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Gift of guns puts Olympics boss in firing line over how US won games

THE GROWING scandal surrounding alleged corruption among members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) yesterday produced the revelation that Juan Antonio Samaranch, its president, had received expensive gifts from a city competing to stage the games.

Mr Samaranch admitted that he had received an inscribed pistol and a rifle on two separate visits to Salt Lake City, Utah, shortly before the American city secured the bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The gift of the guns, said to be worth a total of around $2,000, appears to be in clear contravention of IOC guidelines, which ban officials from accepting any gift worth more than $150. Mr Samaranch has been consistently outspoken in condemning any corruption within the process since wider allegations emerged, and has repeatedly pledged to clean up the IOC act.

He recently said that a new selection procedure, which downgraded the role of the full 115-member committee, may have to be the outcome of the present scandal. Even after yesterday's admission, in response to press reports, he seemed unperturbed.

"I see no problem whatsoever since the important gifts I get will be placed in the Olympic Museum," he said.

But the revelation lengthened the shadows over the Olympic movement. The scandal, which has been steadily taking shape over the past month, involves committee members allegedly receiving gifts in return for their votes when lucrative decisions are taken on where to stage Olympic competitions.

With the Olympic show estimated to generate $10bn during each four- year cycle, it is not hard to see why temptation arises. The Salt Lake City bid alone is currently the subject of four different investigations. College and athletic scholarships for the relatives of members, free medical insurance and other gifts are all said to have been used to try and clinch that particular race.

Whatever the outcome of the various investigations - which are being carried out by, among others, the FBI and the former US senator George Mitchell, fresh from his role in the Northern Ireland peace process - the games will still go ahead in Utah. Some cities that lost out, however, are now demanding compensation for the money they fruitlessly spent.

The whole issue is being seen as the worst scandal in the 104-year history of the modern Olympic movement.

Mr Samaranch, ever the sporting statesman, was yesterday in Zurich for a meeting with the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, to discuss Mr Blatter's plan to stage football's World Cup every two years instead of four.

Asked about gifts to other committee members, Mr Samaranch would only refer to the IOC's own investigation. "The report will be presented to the executive committee on 24 January and possibly we have concrete cases of inappropriate behaviour." he said. "If this is proved true, than we will propose the expulsion of these people."

Clearly, he did not think that he would be among that number. Concerns about just how bids are decided have been growing for some years. Britain has seen attempts to stage the summer Olympics in both Birmingham and Manchester falter amid suspicions that they were not competing on a level playing field. But last monthMarc Holder, a Swiss lawyer and member of the IOC, claimed extortion and corruption had played its part in a number of previous bids.

He estimated that between 5 and 7 per cent of the committee are open to bribery.

Salt Lake City was included in his allegations, after officials there admitted they had operated a $400,000 scholarship fund for 13 student athletes, six of whom were relatives of IOC members.

Apart from the activities of local officials in offering such favours, the investigations are centring on representatives of African countries on the committee, and the activities of agents who hover in the background offering to peddle influence. One such agent is Mahmoud el-Farnawani, who has said that in 1995 he delivered IOC Arab votes for Salt Lake City in return for $58,000. "I signed a contract with Salt Lake City and assured them of the votes," Mr Farnawani said.

Even the mayor of the city has admitted that the son of an IOC member from Swaziland was given an internship with one of the city's departments while attending the University of Utah. It has also been alleged that another delegate was one of the three African members who received free medical care - worth a total of $28,000 - from the company that has since become the health care provider for the 2002 games.

The fact that Mr Samaranch himself has now become marginally embroiled was given extra significance by statements from an Italian committee member, who said he sent a letter to Mr Samaranch last May outlining precise allegations of inducements. Far from investigating this, the Italian member said, the IOC president did not even respond.

The IOC's own investigation is being headed by Richard Pound, a member from Canada and a possible successor to Mr Samaranch, who is due to stand down in two years' time.

"The IOC itself must show that it subscribes to the highest levels of ethical conduct," Mr Pound said this week. "We will show that some of our members did not maintain those high standards. We have a few bad apples and we will get rid of them."

With all the various other investigators due to produce their own findings soon, the committee will have little choice. Mr Mitchell, chairman of the US Olympic Committee's ethics division, expects to report by the end of February.

Ironically, though, the very pull of money that seems to have brought the movement to its knees is also providing theimpetus for sorting the matter out. Corporate sponsors, who regularly pitch $100m for the honour of having their name associated with the games, exercise more muscle than mere morals ever could.

Among the mightiest are Coca-Cola, whose representatives recently spoke in most uncompromising terms about what they expect the IOC to do. "They have assured us they will take swift and decisive action, and we will monitor them to ensure that," said a Coca-Cola spokesman.

For an organisation that is supposed to represent a vision of fair play for the whole of humanity, anything less would surely lead to its terminal decline.