Cloud over Olympics lifts - a bit

International body votes this weekend on reform, hoping to end

Olympic leaders are about to start competing in a new event: the reform decathlon.

The International Olympic Committee meets in Switzerland this weekend to vote on changes to the way it does business. Days later, IOC head Juan Antonio Samaranch flies to Washington to likely tell Congress that the corruption crisis - which began a year ago this month over Salt Lake City's winning bid for the 2002 Games - is over.

The Olympics, once described as the perfect marriage of sport and commerce, will surely remain the world's top athletic competition. But some in the Olympic movement insist that the reform process has just begun - and that real democracy and openness remain a long way off.

"I do not believe they have removed the tarnish from the rings at all," says David D'Alessandro, president of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, a sponsor of the Games in the past. "They have prevented them from tarnishing any more. Now they have to spend a few years shining them."

In the scandal that erupted last December, a senior IOC official and others publicly charged that some IOC members had accepted more than $1 million in gifts, trips, and other favors from the Utah group that landed the Winter Games.

Since then, 10 members have been expelled, and most visits to bid cities by Olympic officials have been banned. A reform committee that includes heavyweights such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has drawn up reforms the IOC will consider in Lausanne on Dec. 11 and 12.

Among the changes: an eight-year term for IOC members; the lowering of the age limit for members to 70; inclusion of 15 active athletes on the Olympic Commission; and a permanent ban on bid-city visits.

Though a faction within the IOC opposes change, the reforms have the support of Mr. Samaranch, the IOC's autocratic chief, and are expected to pass.

"The progress is greater than I would have thought six months ago," says Bill Hybl, president of the United States Olympic Committee and a member of IOC 2000, the overall group that is recommending the reforms.

Critics say the IOC culture will change only gradually under proposed reforms. Current members will not be subject to the age-limit retirement rule, and they won't have to put themselves up for reelection until 2008.

Future lies in new members

And where will new candidates for the IOC come from? From the IOC president and a small selection committee, that's where.

How quickly new members join the committee, and how they behave once they get there, will determine the future of the Olympic movement, say critics.

Among the most determined of the Olympic watchdogs is the US House of Representatives. To some extent, the IOC's problems are US-based - the scandal unfolded in Salt Lake City, after all, and many of the worried corporate sponsors of the Games are US companies.

If Congress remains dissatisfied with the IOC's progress, it could press for sanctions such as a loss of the organization's tax-exempt status in the United States.

"There have been real problems, and we want them corrected," says Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, which will host Samaranch next week.

Enforcement of reforms, once they have passed, will be key. Secrecy, and behavior reminiscent of a posh London men's club, should be out, US critics say. Openness, US-style, should be in.

The IOC should "open its books, its meetings, invite the press in, to ensure their actions ... are in the best interests of the Olympic movement," says Mickey Ibarra, vice chairman of a Clinton administration task force on the Salt Lake games.

So far, the Games have not lost important corporate sponsors over the scandal. Visa will be the Olympic credit card through at least 2004, when the Summer Games will be in Athens. Coca-Cola has already committed to 2008.

Salt Lake officials hope the worst is behind them. A new poll puts local support for the Winter Games at about 85 percent, well above its levels after the corruption charges became public.

Ten more sponsors have signed on in the past six months, says Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. The IOC's actions "will in large measure put the scandal behind them," he says.

Skepticism among athletes

Whether the athletes - the most important part of the Olympic equation - agree is another matter. Former Olympic swimmer Mike Tewksbury has seen firsthand the extravagant lifestyles and what he terms a culture of corruption, most recently as an athlete representative in the bid-evaluation process for the 2004 games. He is now a member of the board of Olympic Advocates Together Honourably, a Toronto-based nonprofit group.

"If you scratch beneath surface, some of these things might not effect a strong sense of permanent change," he says of the proposed IOC reforms.

*Staff writers James N. Thurman in Washington and Stacy Teicher in Boston contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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