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BEHIND THE RINGS: Inside the Olympic Movement | COLUMN

A Shaky Start for Olympic Reforms

The IOC has taken steps to rebuild its image after scandal. But cozy relationships persist, raising questions about whether the movement's commitment to change is genuine.


RIO DE JANEIRO — The moon hung low in the southern sky, the night was warm, and the platters of free food and drinks kept coming as samba dancers entered to loud music and raucous applause.

Soon these bikinied young women were joined in a Carnival-like conga line by revelers--prominent officials of the worldwide Olympic movement.

This $100,000 bash was hosted in May by Brazil's Olympic Committee as part of the prelude to a multimillion-dollar effort to land the Summer Games in 2012.

"You know," observed Franklin Servan-Schreiber, the International Olympic Committee spokesman, "this could look really bad."

Appearances mean everything as the movement struggles to rebuild its image after the Salt Lake City scandal--in which officials bidding for the 2002 Winter Games wooed IOC members with lavish favors and gifts.

Last December, the IOC enacted a 50-point reform package. But records and interviews show that the culture of privilege and excess at the heart of the scandal is still very much alive.

Cozy relationships and financial arrangements persist, raising questions about whether commitment to reform is widespread and genuine. And far too many Olympic delegates, experts said, have not yet recognized that they must avoid even the appearance of impropriety to help fully restore public confidence.

"You're asking the old dogs to learn new tricks," said John Hoberman, an Olympics scholar and professor at the University of Texas.

A yearlong examination by The Times found that the IOC has taken important steps toward reform but still has a long way to go:

Some IOC delegates scoff at perhaps the single-most-important provision in the reform package: a ban on visits to cities bidding for the Games.

Age limits designed to bring fresh blood into an entrenched membership may not even apply to about 80% of the delegates.

The IOC's recently formed Ethics Commission is not wholly independent and found itself in potential conflicts of interest in two of its first cases.

"In the wake of the problems the IOC had, [members] should pay special attention to appearances as well as substance," said former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), the only American member of the new IOC Ethics Commission. "I think it is the big issue."

The Preferred Perk

The IOC currently has 113 members, all serving without pay. Without question, the best perk had long been the free trips to far-flung locales, with the added allure of gifts upon arrival. Perhaps that's why trying to rein in such trips has proved so difficult.

Before the Salt Lake City scandal erupted, the IOC had placed limits on the duration of trips and the value of gifts an IOC member could accept. But reports later concluded that the rules were widely ignored.

At the height of the scandal, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch convened an 82-member reform panel that included the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

A ban on visits to bidding cities was part of the panel's reform package later adopted by the full IOC, 89-10, with one abstention.

However, it was far from clear whether supporters of the ban truly believed in it or, as IOC member Mario Pescante of Italy said after the vote, were merely seeking to support Samaranch and appease critics.

At the time, a disdainful Princess Anne of Britain, an IOC member, quipped to reporters, "If you think [a ban is] going to work--huh, fine."

The party in Rio, attended by dozens of IOC members, projected the very image of privilege the organization is trying to live down--one that stands in contrast to the struggles of Third World athletes who often do not have enough equipment, training facilities, sometimes even food.

And then there's the substance behind the party. The Brazilians, who lost out on the 2004 Olympics and want the 2012 Games, spent nearly $3 million on a four-day visit and meeting of the IOC's ruling Executive Board and members of Olympic committees around the world.

The new IOC rules prohibit members from visiting bid cities, but there was a loophole: Formal bidding for the 2012 Games won't get underway until next summer.

So there was nothing to stop the Brazilians from feting hundreds of key members in the Olympic movement along the Copacabana.

And the party--with crab meat-stuffed scallops and traditional Brazilian barbecue--was one of several after-hours events, culminating in a formal, sit-down dinner at the seaside.

The president of Brazil made clear that the hospitality was designed to help pave the way to a winning Olympic bid. "It will be our turn," said Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Several high-ranking Olympic officials acknowledged that Brazil was sowing goodwill but said they saw nothing exceptional or untoward about the effort.

"You're in the most riotous of party countries," said Dick Pound, an IOC vice president from Canada. "It's part of their culture. Impropriety? Harrumph."

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