Sydney calls time on the Samaranch dictatorship

IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch is to retire next year, and the IOC must take that opportunity to salvage its besmirched reputation.

For many of the world’s top athletes this will be their last Olympics. The likes of British gold medal winners Steve Redgrave and Jonathan Edwards and the US’s world-record 400m runner Michael Johnson will surely not compete in Athens in 2004. Another major absentee in four years time will be the 80-year-old Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who will finally retire next year after controlling the Olympics for 21 of its most turbulent and commercially successful years.

During his time in charge, Samaranch, a former minister in General Franco’s Spanish dictatorship, has run the IOC like a personal fiefdom, often co-opting members on to the IOC and its committees in the knowledge that nobody will challenge his decision. There is no accountability and little transparency – in some cases IOC membership has had more to do with nepotism than sporting expertise. The IOC is one of the biggest gentlemen’s clubs in the world – there are only a handful of female members – and yet it runs what is supposed to be the world’s most inclusive sporting event. Samaranch controls it, but come next July he will be forced to relinquish his power.

A vote at the 112th Olympic Congress, which takes place in Moscow next July, will decide his successor. Another vote at the same meeting of the “Olympic Family” will decide the destination of the 2008 summer Games.

These two decisions will have a far greater impact on the future of the Olympics than anything that has happened in Sydney. The 100-plus members of the world’s largest sporting body have the opportunity to sweep away the corruption and cronyism that has dogged the IOC. The author Andrew Jennings who has written a trio of books on IOC corruption was the first to highlight the scandals in 1991.

But the IOC did nothing, other than have Jennings arrested in Switzerland, until one of its own members turned whistleblower in 1998 and revealed some of the methods employed by Salt Lake City in the US to bribe its way to hosting the 2002 winter games. Initially, the IOC closed ranks. But the media clamour and the reaction of some sponsors including Coca-Cola forced the IOC to act. It expelled six members, allowed four others to quit and disciplined several others for a range of offences including receiving bribes and enjoying too much hospitality.

The list of gifts was mind blowing. Some IOC members have had their children’s education paid for by bidding cities, others have charged twice for first class air fares and other IOC members have tried even more lurid scams – one pretended to have had &£20,000 stolen from a hotel room in Manchester. A culture of corruption went unchecked.

Post- Salt Lake City, moderate reforms were introduced. But the trial of two members of the Salt Lake bidding committee Tom Welch and Dave Johnson on felony charges, including fraud, racketeering and conspiracy to defraud will open up a further 400 boxes of information on IOC members. IOC general secretary Francois Carrard has said “it is a nightmare to think what is in them [the boxes]”.

The case against Welch and Johnson should be heard next year, probably about the time the IOC members decide who should replace Samaranch, and just months before the Salt Lake winter games open in February 2002. Hopefully, the case will serve to concentrate the IOC members’ minds. But many of these people owe their place on sport’s largest gravy train to Samaranch, which gives him a huge say in who becomes the next president.

There are two leading candidates at the moment. One is the Canadian lawyer and IOC vice-president Dick Pound, who has raised his profile at Sydney by condemning the International Amateur Athletics Federation for being too soft on drugs. Pound has built his power base by handling the commercial negotiations for the games. He knows where all the money is and who pays what. His biggest threat appears to come from the Belgian surgeon Jacques Rogge, also a vice-president, who will attract a lot of support from those IOC members who believe the IOC needs greater reform.

Two other IOC members who have been tipped in the past as possible successors have both blotted their copy books of late. South Korea’s Dr Kim Un-Yong was disciplined as part of the internal, and still secret, Salt Lake City inquiry and Australia’s IOC member Kevan Gosper has been condemned for nepotism after his daughter replaced the girl who was to have been the first Australian to carry the torch.

Sydney has provided the perfect opportunity for the jockeying for position to begin. Rogge says he will make a statement once the games are over. But the key will be what the successor does once he is elected. When Samaranch’s ex-boss General Franco named Prince Juan Carlos as his successor, he expected the prince to continue his dictatorship. Instead, Juan Carlos introduced democratic reforms and a multi-party state. Samaranch’s dictatorship ends next July and it will be up to his successor whether the IOC continues as a dictatorial body or one that is open to reform and willing to transform itself into a more transparent and open public body.

Tom O’Sullivan is sports page editor at the Financial Times

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