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WORLD SPORT / MIKE PENNER

Widening Olympic Scandal Takes to the Hill Today

Samaranch knew he couldn't expect much deference at Senate hearings on bribery scandal.

April 14, 1999|MIKE PENNER

Mr. Samaranch Doesn't Go to Washington: Much to the detriment of fans of C-SPAN and farcical theater, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch declined an invitation to testify at today's Senate Commerce Committee hearings regarding the Olympic bribery scandal, no doubt the smartest move the IOC's benevolent dictator has made in some time.

Through his advisors, Samaranch heard all about everything that goes on atop Capitol Hill. They impeach presidents, don't they? And these hearings, they can be rude and insolent--disrespectful even. No one sitting in the witness chair is ever addressed "Your Excellency," or presented a pearl-handled antique firearm as a show of gratitude for making an appearance, or greeted with a smarmy standing ovation every time he clears his throat.

In other words, this ain't the IOC.

This hearing was a lose-lose situation for Samaranch, as he must have figured out as soon as he was shown the witness list. Among those scheduled to testify: Andrew Jennings, the British investigative journalist who has skewered Samaranch and the IOC in two books--with a third on the way--and was subsequently sued for defamation by Samaranch. Jennings delights in his role as the omnipresent burr in Samaranch's polo saddle, landmining interviews with such outrageous observations as: "Samaranch is the cuddliest little fascist I ever came across."

Samaranch, somewhat understandably, wanted no part of this.

Nor was he eager to leave the safe sanctuary of Lausanne for what he perceives to be hostile territory--the United States, home of the IOC-bashing George Mitchell report, the large corporate sponsors that have called for radical Olympic reform and a potential threat known as the U.S. Olympic Committee.

According to reports in the German media Tuesday, there exists an USOC strategy paper that outlines "a scenario of how the USA could take over IOC." The reports quote an unnamed senior IOC member claiming that the USOC plans to "flex financial and political muscle to seize effective control" of the IOC, now vulnerable in the wake of the scandal.

USOC officials deny the existence of such a paper or strategy, but there can be no denying Samaranch's suspicion of an ambush awaiting him in Washington.

There was nothing for Samaranch to gain here, unlike previous U.S. visits to Salt Lake City and Atlanta. So he's staying home, steering clear and hoping the rhetorical damage isn't too severe.

Last month, Samaranch was quoted in the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia as saying he made a mistake in staying on as IOC president after the 1992 Olympics. Samaranch would never admit as much to the Western media--in the presence of Western journalists, he assesses the current state of the Olympic Movement as " "excellent, excellent"--but when speaking to Spanish writers, in his native tongue, he occasionally lets his guard down.

"I always thought that the moment to go was after [the 1992 Games in] Barcelona, once that dream had been fulfilled," Samaranch said. "But there was an important stage to go through, the IOC centenary, and that took another four years. Then in 1997, I was convinced that I should continue. . . .

"I always say that it is very difficult to reach a position of such responsibility as I now have. But the most difficult thing is to leave at the right time. I didn't do it, and that was a mistake."

Which is why Samaranch is not in Washington today.

He didn't need to be reminded again.

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