Scandal-Tainted Olympic Panel OKs Reforms


In a drama that offered potent proof of Juan Antonio Samaranch’s enduring strength atop the Olympic movement, the International Olympic Committee on Sunday fully endorsed a wide-ranging reform package aimed at restoring its credibility and prestige.

In the final act of its two-day meeting, the IOC’s general assembly voted to ban visits by members to cities bidding to host the Games--the very thing that led to Salt Lake City’s tainted bid for the 2002 Winter Games and to the worst corruption scandal in 105 years of Olympic history.

The vote, which capped a display of first-rate political theater, saw the IOC approve all 50 proposals identified by a special reform commission. Only one of the 50, the ban on visits, drew as many as 10 votes in opposition; 38 passed unanimously.


Banging his gavel as he closed the session, a triumphant Samaranch flashed a big smile at the 100 members on hand and said, “The problem we faced at the beginning of the year--today we will say this problem is solved.”

The lingering question is: Is it?

A U.S. Department of Justice investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing continues.

And Wednesday, Samaranch, who has been president of the IOC since 1980, is due to testify before a U.S. House panel investigating Olympic corruption.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House panel, the Commerce committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, issued a statement Sunday, saying the hearing will afford the chance to “ensure [the reforms] are worth more than just the paper they’re written on.”

What is immediately clear is that, taken in conjunction with measures launched earlier this year, the full IOC reform package amounts to evolution, not revolution. The intent is to make the IOC membership younger and more vibrant and, for the first time, introduce the IOC to the notions of openness and accountability.

On Saturday, the IOC approved age and term limits as well as election and reelection procedures. It also invited 15 athletes to join.

Over the last few months, it appointed an ethics commission, opened its sessions to the media via closed-circuit TV and released financial statements.

It also created the special reform commission, dubbed IOC 2000, and recruited leading personalities from around the world for service, including former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. IOC 2000 drafted the 50 proposals that went to the members for this weekend’s votes.

For an institution made up largely of volunteers from five continents who meet infrequently, the pace of change is indeed staggering.

However, the panel faces many challenges. For instance, its financial statements are virtually undecipherable.

The ethics commission, at a news conference here Friday, said it is not an investigative panel.

The age and term limit measures come with provisos that sharply limit their impact. The new retirement age of 70, for instance, will apply to new members only; current members can serve until age 80, meaning they managed to preserve what amounts to their lifetime sinecures.

And, in the sort of episode that has become familiar to longtime Olympic observers, one of the brand-new athlete members, Manuela di Centa, 36, saw her name appear Sunday in an Italian newspaper in a complex story saying she was mentioned in the file of a university near Bologna that is the focus of a judge’s investigation for its use of the synthetic hormone EPO, which enhances endurance. She denied wrongdoing.

Perhaps most important, it remains unclear how many delegates are genuinely committed to real change, or whether an overwhelming majority simply opted Sunday to bow to Samaranch for the moment--for their remarks revealed a group bubbling with members who sound angry, frustrated, even bitter.

Some are still pointing fingers, such as Syed Shahid Ali of Pakistan, who decried the “satanic chores [used] to mislead some of our members.” He explained later that he was referring to the inducements offered in Salt Lake.

Others predicted immediately after the session ended that the reforms were an ill-advised response to media haranguing of the IOC, were hastily drafted, were doomed to failure--or some combination thereof.

Said IOC member Princess Anne of Britain: “A lot of this is just, you know, this is what the media has asked for and this is what you’ve got.” Referring to a ban on visits to bid cities, she added, “If you think it’s going to work--huh, fine.”

The issue of accountability, meantime, remains a sore spot--no surprise in an institution used to being accountable only to itself.

During the debate on the issue of a ban on bid-city visits, Lambis W. Nikolaou of Greece abruptly shifted gears to tell Samaranch not to testify before the U.S. Congress: “You are president of the IOC. You are accountable only to the Olympic family.”

In all, during that debate, 36 members took to the floor to speak. Most opposed such a ban. Yet the ban was enacted, 89 to 10, with one abstention--testament to the way Samaranch, and the IOC, really work.

All weekend, behind the scenes, Samaranch and a cadre of trusted aides had been lobbying for the IOC 2000 reforms, especially the ban on visits. Kim Un Yong, who drew a reprimand from the IOC for his role in the Salt Lake scandal, nonetheless retains considerable influence and said Sunday that he had spoken to “more than 40” members since Friday “on different issues.”

“We are all friends and we can exchange views,” Kim said.

On Sunday, there were two proposals on the table: a recommendation that visits were “not necessary” and another calling for tightly regulated visits organized and paid for by the IOC.

After 2 1/2 hours of debate, Samaranch asked the 100 delegates, “Those in favor of visits, raise their hands.”

Ten did so. One member abstained.

“The proposal is approved,” Samaranch said. From his perch above the assembly floor, he could eye each of the naysayers.

It’s not likely such a vote would have passed muster in an American high school student council meeting. But Anita DeFrantz, an IOC vice president from Los Angeles, said afterward: “ ‘Roberts’ Rules [of Order]’ probably has never been opened in the [IOC] session. We do things differently.”

Despite its newly alleged pledge of accountability, the IOC declined to make the names of those who voted no available.

“The important point,” IOC spokesman Franklin Servan-Schreiber said afterward, “is that the institution moved forward.”

In Congress, meantime, Samaranch is unlikely to find the mood as cozy as it is for him at an IOC session.

A few days ago, he negotiated an agreement with the FBI ensuring that he won’t face the embarrassment of being served with a subpoena while in the United States. Instead, he’ll meet with agents later.

He will be questioned at length about events in Salt Lake City, where bidders wooed IOC members with more than $1 million in cash, gifts, scholarships and other inducements. Six members were expelled earlier this year. Four others resigned.

IOC officials say Samaranch, a 79-year-old Spaniard, is not a target of the Justice Department investigation, and Justice officials have consistently declined to answer questions about it.

Lawmakers have also said they want to ask Samaranch about Atlanta’s winning bid for the 1996 Summer Games--in particular, about a trip that Samaranch’s wife, Bibis, and a friend took in 1990 to Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. The Atlanta bid committee paid for the trip, which cost about $12,000.

Two criminal cases already have been filed in Utah; one is against John Kim, the son of South Korea’s influential IOC delegate, Kim Un Yong, a longtime Samaranch ally.

Samaranch said Sunday that he is willing to answer “all kinds” of questions Wednesday.