History sometimes has an uncanny way of repeating itself.
The ancient Olympic games fell into disrepute and were eventually discontinued due to growing professionalism and an emphasis on entertainment, not competition, that began to undermine the spirit of the games. The root cause of the scandal surrounding the modern Olympic movement may be an inability of the Olympics--and perhaps sport in general--to maintain its integrity in the big-money world of billion-dollar television contracts and sponsorship rights.
The scandal began last month with the discovery that the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) had paid or arranged for $800,000 in cash, gifts and services including medical care and college scholarships to International Olympic Committee (IOC) members who voted in the city's successful bid to host the 2002 Winter Games. In the ensuing weeks, heads rolled at the top of SLOC's leadership, four IOC members resigned and five others were suspended.
But the SLOC and the IOC members targeted--many from Africa and South America--are mere scapegoats. In fact, there was nothing particularly extraordinary about the lavish treatment the IOC members received from Salt Lake City. In recent weeks, reports have surfaced detailing hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from other host cities. Sydney officials have acknowledged paying two African members $70,000 the night before the IOC voted to award the 2000 Summer Games to Sydney--a bid it won over Beijing by a mere two votes. (Sydney officials have remained defiantly unapologetic in the wake of the revelations.)
Americans take fairness and procedural integrity for granted, but kickbacks, bribes and nepotism are the lingua franca of politics and business in the rest of the world. (In the United States, we have "soft money" instead.) Salt Lake, with its squeaky-clean reputation as a heavily religious community, had the misfortune of being the first city to get caught, the victim of intense, some say excessive, scrutiny from an IOC looking for answers. And the saddest part of the story is that the payoff effort wasn't even necessary: Salt Lake beat Quebec in the bidding by a landslide.
The ultimate blame must rest with IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who has long ignored rumored improprieties, failed to enforce conflict-of-interest guidelines and through his own example fostered a bid system built on bribes and lavish gifts. Samaranch, who receives no salary from the IOC, has admitted that his extravagant lifestyle, one rivaled only by heads of state, costs the IOC, benefactors and host cities hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. (Others place estimates in the millions.) Samaranch has defended those gifts, saying they do not constitute a conflict of interest because he lacks a vote in selecting host cities.
But Samaranch is hardly free from being influential. He is one of the few individuals in the world (perhaps along with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan) who can determine the entire fate of economies with a few choice words. A man so influential and powerful cannot be accepting a $16,000 Samurai sword from Nagano or a $300,000 international peace prize from Olympic affiliates in Seoul. And he cannot do so without expecting the IOC rank-and-file to follow his example. The Barcelona gentleman should do what many have been calling on him to do: step down and accept responsibility for steering the Olympic movement in the direction it has taken under his leadership.
The greater lament, however, is that the scandal, rooted in the very recent commercial success of the Olympic games, signals another blow to the integrity of athletics and amateur athletics in particular. The Olympics have been selling out for years: the last decade has seen the steady introduction of professional athletes, from USA Basketball's "Dream Team" of NBA players to the world's top-ranked tennis players, competing in the Games.
The pinnacle of amateur sport in the U.S, college athletics, has been a joke for years. Large universities make millions of dollars in television and licensing contracts thanks to talented basketball and football recruits often drawn from poor urban communities; most of these schools could care less whether the so-called student-athletes receive good educations.
Worst of all, marketability has a measurable effect on the athletic contests themselves. In college football last year, for example, Kansas State, a Cinderella team which was only double-over-time loss away from college football's national championship game, was knocked out the four most prestigious bowl games because the Wildcats did not have the drawing power of big-name football schools like Florida and Texas A&M. This in turn hit the university in its pocketbook: Kansas State, which would have made $12 million in a top-tier bowl game, instead drew a $1 million payout in the Alamo Bowl.
The most despicable thing about Mr. Samaranch and Olympic leaders is that they have enjoyed their extravagant lifestyle behind the facade of the "Olympic movement" and the purity of sport. The reality is that, at the premier level, there is no more purity in sport. Athleticism and competition have taken a back seat to money and entertainment. And someday soon, our beloved institutions of sport may go the way of the ancient Greeks.
Andrew S. Chang '99 is a neurobiology concentrator in Kirkland House. His column will appear on alternate Wednesdays.
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