Olympic bribery scandal reverberates around world
It sullies image of Utah and will likely bring changes in siteselection process.
SALT LAKE CITY
From Salt Lake City to Lausanne, Switzerland, the bribery scandal surrounding the 2002 Winter Games is rocking the top echelons of the Olympic movement and will likely usher in broad changes in how host cities are chosen in the future. If nothing else, the scandal shows the dark side of what the Olympics can become. Long an uneasy alliance of sport and commerce, they are now arguably the most popular and lucrative scheduled events in the world. The competition to host them, and thus reap vast benefits of publicity and development, is as tough as any luge run. In that environment the line between legitimate wooing and illegitimate influence may become murky. The temptation to pass cash under the table could be as great as an athlete's temptation to take a performance-enhancing drug. "The basic issue is that the Olympics are pretty much a business deal, and the most marvelous thing is what they can do for Utah internally," says University of Utah economist Thayne Robson. Utah officials, not surprisingly, are going on the offensive after weeks of revelations, resignations, and resentment. "We as a city need to take back control of these games," Deeda Seed, a Salt Lake City Councilwoman, said this week. Even Gov. Michael Leavitt (R), in an uncharacteristically forceful statement, appeared on national TV to assure the public that the four investigations of wrongdoing would be swift and complete. But he also placed the blame far outside this mountainous state. "This corner of Olympic corruption did not start in Salt Lake City, but it must end here," he said. "We deplore it and we revolt at being associated with them." Officially, there is yet a "them" to be charged in the burgeoning bribery allegations, which encompass tuition payments to relatives of International Olympic Committee members, free medical care, cash payments to African IOC members, and the hiring of other IOC relatives by the Salt Lake Bid Committee. But the scandal has already seen the fall of the two top officials of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), followed by Mayor Deedee Corradini's somber announcement on Monday that she would not run for a third term. The now-tainted Olympic effort, in which the mayor has been highly visible, was just one straw too many for Ms. Corradini, herself the subject of a recent gift-soliciting probe, among other problems. SLOC Senior Vice President David Johnson, the catalyst of the Olympics scandal, has been forced to resign, and President Frank Joklik, guilty by his association with the bid effort, has stepped aside. Former SLOC President Tom Welch, who was ousted after an embarrassing domestic issue, has admitted to the payments, but insists they were for competitive and humanitarian purposes. THE impact is reverberating across the Atlantic as well. In Switzerland, the IOC has long been a treasured institution - an important symbol of the country's cherished neutrality. But as many as a dozen international members of the IOC are now expected to fall as a result of the scandal. Analysts predict the probe will not only bring in new members but lead to changes in the selection process of future sites. For now, the IOC faces more immediate problems. Quebec, which lost the bid to Salt Lake, has threatened to sue the organization. There is also speculation that the games will be pulled from Utah, which has not only been sullied by the allegations, but also risks losing valuable sponsorships. But several IOC members reaffirmed this week that the games will remain in Salt Lake. Despite all the disclosures, most Salt Lake residents still want the games staged here - 62 percent, according to the latest polls. Councilwoman Seed and others now want the IOC to take responsibility, ethically and financially: "It takes two to commit an act of bribery, and we need to hold them accountable as well." In fact, the wooing can be a two-way street. The Anchorage Organizing Committee (AOC) was solicited for apparent bribes in the mid- and late-1980s, when the Alaska city was a US nominee for the 1992 and 1994 Winter Games, an official now says. Rick Nerland, an advertising executive who served as the AOC's executive vice president, said he was approached on two separate occasions by individuals who offered - for a price - to deliver IOC votes to Anchorage. "At first I was disappointed that that person was intimating that that went on," he says. As for Utahns, they're trying to get to the bottom of the scandal - and refurbish their image. The state has had its share of bad press, but the Olympics has provided infamy on an international scale. Always associated with the Mormon church, the state has weathered a characterization as the "white-collar crime capital of the world," toughed out the fallout when some fatal bombings brought attention to church forgeries, and most recently endured embarrassment over its polygamous past. "The Olympics movement has always been about a celebration of the best human characteristics, and this is so counter to that," says Seed. "It's going to take us a long time to recover." Contributing to this report were Elizabeth Olson in Geneva and Yereth Rosen in Anchorage, Alaska.