High on a hill, lofty ideals are exposed as low farce

THE OLYMPIC Museum in Lausanne was the perfect stage for Juan Antonio Samaranch, chairman of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), to make his ground-breaking announcement last night.

In a stunning hilltop setting overlooking Lake Geneva, the dazzling white building is Mr Samaranch's greatest physical legacy to the movement he has headed for almost 20 years, and the realisation of a personal dream. When it was opened in 1994, the man who likes to be known as "His Excellency" was at the height of his power.

Outside, the Flame burns brightly. But inside is one visual clue to the scandal sweeping through the Olympic movement. In a cabinet is a jewelled sabregiven to Mr Samaranch by the President of Kazakhstan. Next to it is a sculpture of two embracing athletes entitled "Fair Play". It is the collision between the reality of gifts and notions of fair play which has brought theorganisation to its moral knees.

Findings by the Special Investigative Committee, set up to investigate the awarding of the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City, have revealed levels of venality among IOC members which have shocked believers in the Olympic ideals.

As the debate continues over how far corruption has spread, one fact is clear. It is Mr Samaranch who brought all this about. When he took over in 1980 the Games were in trouble. That year's event in Moscow had been boycotted by the United States, while in 1976 the Montreal Games had lost millions. Only two cities competed to stage the next one in 1984.

At an IOC meeting in Germany in 1981 Mr Samaranch teamed up with Horst Dassler, heir to the Adidas empire, to create a global marketing strategy. The five interlocking rings were not just to be seen as an aspiration towards world peace and understanding through sport, they were to be a brand.

The strategy at first seemed to be a resounding success. The 1984 Los Angeles Games were spectacular, with makers of everything from photographic film to fizzy drinks being charged millions for carrying the logo. The event made a profit for backers of $220m (pounds 133m).

In 1985, six bidders wanted the 1992 games. Barcelona, Mr Samaranch's home town, won.

But from then, cities started to put serious efforts into swinging the votes of IOC members. As well as lavish hospitality, the gifts began to flow. In 1986, the situation was such that a limit was imposed of $150 for gifts per member in the later stages of the bidding, $50 in earlier stages. The limits include gifts to all relatives, and a ban on entering into any "agreements, transactions or any other contracts".

These are the rules that Salt Lake City stands accused of violating. But it had been trying to get the Games since 1984. The final straw must have come in 1991, when it was trying yet again, only to be beaten by Nagano for the right to stage last year's Winter Olympics.

Nagano had no existing facilities and indifferent snow, but it did have Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, one of the world's richest men. And he brought together 19 Japanese companies to contribute $20m to the building of the Olympic Museum.

To all accusations of him being personally swayed in IOC decisions by gifts, Mr Samaranch replies that he does not have a vote himself. But he does have a huge say on who becomes an IOC member. When finally cornered earlier this month over having received an engraved pistol and rifle from Salt Lake City, valued at about $2,000, his response was that all his gifts were accepted on behalf of the Olympic movement and would eventually be displayed in the museum.

One wonders whether there would be enough room in hismuseum to accommodate all the largesse extended to him.