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Corruption timebomb ticks for two decades

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LONDON -- The time bomb of corruption at the heart of the Olympic movement has been ticking quietly but relentlessly for nearly two decades.

Three members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have resigned amid the bloody fallout from the "votes for cash" scandal surrounding Salt Lake City's successful bid for the 2002 Winter Games, and half a dozen more are likely to face the ax.The man at the center of the storm, veteran IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, must now throw himself on the mercy of his fellow members if he is to last his remaining two years in office.

It is an extraordinary position for the 78-year-old Spaniard whose autocratic style has become a byword in the Olympic corridors of power since he took office in 1980.

For the clutch of movers and shakers who run the world's greatest sporting institution, their current predicament presents an astonishing contrast with that of 1980.

Twenty years ago they were widely seen as little more than a cozy, slightly ridiculous group of fussy guardians of Baron Pierre de Coubertin's 19th century ideas of amateurism, hovering on the brink of insolvency.

Then along came Samaranch to drag the movement kicking and screaming into the 20th century, with his ambitions for a fully professional Olympics generating billions of dollars in revenue.

By harnessing the supreme quality of Olympic competition to the overwhelming power of television, Samaranch got his way and created a product of unrivaled spectacle and profit.

But there was always a flaw which went to the heart of the new-look Games.

As full-time athletes took over from the amateur part-timers of earlier generations, so too did the IOC have to become fully professional. Out went the dinosaurs and in came the slick marketeers to create a goose to lay the golden eggs.

Virtually all those appointed to the IOC under Samaranch are high achievers, having made their mark in their chosen field, usually sports administration, government, the military or business. Few are shrinking violets and most have a shrewd grasp of the principles of big business.

Two decades ago the outlook for a host city was so bleak that Los Angeles was the sole candidate for the 1984 Games.

But Los Angeles went on to break the mold by becoming the first host city to wind up in the black, with a profit of $225 million, and set off an Olympic free-for-all.

The stakes became higher with each successive Games and staging the Summer Olympics is now estimated to be worth at least $5 billion in extra business for the host city.

With the money came power and with the power came corruption.

The problem was that while jettisoning the old amateur ethos, Samaranch sought to preserve the supposed piety of the Olympic ideal, aggressively marketing the Games as a vehicle for fair play, peace and friendship.

The IOC may be no more corrupt than any other multinational corporation doing business on such a vast scale.

But an organization that sets such high ethical standards for its athletes will inevitably pay a high price for the slightest hint of corruption in its own ranks.

Nor was Samaranch's personal image enhanced by the widespread perception that he was intent on using the Olympics as a route to a Nobel Peace Prize.

There was also growing resentment, particularly among the Western media, at what was seen as the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Samaranch and his lieutenants compared with the relatively humble accommodation allocated to athletes attending the Games.

This contradiction was always somewhat artificial, as many of the athletes living in the Olympic village were considerably richer than their IOC "masters."

But the conflict remained -- the perception of a small privileged group scrabbling in the market place to snare bigger and bigger profits while peddling holier-than-thou values to the rest of the world.

The picture was further complicated by the perception in some quarters that the IOC's attempts to wipe out doping from Olympic sport were largely cosmetic.

In this context, the IOC is about to enter another high-risk area when it hosts the first global conference on doping in sport in Lausanne next week.

Unless it can find a formula to convince all parties -- the IOC rank and file membership, the sports federations and the media -- that it is serious abut stamping out doping, it could easily attract further criticism about its ethics.

The shock waves from Salt Lake City have extended to 1998 Winter Olympic venue Nagano and to millennium Summer Games hosts Sydney, and observers of the Olympic movement insist that Samaranch's job could be on the line when he seeks a vote of confidence from the IOC membership in March.

Within the organization, no one has yet expressed any serious doubts that Samaranch will see out his full term until 2001 -- not least because it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to take up what is becoming seen as a poisoned chalice.

But for the moment no one can predict when the shock waves from the Olympic time bomb will subside.