Limbering up for the biggest prize in sport

<i>The Great Olympic Swindle </i>by Andrew Jennings with Clare Sambrook (Simon &amp; Schuster, &pound;16.99)
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The Independent Culture

As we saw in the results of a recent poll, Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings, that chronicle of small-time good's triumph over big-time evil, remains the nation's favourite book. Andrew Jennings's co-written exposés of the new "lords of the rings" - the International Olympic Committee - have now reached the trilogy stage. In this instalment, Jennings and Clare Sambrook provide another predictable litany of unaccountable appointments and cronyism, hidden earnings and bribery, connections with organised crime and corrupt governments. We meet sometime fascists, ecocidal developers and naive former athletes. All combine to present the committee's work, the choice of Olympic venues and the campaign against doping as irreproachable.

As we saw in the results of a recent poll, Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings, that chronicle of small-time good's triumph over big-time evil, remains the nation's favourite book. Andrew Jennings's co-written exposés of the new "lords of the rings" - the International Olympic Committee - have now reached the trilogy stage. In this instalment, Jennings and Clare Sambrook provide another predictable litany of unaccountable appointments and cronyism, hidden earnings and bribery, connections with organised crime and corrupt governments. We meet sometime fascists, ecocidal developers and naive former athletes. All combine to present the committee's work, the choice of Olympic venues and the campaign against doping as irreproachable.

Professional boxing we already knew to be riddled with corruption. Jennings and Sambrook show how the "amateur" version replicates it, claiming referees' decisions are influenced with the apparent collusion of the IOC. Results depend not on the contests themselves but on locale (Koreans won in Seoul) or the demands of television; in particular, the interests of maximising the US television audience. In last year's amateur championships at Houston, Cubans were consistently beaten by Americans; American interest in the forthcoming contests in Sydney was assured.

And there's the rub. The trouble with the Jennings conspiracy theory is not that the IOC is the innocent servant of sport - far from it. Jennings and his co-writers, intent on painting the committee as crooked, overlook the big picture. Hard though the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, and his cronies try to present themselves as lords of the rings, we know that they are more like Saruman than Sauron - powerful-seeming pawns in a much wider scheme. At one point, Jennings approvingly cites a put-down of an IOC official by a NewsCorp executive, without acknowledging that this is where the real power lies. It is Rupert Murdoch who lives in Mordor.

Sport these days is a subordinate part of the global media-entertainment complex. The contests are relatively unimportant (such things can be invented, as they have been since Kerry Packer dreamt up "world series" cricket for his Channel Nine in Australia). The rights to exploit them, fought over by media corporations, are crucial; indeed, these days they are sport, as presented to the public. Football seasons have stretched, and rugby league seasons changed altogether, to accommodate satellite television's demands. Whatever the local time, athletes in all sports are forced to compete when the maximum paying audience can be reached.

The current issue of Index on Censorship magazine ("This Sporting Lie", £8.99), examining the games and Australian culture, gives a more subtle overview. A set of snappy essays on racism, drugs and censorship in sport is led off by a magisterial survey from Mike Marqusee. Hansie Cronje's semi-confession reveals the collusion of cricketers in the replacement of contest by racing certainty. We await a similar revelation about soccer. Murdoch's bid to buy Manchester United suggests that he sees the predictability of results - in which the best-funded always succeed - as preferable to the more open contest in which "giant-killing" was a possibility.

Is there an alternative? Jennings and Sambrook pin their hope on a people's movement, led by former athletes, for the restoration of Olympic amateur ideals. Index finds it in women's increasing participation. The seeds of destruction of the new lords' domination may also lie in the internet: the Napster story indicates that there are plenty of twists and turns before cyberspace is lost to subscriber-only services.

At Sydney, the real Olympic swindle will continue to be the hijacking of sport by media corporations. They do not want a good clean fight but entertainment for the audience that will pay the most, and they obtain the collusion of the IOC to attain that audience. I will be watching the medal count, and the performances of boxers and referees in particular, with that in mind.

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