Displaying a mix of humility and uncertainty created by a year of overseeing the worst crisis in the 106-year history of the International Olympic Committee, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said today he desperately hoped the IOC's 102-person membership would vote this weekend to reduce its power and put an end to decades of clandestine and unchecked operation.
During an interview in his office at IOC headquarters on the shores of Lake Geneva, Samaranch said the future of the embattled organization depended on its members' willingness to relinquish control and create a more democratic, open and less aristocratic IOC as they cast votes on a package of 50 reforms at the 110th full IOC session Saturday and Sunday.
"I am not sure what will happen," Samaranch said. "With an assembly of 100 people, it is not easy to know what they are thinking. I hope they realize that for the future of the Olympic movement we have to make drastic changes.
"We cannot miss this opportunity. It is important to solve the crisis this year but also to present a renovated International Olympic Committee going into the new millennium."
The proposed reforms include periodic member reelections, a new age limit at 70 instead of 80, the election of designated numbers of athlete members by athletes themselves, open meetings and a partially independent body to screen candidates for membership.
The proposals would represent significant change for an organization in which members currently serve until they die or reach 80, are hand-picked by Samaranch and answer to no outside authority.
The IOC already has created a quasi-independent ethics committee and a reform group that assembled the package of reforms. That group, called the IOC 2000 Commission, consisted of 82 people including 44 IOC members, 26 Olympic athletes and prestigious outsiders including former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and 1984 Los Angeles Games Organizing Committee head Peter Ueberroth.
The IOC also has requested in writing that it be placed under the jurisdiction of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Developments' international anti-bribery laws--a specific recommendation made by members of Congress and a U.S. ethics panel led by former senator George Mitchell.
Elected to the IOC presidency in 1980, Samaranch, 79, is credited with guiding the IOC from near bankruptcy in the early 1980s--when Cold War politics led the United States and the Soviet Union to boycott successive Olympics--to its current status as the premier showcase for sports in the world. The Games are considered such a financial windfall that Salt Lake City officials offered millions of dollars in scholarships, cash payments and other inducements to curry favor during the city's 1989-95 bid for the 2002 Olympics. Those excesses gave rise to this year's scandal.
American Anita DeFrantz, one of four IOC vice presidents, said the outcome of this weekend's vote will determine Samaranch's place in Olympic history. "It is his legacy," DeFrantz said about the reform. "If it fails, his legacy will be failure . . . He has done 19 years of work, but what will be remembered is this 19th year."
At the crux of the movement for reform is a desire to appease antsy sponsors and a critical U.S. Congress, which has held two hearings on the scandal and threatened to repeal the IOC's tax-exempt status in the United States--a move that would debilitate the organization as nine of its top 11 sponsors are U.S. companies. Though some IOC members have said they resent what they perceive as big-footing by the United States, Samaranch took a conciliatory approach today, calling U.S. intervention helpful and welcome.
He said the suggestions detailed in the report compiled by the Mitchell-led ethics panel provided handy guidelines for the reform process.
Samaranch said he still plans to testify in front of the House Commerce Committee on Dec. 15, three days after the close of this weekend's session. Samaranch requested this date when Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) invited him to attend a late October hearing. At that time, Samaranch told Upton in a letter that he was consumed with the full-time job of trying to move along the reform process.
"We will give the Congress of the United States the explanations they want and the reforms," Samaranch said. "We will present reforms that are much wider than requested."
IOC members will be asked to revamp the process of bidding for the Olympic Games, either by eliminating visits by IOC members to bidding cities or by imposing strict guidelines on such visits. Samaranch said he supports banning the visits altogether. That reform will require only a majority vote for passage; others that require amendments to the Olympic Charter will need two-thirds approval.
Samaranch said he never considered resigning during the scandal, but would have stepped down had "15, 20 or 25" members voted for his removal when a secret ballot was taken at a meeting in March. At that meeting, Samaranch received an overwhelming vote of confidence from members--the vast majority of whom he had once appointed--with an 86-2 vote in favor of his remaining president. Two members abstained.
"My understanding of this result was they were not only confirming me as president, they were also choosing me to lead this crisis," he said.
Samaranch wore a conservative navy suit with a plain navy tie as he talked today, his demeanor matching the seriousness of the week ahead. He never once smiled during the 40-minute interview and he nervously rolled a pencil between his fingers as he sat at the head of a boardroom table. He resisted the characterization in the Mitchell report that the IOC's lack of transparency and accountability fostered a "culture of corruption."
"Without using the word corruption, I will say some members did not respect the oath they [took] when introduced as members of the IOC," Samaranch said. "The crisis for the mass media . . . was really a scoop. Maybe someone in the IOC, or maybe myself, learned in this moment the relevance of our organization. Yes, I was affected."