Mitchell to head inquiry into Olympic city sleaze

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THE UNITED STATES was set to announce a new inquiry last night into allegations that bribes were used to win the 2002 Winter Olympics for Salt lake City.

There have been allegations that "scholarships", free medical treatment and gifts of shotguns and skis were given to members of the International Olympic Committee to ensure that the Utah state capital won the rights to host the games.

The US Olympic Committee announced its own investigation into the affair yesterday, to be led by former Senator George Mitchell, fresh from his role in the Northern Ireland peace negotiations.

Mr Mitchell is chairman of the USOC's Ethics Oversight Committee. He expects to report to the USOC by the end of February. Although his inquiry lacks subpoena powers, Mr Mitchell said it would delve quickly into records supplied by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and any evidence of criminal wrongdoing would be turned over to prosecutors. An investigation by the US Justice Department was also expected to be announced last night.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the IOC, has already scheduled a special meeting of his executive board for late next month to discuss the allegations, and the SLOC's ethics committee is also investigating the issue.

"The integrity of the Olympic Movement is central to the USOC's mission and its ability to maintain credibility with the American people and all those who support the nation's Olympic movement," said the USOC president, Bill Hybl.

"We want to ensure American athletes the chance to realise their goals and dreams. For those and other compelling reasons, the USOC must respond quickly and credibly to the allegations and issues," he said.

In a sign that for once there may be some serious efforts to investigate the allegations, the games' corporate sponsors have expressed their anger about the affair.

The telecommunications company US West, which is an important sponsor of the 2002 games, is furious that its name has been dragged into the scandal. The company has asked the Salt Lake Organizing Committee President, Frank Joklik, to "clarify what has transpired and what actions the Olympic movement is taking to address these issues".

Coca-Cola has also expressed its concerns to the IOC, "and they assured us they will take swift and decisive action, and we will monitor them to ensure that," said Ben Deutch, a spokesman for the company.

Robert Helmick, who resigned from the IOC and the USOC presidency in 1991 after he was accused of a conflict of interest, said it was common for sweeteners to be offered to IOC members. There are "several IOC members who control blocks of votes [and] are willing to deliver them for extravagant gifts and favours," he said.

The allegations have not centred on Salt Lake City officials but on "agents" who help to broker support.

The scandal started when an IOC official, Marc Hodler, said some cities were offering bribes to win the right to host the Olympics.