THIS MORNING the 11 top officials of the International Olympic Committee's executive board will assemble behind closed doors at the plush Olympics headquarters overlooking Lac Leman, in Switzerland. At the head of the table will be the small, haughty figure of the IOC president, the 79-year old-Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch - "The Guardian of the Olympic flame".
This august body has convened to hear explanations from IOC members involved in the bribes scandal surrounding the award of the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City.
The IOC's own report into the scandal, compiled in the last month by its vice-president, Richard Pound, is said to recommend disciplinary action including expulsion for up to 16 members. Pound, a Canadian, says there "is solid, irrefutable evidence" that IOC members or their relatives received cash, gifts, or donations from Salt Lake Olympic officials, in some cases more than $100,000 (pounds 60,000).
On Sunday night, the IOC will rule on their fates. Whatever the IOC's decision it will cap what has been the most remarkable six weeks in the history of the Olympic movement.
More usually known as home of the Mormon religion, Salt Lake City has been reeling over the allegations that officials from its bid Committee used expensive gifts and sex to persuade the IOC to hold the Games in Utah. "Incentives", including college and athletic scholarships for relatives of IOC members, free medical insurance and other gifts are all said to have been used to try to clinch that particular race. On American TV, the Olympic corruption story has been running second only to the Clinton impeachment.
Those accused include Jean-Claude Ganga, a 64-year-old IOC member. In the run up to the 1995 bid decision, Ganga, a former ambassador from the Congo, is said to have made $60,000 profit on a land deal in Utah arranged by a member of the Salt Lake bid committee. The organisers also gave him $50,000 to help feed children in his war torn homeland, and published reports have linked Ganga to a total of $70,000 from Salt Lake officials. He and his mother also received medical care paid for by the committee.
Another in the frame is Bashir Mohammed Attarabulsi, the 61-year-old IOC member from Libya. His son, Suhel, admits that he received tuition at Brigham Young University and other Utah schools, plus $700 a month for expenses, from both the Salt Lake bid and organising committees. At least Attarabulsi did the decent thing yesterday and resigned from the IOC. Mahomoud El-Garmawani, a "vote broker" has admitted that he had assured the IOC's Arab vote for Salt Lake City in return for $58,000.
But what started as a local scandal in Utah is now spreading like a bushfire that threatens to engulf the whole Olympic movement. The Games are run by the International Olympic Committee, an independent international body based in Lausanne with members chosen from across the world. Its ruling body consists of some 100 or so individuals (just seven are women). It is this group that cities must impress. The largess of competing cities over recent years is only now becoming clear.
The Olympics are big bucks. In the last 20 years commercialisation of the Games has been rampant. The huge costs of running the event are offset by a dozen key sponsors. Coca-Cola, for example, pays huge sums to put the five ring Olympic symbol on its products during Olympics year. The American TV NBC network is to pay $3.55bn for the exclusive American rights to broadcast five winter and summer Games. The four-year Olympic cycle is estimated to generate some $10bn. With this kind of money washing around, the temptation to get a piece of the action is powerful.
The IOC has presented itself as reflecting the finest and most lofty human ideals. Now the image is shattering and what is showing through is not just a long-running gravy train, but the full chateaubriand, dauphinoise and gravy train for its 100 person elite. The inner politics of the IOC are more reminiscent of a Byzantine court than an ancient Greek ideal.
In the middle of December, as the Salt Lake City allegations flared, Marc Hodler, an IOC member, poured petrol on the blaze of bad publicity. Hodler astonished his colleagues at what was meant to be a routine weekend meeting at the Lausanne headquarters. In a series of impromptu press briefings, Hodler, 81, an IOC vice-president and chairman of the IOC finance commission, made startling allegations including that there were four agents who, for a commission of between $500,000 and $1m, offered to deliver blocks of votes to bidding cities. The agents, one of whom is an IOC member, charged the winning city between $3m and $5m. Losing cities had told Hodler of a list of IOC members who can bought. For the first time a member of the inner elite broke ranks and made allegations of widespread corruption in the movement.
Samaranch, the IOC's president, ordered Hodler not to talk to the press. An unshaven Hodler emerged from the IOC HQ dazed by a weekend's momentous events. Asked if he had been silenced, he made a motion across his lips like a zip and said, "Exactly. I have been muzzled. Apparently I said too much."
The IOC asked Dick Pound, a Canadian lawyer, to investigate the Salt Lake City allegations. The IOC's investigators were to joined by four other investigation teams, including the FBI. The US Olympic Committee asked Senator George Mitchell, fresh from his role in the Northern Ireland peace negotiations, to lead their inquiry.
Samaranch also announced a number of reforms in the way host cities are to be selected in future. IOC members would not expect to visit a bidding city more than twice.
But then Samaranch himself came into the frame and admitted that he had received an inscribed pistol and a rifle on two separate visits to Salt Lake City. The gift of the guns, said to be worth a total of around $2,000, appears to be a contravention of IOC guidelines, which ban officials from accepting any gift worth more than $150. Samaranch defended himself by saying: "This limit is for the members who participate in the elections. I do not take part in the voting and the elections."
The president of the Salt Lake Organising Committee, Frank Joklik, and the vice-president, Dave Johnson, stood down in the first week of January. On Tuesday a Finnish IOC member, Pirjo Haeggman, an Olympic champion, resigned rather than risk expulsion for being implicated in the scandal, and then yesterday Attarabulsi followed suit.
On the same day it re-emerged that at least two IOC members accepted offers of prostitutes from a bid committee trying to land the 1992 Olympic Games for Amsterdam. Prince Frederic von Saxe-Lauenberg said: "I was there [in 1986] and saw it, IOC members being offered women and two accepting."
Graham Stringer, then leader of Manchester City Council, was involved in both the City's failed bids for the Olympic Games. Now an MP, he says: "In the closed world of the IOC, bidding cities and sports federations, it is taken as read that at least one IOC member in 10 is as bent as a nine-bob note." Others, more radically, have suggested that there are only seven straight IOC members.
The person probably most responsible for the IOC's current travails worked outside this closed world. For nearly 10 years, Andrew Jennings, a British investigative journalist who has worked for the BBC and was a World in Action reporter, has been investigating the Olympics. He has now quite spoiled the cosy arrangement whereby the Olympics were portrayed as glamorous and honourable event.
Besides TV programmes and articles, Jennings has produced two books exposing Olympic wrongdoing. The most recent "The New Lord of the Rings" was published in 1996 to coincide with the Atlanta Olympics. Jennings' revelations would be funny if they were not so appalling. He dubs the IOC as the "Holidays R Us club of Lausanne".
Jennings revealed that Samaranch was a paid up Blueshirt politician under Franco's fascist regime in Spain. Samaranch was co-opted on to the IOC in 1966 and became its president in 1980. His deft manoeuvrings in the pursuit of power are best shown by one little story. In 1966, the IOC had brought in a mandatory retirement age of 72. Samaranch evaded this retirement problem to renew his presidency. In 1995, canvassing began for a change to the retirement age so that he could stand again in 1997.
When the IOC voted, they failed to change the rule to Samaranch's benefit. Undaunted Samaranch organised a new onslaught or as Jennings puts it: "The thugs went into action the next day." Samaranch's close admirers, including Ganga, who is currently under suspicion, persuaded other IOC members to vote in favour of the boss. This time the rule was changed. Samaranch is scheduled to remain as president until 2001 when he will be 81.
Samaranch's heir apparent is the South Korean IOC member, Mickey Kim. Jennings demonstrates that Kim was a long-time agent for the Korean CIA, an organisation noted for its ruthlessness.
What all these investigations show is that IOC corruption and freeloading are not new. When claims over Salt Lake City hit the headlines, the IOC ordered an inquiry and tried to portray it as a little local difficulty an aberration. In practice Samaranch and everyone else in the IOC has known all about the extensive corruption in the Olympic movement for many years.
As much has now been demonstrated. Prince Frederic von Saxe-Lauenberg, who is a spokesman for the Pierre de Coubertin Committee in Lausanne, a volunteer group that supports the Olympic movement, said on Thursday that knowledge about bribery and inducements offered to IOC officials went right "to the top". He said: "The reason why I know it goes to the top is my friend Jan Staubo and Gerhard Heiberg of Norway have reported directly to the president that they have been offered bribes and inducements. Samaranch didn't take any action."
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