The Olympics Turn into A Five-Ring Circus

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Salt Lake City, at the base of the splendid and snowy Wasatch mountains, placed a close second to Nagano, Japan, in the race to host the 1998 Winter Olympics. So the pious and dogged capital of Utah went back to work on its fifth bid in three decades.

Ultimately, the International Olympic Committee awarded the city the 2002 Winter Olympics by an overwhelming margin. Mormon determination, it seemed, had paid off. Or had it?

After a leak to a Salt Lake City TV station by a disgruntled employee of the local organizing committee and provoca-tive questions raised by a member of the I.O.C., the Salt Lake Olympic bidders stand suspected of bribing the I.O.C. members who decide where the next Olympics will take place. So far, four groups--the I.O.C., the U.S. Olympic Committee (whose probe is headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell), the Justice Department and a Utah ethics committee--have opened investigations into the mess. The IRS may be next.

I.O.C. membership has long been a sweet deal. Its 115 members don't get paid and now must refuse gifts valued in excess of $150. But they are among the most courted humans on the planet, allowed to accept first-class plane tickets, accommodations in five-star hotels and lavish dinners from bidding cities. Salt Lake City may have taken things a step further.

Between 1992 and 1998, the Salt Lake committee parceled out nearly $400,000 in scholarship money and other financial aid to 13 students. Conveniently, six of the recipients were related to I.O.C. members. Salt Lake committee tax reports, however, made no mention of the scholarships. A Utah health-care group donated $28,000 in services, including cosmetic eye surgery, to the I.O.C. cause. And the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the bid panel spent some $20,000 on guns and skis that presumably went to individuals associated with the I.O.C.

Far from heading for cover, some members of the local organizing committee are donning sackcloth and ashes. "Obviously, we did break the rules," says Ken Bullock, an abashed organizer. "The Games are an aphrodisiac. If you want something bad enough, you stretch the boundaries." He points out, however, that the pressure on a bidding city to be hospitable can be intense, and Salt Lake City was hardly the first to gild its welcome mat. "The I.O.C. allowed this sucking up," says Bullock.

The logic is a little shaky--just because someone is available to be bribed doesn't mean you bribe them--but the facts seem unassailable. I.O.C. executive Marc Hodler, a Swiss lawyer who has lately been acting as the organization's conscience, alleged last month that five to eight of his colleagues had solicited bribes from potential host cities. Hodler then accused the previous winning cities of Atlanta, Nagano and Sydney of corruption--a charge officials in all three cities deny. (A leader of Anchorage's bid effort revealed to the Denver Post that in 1992 and 1994 his committee had refused I.O.C. operatives seeking $30,000 in return for votes.)

Whether or not more wrongdoing is uncovered, the Games will go on--and they will almost certainly be held in Salt Lake City. Even with three years to go, the city is on a tight construction timetable, and it's not feasible to change the location. The 16-day extravaganza, expected to cost $1.5 billion, will be the most expensive Winter Games ever. Sponsors and broadcasters are expected to shoulder $1.1 billion of the cost, but Games promoters still have to raise $250 million from corporations. So far, none of the sponsors--among them Coca-Cola, IBM and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (a Time Inc. magazine)--have indicated they will pull out, but the prospect worries local politicians. "If the Games don't break even," says Salt Lake councilwoman Deeda Seed, "we'll be handed a tax bill we can't afford." Already, US West has pointedly asked the Salt Lake committee if there will be more "surprises." The answer may be a long time coming; the Justice Department investigation into wire and tax fraud could take up to a year.

Meanwhile, the I.O.C. is scheduled to wrap up its internal review by Jan. 23. Members found to have solicited bribes may be forced to resign. A popular proposal, supported by the irrepressible 80-year-old Hodler, is that voting on host cities be limited to the executive board, which has 11 members.

There's no doubt that reform is needed. In September the Swiss senate granted the I.O.C. a tax abatement worth $1.5 million for "public service to Switzerland"--a country seeking the 2006 Winter Olympics for its mountain resort Sion. The lower house of parliament has yet to approve the windfall, but it may heed Finance Minister Kaspar Villiger, who persuaded reluctant senators to approve the tax break even if it meant "holding their noses."

So far, Sion is the front runner for the 20th Winter Olympics.