What a difference a year makes. One year ago, Nagano City was pulling out the stops to welcome athletes from all over the world for a mammoth festival on ice and snow. Such was the universal appeal of the Olympic Games that even warring nations laid down their arms for the duration of the competition in the name of universal brotherhood.

One year later, the sweet and exciting memory of Nagano has come face to face with a nightmarish reality: Behind the protestations of peace and fraternity lies a shady world of back-scratching, gift-giving and outright bribery. With organizers of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games accused of bribing a number of International Olympic Committee members, the IOC has sworn to look into the bidding process of past Olympics, including Nagano.

Right now, the spotlight is on Salt Lake City. Four separate investigations are reportedly under way into allegations that IOC members or their relatives received cash payments, scholarships, jobs, free medical care, real estate deals, lavish gifts and other inducements from Salt Lake promoters.

A six-man IOC commission investigating the Salt Lake case will meet this weekend to finalize its work before making recommendations to the IOC executive board. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said the executive board could suspend any members found guilty of serious misconduct. Recommendations to expel members would go to a full IOC assembly meeting in March, where a two-thirds majority vote is required for expulsion. The special March session is expected to address proposals to revamp the bidding and selection process for Olympic host cities. Mr. Samaranch has suggested stripping the full assembly of the vote and leaving the selection to the executive board.

Why is the system not working? One answer is that the Olympic movement has become what critics call a “money tree,” the roots of which can be traced to the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, the first Olympics run by private business. Under the pressure of savvy American hard-sell tactics, commercial sponsors sprang up like the proverbial bamboo shoots; Los Angeles’ intoxicating experience of success subsequently inspired more and more cities to bid for the Olympics.

The seeds of the Olympic money tree were planted by none other than Mr. Samaranch himself, who took over the IOC presidency in 1980 and gave the Olympic movement its initial shot of commercialism. On his watch, the search for Olympic sugar daddies went global, while the spirit of amateurism went overboard. Professional athletes made their debut in the Olympics, and the number of made-for-TV Olympic events multiplied. As a result, the Olympics became the most sought-after athletic show on earth. IOC coffers swelled as television networks paid astronomical sums for exclusive rights to broadcast the Games. Money talked, as the promoters of Salt Lake’s Olympic bid found out.

After narrowly losing the vote for the 1998 Winter Games to Nagano, Salt Lake was determined to get the 2002 Games. When Salt Lake promoters were found to have given lavish gifts to IOC members, the city’s defenders said they were simply doing what other bidders had done. Alarm bells were sounded within the IOC concerning possible misconduct, but apparently none of the warnings reached Mr. Samaranch’s ears. He was simply determined to expand the scope of the Olympics. On his wishes, the IOC retirement age for IOC members was pushed from 72 to 75, and then to 80 in 1995. Some believe that this was done largely in order to extend Mr. Samaranch’s own tenure, in opposition to a general trend of bringing new blood into sports organizations. Criticism, however, remained muted within the IOC.

As a matter of fact, there is a strong sense of coterie within the IOC fraternity. Members have long functioned like a salon of the well-to-do, calling themselves the “Olympic family.” Even though the IOC membership now numbers over 100, the organization still prides itself on its close-knit ties. When the latest scandal surfaced, some members were reluctant to carry out an in-house investigation.

According to the Olympic Charter, one of the objectives of the Olympics is to educate young people through sports and thereby contribute to a peaceful and better world. IOC members should take another look at the charter, and make the Olympics a real festival for sportsmen and women.

Mr. Samaranch’s term of office runs through 2001. He could make one more contribution to the Olympic movement by stepping down after the 2000 Sydney Olympics and let the IOC make a clean start at the outset of the 21st century.

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