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The Decaying Integrity of the Olympics

February 07, 1999|Paul L. Montgomery | Paul L. Montgomery, a former reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, is a writer based in Lausanne

LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND — In this lakeside city where Edward Gibbon penned the last chapters of his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" more than 200 years ago, the 20th-century kingdom of the Olympics is being shaken to its foundations. As revelations of corruption and arrogance follow hard upon one another at the splendid glass headquarters of the International Olympic Committee in a Lausanne suburb, admirers of the Games wonder where their once-shining ideals have gone.

Gibbon, who deeply distrusted zealots, regarded history as "little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind." The scandals at the IOC, the worst in the movement since the Games were revived in Athens in 1896, have shown that the worldwide sports combine of promoters, organizers, athletes, executives, sponsors and broadcasters--and, most of all, money--has often played by Gibbon's rules.

There has been evidence that IOC members got as much as $200,000 in concealed favors from cities trying to win selection as the site of the lucrative Games. Four committee members have resigned under fire, five more have been expelled and an undisclosed number are still under investigation. Salt Lake City, which won the 2002 Winter Games after several previous defeats, set aside millions in its organizing budget for bribes. There are at least six investigations--local, state and federal--into the Utah bid. The system of solidarity and team play at the IOC here, which maintains the corrupt and the uncorrupted in power impartially, is tottering.

At the center of the debacle stands 78-year-old Juan Antonio Samaranch of Barcelona, Spain, who has been president of the IOC since 1980 and is credited by his supporters with rescuing the Games from decline. Indeed, before Samaranch, there had been a series of reversals.

In 1968, in Mexico City, to assure that the Games that summer would go on untroubled by demonstrators, the hard-line Mexican army opened fire with machine guns on a student rally. The official death toll was 50, but subsequent research has revealed as many as 300 citizens may have been killed. The next Summer Games were in Munich in 1972, and 11 members of the Israeli team died after a terrorist attack. In 1976, Montreal saw a boycott by African nations over sports cooperation with apartheid in South Africa. Quebec taxpayers are still paying off the $1-billion deficit the Games left behind. In 1980, in Moscow, the United States and other Western nations boycotted the Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. With many top athletes absent, it was hardly a profitable spectacle for Western television.

Then Samaranch came to power. He was a skilled behind-the-scenes worker, an aristocrat from a wealthy textile family who had risen to prominence in Francisco Franco's dictatorship as a sports executive and politician. Samaranch survived his nation's transition to democracy as Spain's first ambassador to the Soviet Union after Franco's death.

In previous IOC regimes, the organization's main task, aside from assuring the Summer and Winter Games every four years, was to ascertain the pure amateurism of the athletes. Avery Brundage, a wealthy American who was IOC president from 1952 to 1972, was a stiff-necked autocrat who often treated athletes like serfs on a Russian estate. Under-the-table payments to competitors by both promoters and governments were common, but the fiction of amateurism was maintained.

Samaranch changed all that by opting for professionalism. Under the tutelage of Horst Dassler of the Adidas sports-shoe empire, Samaranch and the IOC permitted sponsorship of athletes and payment by their national federations. The first meeting of the two men in 1981 was perhaps the most important encounter in Olympics history. The legacy of Dassler, who died in 1987, lives on in the IOC. Two of the 11 members of the IOC executive committee, Richard W. Pound of Canada and Thomas Bach of Germany, are lawyers in firms retained by Adidas.

The 1984 Games in Los Angeles, the first under Samaranch's aegis, were both immensely profitable and highly popular. The trend perhaps reached its peak in the 1992 Games in Barcelona, when millionaire, highly skilled U.S. basketball players--the Dream Team--overwhelmed all opposition on the way to a gold medal. It was more a made-for-television event than a real contest.

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