May 1999

The Olympics: From Pericles to Samaranch

James Petras

The corruption scandal of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was an event waiting to happen. The blatant buying of IOC delegate votes for holding the winter events in Salt Lake City, Utah should be no surprise, given the big business atmosphere that engulfs the operations of the Olympics. The recently published 300-page report issued by an ethics committee in Utah reveals the sordid details: free trips to Disneyland, free scholarships for children of the IOC representatives, paid vacations, expensive gifts, etc. These bribes were given by the local Utah committee as "financial incentives" to influence the IOC delegations to vote in favor of Salt Lake City as the site for the 2002 Winter Games. But that scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. Many cities across the globe also competed and surely provided bribes since it was recognized as part of the "rules of the game."

The extent of corruption on a global scale has not yet been added up. What is clear is that being a member of the IOC is a lucrative career for amassing a small fortune; it is certainly not an "honorary post to uphold the spiritual values of Ancient Greece."

The IOC delegates are not the only guilty parties, however. A very tightly controlled clique that resembles the general staff of the vertical trade unions of the Franco era and not surprisingly is directed by ex-Franquista, Juan Antonio Samaranch, runs the IOC. The corrupt practices of influence buying among individuals in the confidence of the top leadership of the IOC strongly suggest tacit or overt complicity. At best, Samaranch and his clique tolerated the bribe-taking culture and at worst the leaders were parties to the sordid corrupt practices. The Samar- anch clique run the IOC on the same basis as the Franco regime: in exchange for a free hand in enriching themselves, the IOC delegates were slavishly loyal to the Catalan caudillo who personally dictated policy.

The IOC's dictatorial structure allowed its members to engage in corrupt practices without any accountability to the public. This secretive authoritarian structure did not begin with Samaranch. He inherited and perpetuated the authoritarian style from his predecessor Avery Brundage who for many years showed an affinity for some of Europe's most notorious right-wing regimes. In that sense the corruption problems of the IOC are not products of personal failings of individuals, but are built into the very structure of the leadership of the organization.

The bribery of IOC delegates by municipal officials is based on the calculation of profit. Political leaders invest thousands of dollars in bribes to make millions (or even billions) of dollars in hotel, restaurant, and media revenues if the Olympics take place in their cities. The basic source of corruption of the IOC is structural. The Olympics is big business and like any decision relating to the location of a major enterprise, cities compete in offering "concessions" (tax concessions and other subsidies) to attract corporate investors.

Secondly, to attract the mass media and billion dollar contracts, the IOC has eliminated the amateur status of athletes. This "professionalizing" eliminates the very essence of the spirit of the classical Olympics. The "profes- sionalizing" and "commercialization" of the Olympics means that it is a world wide capitalist enterprise with great commercial importance—sports and athletes are incidental. Given the world wide media exposure, the IOC has encouraged multinational corporations to become official sponsors, eliminating any notion of the Games as a place where athletes from different nations can participate for the glory. Today, the athletes run and jump under the label of the competing corporations (Reebok versus Nike, etc.) who see the Olympics as a way to increase market shares and sell commodities.

The corruption of the Olympics is an inevitable and small part of the general corruption and corrosion of the original ancient Greek conception of the Olympics embedded in its transformation into a giant capitalist enterprise. The resignation of the implicated IOC delegates will not change either the larger picture or the operation of the IOC. Even the proposals calling for Samaranch's resignation (which is long overdue) while a step in the right direction, just scratches the surface of the problem. His replacement most likely will continue in his footsteps: promoting ties to the multinationals, global mass media, etc. Without Samaranch, the IOC, perhaps, would have a little more transparency in selecting the locations for the games. More radical proposals to make the IOC more open and democratic in the way it makes decisions could be a step in the right direction. The problem is that the national governments and organizations that will be represented are mouthpieces for big business interests who would encourage the same basic policies as exist today. It is important to note that the national United States Olympic Committee collaborated with the local organizers in Salt Lake City (Utah) in bribing some of the African delegates of the IOC.

In the United States in a recent editorial the New York Times promoted the idea that major private corporations should play a bigger role in "reforming" the IOC, which is like asking the fox to guard the chicken house. The Times considers the IOC as a "publicly traded corporation" that should be run by officials responsible to its corporate sponsors. The current struggle in the IOC is between the U.S. corporate-backed pseudo "reformers" against Juan Antonio Samaranch's clique of flunkeys. Neither choice is very attractive.

The major U.S. and European corporations that spend hundreds of millions on sponsorships and advertisement are very angry with Samaranch for "debasing" the Olympics and making them a less profitable enterprise to invest in. Already John Hancock, one of the biggest insurance companies in the U.S., has canceled a $20 million contract in television ads at the Winter Olympics, claiming that the IOC has devalued the games (in terms of the capitalist marketplace). It will be ironic if multinational corporations should unceremoniously kick Samaranch, who has done more than anyone else to turn the Olympics into a big capitalist money machine, out of the IOC that he tried to serve...because he adversely affected their profits.

It is time to abolish the "Olympics" as they exist today. They are contrary to the original spirit— they are not a place for disinterested athletes, or a replica of the professional teams that compete on the basis of commercial interests. We should start anew with a structure based on the original principles of the Olympics. The organizing committee should be composed of amateur athletes, popular sports organizations, and democratically elected representatives from the social movements. Corporate sponsors should be banished—the game should be returned to the athletes and the spectators. Failing that, we should pick up a fishing pole, a good bottle of Rioja red, a piece of Manchego cheese and head for the open sea—and forget about the Olympics.