The flame that died

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THIS morning an elderly Spanish gentleman will ease himself out of a limousine, stride through a security cordon and enter a palatial building by the shores of Lac Leman in Switzerland. With his haughty manner and fine tailoring, he will look and behave like a head of state. Someone may even say, "Good day, Senor President."

Juan Antonio Samaranch is head of the International Olympic Committee, a self-appointed body of men and (very few) women who believe themselves to be above the petty considerations of national politics. Until last week they were also above criticism. But these have been the worst few days in the long history of the Olympic movement, when whispers of bribery and corruption became a screaming list of specific and highly damaging accusations.

Nobody close to the IOC was really surprised. Many had suspected for years that the biggest money-spinner in sport was allocated on the basis of which country spent the most on bribes, gifts, services and favours - sexual or otherwise - for the committee members with the crucial votes. An internal report has found that 13 of them accepted inducements worth at least $600,000 in return for supporting Salt Lake City in its six-year campaign to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. Yesterday, the so-called Dirty Dozen were called before a panel to explain themselves. Today Samaranch and his executive colleagues will decide what action to take. Being thrown off the gravy train may be the least of their worries. The FBI and US tax officials are also investigating the Salt Lake scandal, which emerged in December. Soon after that, a vice-president of the IOC broke ranks to claim that brokers had been offering votes for cash for at least a decade - but Marc Hodler was soon persuaded to shut up.

It was too late to shut the stable door, however, and on Friday, the man behind Sydney 2000 admitted that he had arranged sports funding for African countries and promised $35,000 each to two delegates, from Kenya and Uganda, just before the crucial vote in 1993. Sydney was awarded the Games over Peking - by two votes. This admission was closely followed by demands of compensation for Manchester, which also lost out to Sydney despite spending over pounds 5 million on its campaign. Britain's Sports Minister, Tony Banks, said he would not back any more bids until the selection process had been completely reformed.

Within hours bigger cracks had begun to appear in the elegant IOC edifice, and they threatened to bring it crashing down around Samaranch. The claims were many and various: committee members had been wined and dined in Amsterdam, given diamonds and taken to brothels; campaigners for Berlin had compiled a dossier on their sexual preferences and paid for expensive airline tickets so that they could dally elsewhere on the way to the city; helicopter tours and parties with geishas were enjoyed in Nagano, where all documents relating to the bid were shredded shortly after the successful Winter Olympics.

THE IOC has 115 members, including Princess Anne. When she complained a couple of years ago about the huge number of unsolicited lavish gifts pressed on her as a delegate (and returned), the committee introduced a rule that no one should accept anything worth more than $150. President Samaranch does not consider himself bound by that ruling, since he casts no vote.

Since putting his past as a pro-Franco politician behind him, he has dared to hope that his Olympic reign might win him the Nobel Peace Prize. When the mandatory retirement age looked like depriving him of the presidency before that goal was reached, he simply persuaded the IOC to raise the limit. Now the dream may be gone forever. Samaranch took over after the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which were boycotted by the Americans. Critics say he has sold the soul of the Games to the big corporations of the US. Each four-year cycle generates $10bn in sponsorship, merchandising and broadcasting rights - and as a sporting cash cow, only the World Cup comes close. Global television rights for Atlanta '96 sold for $900m, and sponsors like Coca-Cola and Nike contributed to a commercial revenue of $800m, with the five-ringed logo endorsing everything from chocolate bars to computers.

Cities like Athens - which has just been awarded 2004 as a reaction against the arid commercialism of Atlanta - point to urban regeneration and dazzling new sporting facilities as an Olympic prize worth winning. Ironically, Athens had to be cajoled into staging the first modern Olympics in 1896. The Games had been revived by the idealistic French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who wanted to reawaken what he saw as their noble ancient values. Several sporting games were held in association with religious festivals in ancient Greece, but the most famous was at Olympia in honour of Zeus every four years. The athletes, who mostly competed in the nude, were all men. Free-born Greeks, they received only a garland for victory - or rather that was the myth perpetuated by de Coubertin and other champions of amateurism. The reality was that in ancient Greece gifts were showered on the winners.

IN 1908 de Coubertin defined the modern Olympic ideal, with words now displayed at every opening ceremony: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." Although he was associated with the highest blown Olympian ideals, de Coubertin knew that his vision had a dark side. In another speech he said: "Athleticism can occasion the most noble passions or the most vile. It can be chivalrous or corrupt, vile, bestial."

The less than democratic Parisian believed the best way to protect the spirit of amateur sport was for its administrators to be completely free of outside influences. The International Olympic Committee was therefore set up as a self-appointing body of ambassadors from national sports organisations - although they were not to accept instructions or advice from their home countries.

This approach was eloquently expressed by the Belgian Comte Henri Baillet- Latour in a confrontation with Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The then IOC president noticed signs outside the toilets in all the venues declaring that dogs and Jews were not allowed, and asked they be taken down. Hitler refused, insisting that no one who was invited to a friend's house then told him how to run it. "Excuse me," M. Baillet-Latour is reported to have said. "When the five-circled flag is raised over the stadium, it is no longer Germany. It is Olympia, and we are masters there."

At least one official Olympic history uses the story as an example of how this high-minded international movement fought to remain independent. But however much the extraordinary success of the black American Jesse Owens mystified Aryan supremacists that year, secret compromises were reached. Swastikas still flew and Nazi salutes were made.

As the present scandal escalates, the story might also be said to show that the arrogance and detachment from reality which has led Samaranch and his IOC into so much trouble has deep historical and ideological roots. The question is whether they are too deep to cut.

Peter Corrigan, Sport, page 8

A president they can't impeach, Sport, page 11

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