Bowed But Not Beaten

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Juan Antonio Samaranch, the 79-year-old president of the International Olympic Committee, sits in a small but elegant conference room in the Olympic Museum in Lausanne trying to explain away the crisis of confidence that has enveloped the Games. It's not easy. He nervously fidgets with paper clips. A smile seldom crosses his tired face.

In March, ten members of the I.O.C. resigned or were dismissed over allegations that they had accepted gifts--ranging from cash and vacations to scholarships for their children--from organizing committees representing cities bidding to host the Games. This week the I.O.C. meets in special session to vote on an extensive package of reforms forced upon it by a combination of bad publicity, nervous sponsors and--much to the annoyance of the Europeans who dominate the I.O.C.--members of the U.S. Congress, who threaten to fiddle with the I.O.C.'s tax status if things don't change.

Samaranch's take on all of this turmoil is muddled. In a sudden conversion, he has become the reformer of an organization he has run as a personal fiefdom since 1980. He is urging I.O.C. members to adopt a reform package which would sharply curtail their privileges and perks. "We realize that it is time to change," Samaranch told Time. "Many things in our organization need to be more modern, more transparent, more open." Talk about startling turnarounds. In 1995, Samaranch had the I.O.C.'s rules on retirement age changed so that he could enjoy another term as president. Now he is pushing for rule changes that would set a mandatory retirement age of 70, require members to stand for re-election to the I.O.C. after eight years, and limit the president to one eight-year term.

But Samaranch does not seem to grasp all of the sacrifices expected of a true reformer. Take, for example, the matter of the $12,306.76 the Atlanta bidding committee paid to bring Samaranch's wife and a female friend of hers to Georgia for a sightseeing trip before the vote to select a host city for the 1996 Olympics. "It is very normal that the wife of the president is invited [to visit a bid city] because they want to be kind to our organization," says Samaranch. But surely, she would not now make such a trip to a city which, say, is bidding for 2008? "Maybe. It depends," Samaranch says. "After all, my wife is the wife of the president." And that presumably puts her outside the scope of the new rules Samaranch is so ardently promoting.

Samaranch's re-education may not be complete, but the measures likely to be adopted next week will go a long way to check corruption in the bidding process. Visits by I.O.C. members to bid cities will be forbidden or tightly controlled. Cities bidding on the Games will be required to sign a contract promising to follow strict ethical rules, something no one at the I.O.C. thought of demanding before--despite persistent reports over the years of rampant graft. An outside ethics commission will watch just in case some I.O.C. member is tempted to barter his vote for a cash contribution to a sports fund back home.

The reforms also reach beyond the bidding process to tinker with the archaic I.O.C. structure that was created in the days before the Olympics became a multibillion dollar extravaganza. The I.O.C. is still dominated by mostly male, white and wealthy sports dilettantes--including six members of European royal families. Only 29 of the 102 members are Olympic athletes, and most of those--former yachtsmen, equestrians, fencers--are long past their glory days. The new rules will give 15 active athletes, elected by their peers during the Games, seats on the I.O.C., including one place on the powerful 15-member Executive Board. Says Bob Ctvrtlik, an American gold medalist in volleyball, "A year ago they would have laughed you out of the room had you suggested an athlete serve on the Executive Board."

Will these changes placate all the critics? Not completely. "It's extraordinary that they've gone this far," says Angela Schneider, a silver medalist in rowing who is active in the athletes' movement. "But because older members will continue to dominate the I.O.C., genuine ethical or cultural change is still a long way off." Many Olympic sponsors, the large corporations which ante up about 30% of the revenue for the Games, do, however, express cautious optimism. Last February when the scandal broke, David D'Alessandro, president of John Hancock Financial Services, ordered the Olympic rings taken off company stationery and publicly threatened not to renew John Hancock's $40 million sponsorship of the Games. Now, says D'Alessandro, he is considering staying with the Games, if, indeed, the I.O.C. makes good on its promises.

On Dec. 15, in Washington, Samaranch, flanked by the likes of Henry Kissinger, one of the high-powered advisers called in to help draft the reforms, will attempt to convince a group of skeptical members of the U.S. Congress that the I.O.C. has changed for the better. Samaranch will have some useful ammunition if the I.O.C. does vote in the package he is pushing. But he really does need a better answer for questions about his wife's travels.