Commentary: The currency of Olympic politics is often just currency

Carlos Nuzman speaks during the closing ceremony of the Rio Paralympic Games at Maracana Stadium on Sept. 18, 2016.
(Leo Correa / Associated Press)

There’s a real-life Olympic telenovela unfolding in Brazil. It includes a Russian passport and piles of cash in multiple currencies. It features protagonist Carlos Nuzman, an Olympic bigwig who allegedly brokered a $2-million bribe as part of an elaborate vote-buying scheme that landed Rio de Janeiro the 2016 Summer Games. Although the drama is some 6,000 miles from Los Angeles, there are clear lessons for Angelenos as the city prepares for its prearranged coronation Wednesday as host of the 2028 Summer Olympics.

Brazilian federal police teamed with French investigators who have long been tailing the International Olympic Committee’s alleged misdeeds. Prosecutors in Paris say they’ve uncovered a bribery scheme that revolves around Papa Massata Diack, the son of Lamine Diack, a former IOC member currently detained in France. Nuzman, an honorary IOC member who was an ubiquitous presence at the Rio Games, allegedly funneled money to the Diacks from Brazilian business titan Arthur Soares three days before the vote to award the 2016 Olympics.

Brazilian journalist Jamil Chade published an email Nuzman sent to an associate of Lamine Diack that included details of a Swiss bank account. A search of Nuzman’s home turned up papers about an account in Switzerland. Lamine Diack was scooped up by French authorities in 2015, accused of accepting bribes in exchange for concealing dirty drug tests.


When Brazilian police officials searched Nuzman’s home in Rio, they found $155,000 in cash as well as a Russian passport, which Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry suspects was a gift for supporting Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s bid to bring the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi.

The sprawling vote-buying saga may yet implicate IOC members in Asia and South America, according to Brazilian media. French prosecutors are also investigating an eyebrow-raising $2.3-million payment that Tokyo 2020 bidders shuffled to a bank account in Singapore overseen by guess who? None other than Papa Massata Diack. An independent group — one commissioned by the Japanese Olympic Committee — cleared Tokyo 2020 bidders of any wrongdoing, but it did little to quell suspicions.

Turns out, the bracing allegations against Nuzman were old news to the IOC. In 2012, Eric Walther Maleson, the Olympic bobsledder turned Brazilian sports administrator, contacted the IOC to decry irregularities and corruption as Rio prepared to host the Games. But the IOC gave the president of the Brazilian Confederation of Ice Sports the cold shoulder, insisting that it did not have the power to conduct criminal investigations. The IOC told Maleson to take up his grievances with the Brazilian Olympic Committee, which was — wait for it — run by Nuzman.

The IOC also knew about the graft investigation through its behind-the-scenes participation with French prosecutors. Despite this, the IOC assigned Nuzman to the coordinating commission of the 2020 Games.

The wider lessons are twofold.

First, this wave of allegations is stark reminder that there is plenty of cash sloshing through the Olympic system. The problem, as we’ve seen in Olympic city after city, is that the money tends to flow into the pockets of well-connected political and economic elites. It’s trickle-up economics with a dash of sporty panache. As Brazilian prosecutor Fabiana Schneider memorably put it, “The Olympic Games were used as a trampoline to commit Olympic-size acts of corruption.” This is not merely a Rio problem but an Olympics problem, and one that L.A. will soon have to confront.

Second, the IOC’s deniability has become highly implausible. Olympic luminaries have long wagged a sanctimonious finger at FIFA, using the gobsmackingly corrupt world governing body for soccer as a convenient foil. “Enough is enough,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in 2015 when FIFA was mired in an epic crisis. “We hope that now, finally, everyone at FIFA has at last understood that they cannot continue to remain passive. They must act swiftly to regain credibility because you cannot forever dissociate the credibility of FIFA from the credibility of football.” The unfolding bribe-o-rama in Brazil shows that FIFA is not the only sports body in need of fast action to patch up its practices.


But there’s a more specific and poignant lesson for the everyday people of Los Angeles: The IOC really doesn’t care about you. When a powerful, unregulated monopoly such as the IOC descends on your town, it dominates the show, lapping up the accolades and deflecting negative attention. It does whatever it takes to protect its interests. Sometimes those interests overlap with local Games organizers, but when they don’t, the IOC takes care of the IOC.

Just look at Rio. When Olympic organizers pleaded for around $35 million from the IOC to settle their debts, Bach and company flat out denied them. Yet, two days later, the IOC president was bragging about the $3.2 billion in assets in IOC coffers.

Then there’s Pyeongchang, the South Korean city that will host the 2018 Winter Games in five months. When members of the IOC Coordination Commission made their ninth and final visit to the Olympic city, they dropped a verbal bombshell on organizers, suggesting that the legacy plan for venues was not up to snuff. It’s as if the IOC is already starting to distance itself from the local hosts before the Games have even taken place.

These actions may seem cruel, but they are not unusual when it comes to the IOC in the 21st century. Sure, the Olympic bidding process inevitably brings happy talk from IOC luminaries about the brilliance of the aspiring hosts. When Mayor Eric Garcetti visited the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, last summer, Bach enthused, “The candidature of LA2024 has already refreshed and strengthened the close relationship between us. Keep following the sun, L.A.!”

But in the pinch the IOC makes its priorities clear: the IOC. Sure, it may continue to follow the sun, but it’ll be in private jets as members vamoose Los Angeles after the Games’ closing ceremony, leaving L.A. to once again fend for itself.

Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University. He is the author of three books on the Olympics, most recently “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.”