When Juan Antonio Samaranch testifies before Congress today about the past year's Olympic scandals and last weekend's Olympic reforms, there will be a huge gulf between the IOC president and his American questioners.
In a lengthy interview yesterday at The Washington Post, Samaranch made clear that he will say, in effect, "We fixed it. Problem solved." Implicit may be the thought: Now leave us alone. Some members of Congress will surely be perplexed. You fixed it? Aren't you the same man who, during the past 19 years, presided over what a congressional ethics report described as a "culture of corruption."
If strong reform measures are needed in U.S. politics or business, we have two long-standing expressions:
"A new broom sweeps clean."
"Throw the bums out."
Samaranch is the old broom. And he hand-picked the bums.
Yet he is now presenting himself as the chief architect of Olympic ethics reform. By American standards, Samaranch is an odd sight. Here, the CEO quits if his employees accept bribes. Even if he didn't do the deed, he's responsible. If his administration is riddled with scandals, an American politician is voted out of office. Okay, well, not always. Still, that's the operative theory. The buck stops at the top.
Truly, Samaranch as ethical beacon is one of the most bizarre sights in sports. Without him, the new reforms passed last weekend would almost certainly not have been enacted as quickly nor be as good as they are--severely limited though that is. Samaranch whipped his old-boy machine into shape. Everything passed by nearly unanimous vote. "Our vote was mostly a vote of confidence for Samaranch," said one Italian IOC member. Spoken like a Chicago alderman.
"Without [Samaranch] there wouldn't be the slightest doubt we would be in an even bigger mess," said IOC Vice President Dick Pound of Canada yesterday. "We couldn't have afforded a leadership crisis in the middle of this."
However, were it not for that culture of lavish-living, gift-giving, scholarship-swapping and freebie-globe-hopping that existed during the past 19 years with Samaranch as boss, then Samaranch the reformer would never have been necessary.
The reform votes were a genuine triumph for Samaranch. All were constructive and needed measures. Each makes the Olympics a bit better. Nevertheless, Congress should be deeply skeptical of everything that was not done. This was an insiders job. The Olympic power structure changed every single rule and reg that it could--as long as it left the power structure untouched.
Not long after the Olympic scandals broke about a year ago, I asked two veteran members of the USOC, "When the 'reforms' finally come out, how will we know if they are the real thing or just a whitewash? What's the giveaway?"
They agreed on two main points. First, there should be term limits with no re-elections; a member should serve for six or eight years, then move on. If this is really a clean-as-a-whistle, volunteer-only operation, why should one person stay in an IOC slot for 20 or 30 years? Second, when all the dust has cleared, do the same old boys who ran the ship before still have an overwhelming voting superiority?
We have our answer. On these two counts, the Olympic reforms flunk. The same people are running the same game at the same table. There are a lot of new rules posted on the lodge wall. But will they be enforced? Do tigers change their stripes?
The IOC crows that new members will be elected to eight-year terms, not appointed permanently by the president. On the other hand, members can be reelected over and over. You can serve until you are 70. In fact, current IOC members can continue to serve under the old rules--until they are 80.
The IOC will also include 15 active athletes (chosen by other athletes) as voting members. That's progress. But look at the bedrock vote count. Of the maximum 115 IOC members, 70 are still elected on an individual basis.
In the future a "partially independent" selection committee will screen and propose candidates. How's that for an oxymoron: partially independent. Only the IOC, which has never had the slightest sensitivity to conflict-of-interest issues, could say the phrase "partially independent" without laughing.
How should we, and Congress, feel about the New Improved IOC? First, congratulate them, as Henry Kissinger already has. They deserve it. Then, don't trust 'em any farther than you can throw 'em.
"As we have seen in the past," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), "what the IOC says and what the IOC does are two different things."
Much of the Olympic movement does not see the world, or even issues of ethics, as we do. Just last week, one IOC member, Pakistan's Syed Shahid Ali, charged that bid cities had used "satanic" methods to prey upon IOC members and that the IOC was "unnecessarily suffering from a guilt complex."
See, it was that den of iniquity--Salt Lake City--that caused all the trouble.
As to the most conspicuous of all the reforms--no free junkets to bid cities--even Britain's Princess Anne says the ban would be "nonsense" and "unenforceable."
If you think the IOC has been less than clean, top to bottom, under Samaranch, then you should stick to the same assumption now and keep a sharp eye on them. If you agree with several key IOC members that the term "culture of corruption" was an insult to a lot of dedicated people, then these reforms might be enough.
"At most, it was a subculture of corruption," IOC Vice President Anita DeFrantz of the United States said yesterday.
All things considered, including the small-potatoes nature of some of the IOC's corruption, maybe the reforms aren't too lame. On Saturday, Samaranch said to his assembled IOC members, "You have been facing harsh criticism. You have gone through undeserved sufferings and pains, very often unfair. As president, I suffer, too. . . . The reforms I ask you to approve are reasonable. The entire world is watching us."
If we had searched the entire world to find one man who would be the most ironic possible choice to run an idealistic, high-minded world-wide enterprise, you could hardly come up with more of a knee-slapper than Samaranch, the consummate opportunist. However, he's also always been the ultimate pragmatist.
That paradox is the reason we've arrived at today's scene in Washington. The biggest of all Olympic corruption scandals should be laid at Samaranch's feet, more than any other one man. But so should the solution--such as it is.