Scandal-ridden Ioc Is Voting To Institute Reforms All Of The Proposals Brought Up So Far Have Passed. But Critics Say They Do Not Adequately Address Key Issues.

Posted: December 12, 1999

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — It was exactly one year ago today that the Olympic Games - long considered a relatively pristine outpost in an increasingly grubby sports world - finally revealed their own soiled laundry.

Just days after a sketchy news report aired in Salt Lake City concerning a clandestine scholarship fund for the children of International Olympic Committee members, one of the IOC's inner circle blew the whistle on the mess.

Marc Hodler of Switzerland stood up and declared that the Olympic Games were for sale to the highest bidder, with cities around the world rushing to fill the pockets of IOC members in order to win their votes and become host cities.

Slowly at first, then more quickly than the members could fully grasp, the insular world around them changed forever. It was discovered that more than $1.2 million in illicit payments and favors had been distributed to IOC members by back-thumping Salt Lake City bidders to secure the 2002 Winter Games. That scandal would cause 10 members to either resign or be expelled.

That was only the beginning of the upheaval, however. Governments were aghast, sponsors reconsidered their support, and the IOC began a year-long cleansing process aimed at restoring the gleam to the five interlocking rings.

This weekend, at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, the full membership votes on 50 separate reforms, some of which would make their lifestyles significantly less cushy.

The regleaming will continue later this week, when Juan Antonio Samaranch, the 79-year-old IOC president, appears before a U.S. House subcommittee investigating Olympic improprieties.

Samaranch believes that an improved IOC is emerging from the ashes of the scandal, with its aging, ossified membership forced to modernize the organization in a way that would have been impossible before.

"The entire world is watching us," Samaranch said in a statement to the membership yesterday. "Without this crisis, the IOC would never have undertaken the massive reform program we are asking you to approve."

Critics, however, believe that as much whitewash as cleanser is being employed by the IOC to its problems. Striving to protect its $3.5 billion in quadrennial revenue - derived mostly from television rights and corporate sponsorships - the organization is more interested in the appearance of change, according to some, than in real change.

Andrew Jennings, a journalist from Britain whose book Lords of the Rings exposed many of the IOC's excesses several years ago, says the reform measures are "padded out with irrelevancies and stupidities in order to distract people."

According to a recent survey commissioned by the IOC, public opinion has been relatively unaffected by the scandal. The survey, for which citizens of seven countries were questioned, found that people generally have a higher opinion of the Games than they did a year ago. It indicated that, in terms of public esteem, the Olympics are considered a more worthy entity than UNICEF or the International Red Cross.

That feeling and the completion of the reform process - whether deep-reaching or not - should calm the jitters among corporate deep-pockets who don't want their large investments tainted. Calming the political rhetoric is another thing entirely.

Governments, particularly that of the United States, have taken the scandal as an opportunity to climb on the stump and wonder aloud whether the IOC and its member organizations, such as the U.S. Olympic Committee, deserve tax-exempt status and other perks.

Samaranch believes that the IOC's reforms will answer those questions - an argument that he will take to Washington on Wednesday, when he appears before a House Commerce subcommittee chaired by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

"We have accomplished a lot in a short period of time," Samaranch said.

The reform proposals were written by two IOC committees - one appointed to draft and enforce an ethics policy and the other, called IOC 2000, to recommend fundamental changes in the organization. The guest list was an impressive one.

The ethics committee includes Howard Baker, former Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff, and Javier Perez de Cuellar, former secretary general of the United Nations. The IOC 2000 committee includes Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state; Peter Ueberroth, whose management of the 1984 Olympics ushered in the modern era of profitable Games; and - because no committee is complete without one - another former U.N. secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Yesterday, as several sections of the reform package were approved, the membership was not able to make amendments to the recommendations. Discussion was allowed, but - contrary to standard parliamentary procedure - the full body was left with a series of take-it-or-leave-it choices. In all cases, the members took it. More than a dozen proposals still remain to be approved today.

"It was not a process I have observed before," Kissinger said after attending yesterday's session. "But since they endorsed what my colleagues and I recommended, I suffer no pain about it."

Among the recommendations approved yesterday were:

An age limit of 70 for IOC members. Present members will enjoy a grandfather clause - no pun intended - that allows them to remain until the current age limit of 80 is reached. This so-called transition period could continue until 2047, when the youngest IOC member, 32-year-old Prince William of the Netherlands, turns 80.

A total membership of 115 that includes at least 15 active athletes, 15 presidents of international sports federations, and 15 presidents of national Olympic organizing committees.

An eight-year term for the IOC president, who can be elected to an additional term of four years. (Samaranch has served for 19 years, autocratically appointing nearly the entire IOC membership along the way.)

The most important thing still to be decided today is the matter of future trips by IOC members to prospective host cities - the issue that led to the mess in the first place.

Samaranch favors a complete ban on visits but knows that this is the one recommendation that might be voted down by a cranky membership that doesn't want to be considered corruptible and, well, likes taking those trips.

An alternative - limited trips paid for by the IOC - will be presented as an option, as will the compromise of banning trips until Samaranch leaves office in 2001 and then reopening the subject.

While the reforms are wide-ranging and well-intended as far as they go, some major issues raised in the past year are not addressed.

Despite the recommendations of outside investigators - such as former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, who chaired a USOC probe - there is no provision for the impartial election of at-large members - in other words, as many as 70 of the 115 members of the restructured IOC. The names of candidates will be considered in private by the 15-member executive board, which will decide which are submitted to the full membership for approval.

"This is no change," Jennings said. "This is the good old boys doing as they always have done."

And Hodler's most damning claims - that agents, including at least one IOC member, could deliver large blocks of votes in return for bribes from bidding cities - have never been fully investigated. His assertion that the selections of Atlanta; Nagano, Japan; and Sydney, Australia, as Olympic cities were at least as compromised as that of Salt Lake City is still mostly conjecture.

Proof that the IOC membership is still an unpredictable lot - which could make today's session interesting - was the selection this past summer of the site for the 2006 Winter Games. For the first time, members were not allowed to visit bid cities, missing the chance to be wined, dined and presented with gifts within the acceptable but generous limits of the past.

Apparently miffed, the voters bypassed Sion, Switzerland, which was considered the best candidate and was championed by the whistle-blowing Hodler, and chose Turin, Italy, instead.

It's all part of the most troubling year in IOC history. But Samaranch and the IOC members believe that they can close the book on scandal with their actions this weekend and open a fresh volume in which to record sport's victories rather than its failures.

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