.

*Fifty-two percent said reform is needed in Olympic organizing organizations.

"Cleaning up present practices and installing an ethics committee will be critical in winning back public approval," says Mike Moran, USOC spokesman. "Then everyone can put their attention back on the athletes."

That won't happen until after the Sydney Games in 2000, according to gymnast Peter Vidmar, who won two gold medals and a silver in 1984. "If the culture is changed within the IOC, this can ultimately be a very good thing. Then we can go back to tell the stories of how athletes triumph over circumstance and character to be world-class athletes."

*Kathy Khoury in Phoenix and Katharine Biele in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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