Sex, drugs and knee replacements

The stench that hangs on the Olympics

Manfred Ewald, once East Germany's most powerful sports official, left a Berlin court last week with a smile on his face and a suspended sentence for feeding male hormones to women athletes without their consent. ‘A relentless Führer’, the judge called Ewald, who ruled his country's dope programme through four Olympics.

Women who had been children chasing dreams during those times trailed into the witness box to speak of the liver damage and cancers they had since suffered, their sprouting beards, their miscarriages. One told of giving birth to a baby with deformities.

At 74 years of age Ewald might seem like a harmless relic of times past, but there remains a living embodiment of the strong and thriving links between Ewald and his potions and this year's Olympic Games.

He is 80-year-old Juan Antonio Samaranch, another relentless Führer, leader of the Olympic movement, unreconstructed Franco fascist, who showered Ewald and his leader Erich Honecker with the highest Olympics honours and presided for two decades over the sloppiest of doping controls. In 53 days' time Samaranch, who as recently as 1974 strutted the streets of Barcelona in his blue shirt, will declare the Sydney Olympic Games open and graciously accept the world's applause.

It is hard not to admire Samaranch's staying power. Just eighteen months ago members of his International Olympic Committee stood accused of taking bribes. They'd toured the world selling their votes for sex, cash and medical treatment to cities bidding to host the Games.

In the past when faced with allegations of corruption Samaranch struck out at the accuser — one of us got a five day suspended jail sentence in the Olympic home town of Lausanne eight years ago for publishing the truth about Olympic corruption — but this time the accuser was one of their own, Swiss IOC member and whistleblower, Marc Hodler. They tried and failed to smear him as a mad old fool, but the documents supported him, box-loads of letters and private memos from Salt Lake City, detailing the Olympians' colourful demands.

Sponsors who had paid fortunes to harness themselves to a brand that is supposed to embody youth, fair play and idealism, were aghast to be linked in the consumer's mind with old men soliciting legovers and knee replacement surgery. When the corporations threatened to stampede, Samaranch reluctantly expelled a few dear friends and promised reform.

Today's official line is that reform is a success, Samaranch's International Olympic Committee is more democratic and accountable, more determined to support athletes and fight doping, than it has ever been before. In the past, new members were chosen by Samaranch and his executive board and rubber-stamped by the membership. After fifty stunning reforms, they tell us, a carefully controlled committee compiles a list of names from which. . . new members are chosen by Samaranch and his executive board and rubber-stamped by the membership.

Having tracked the reform process from the start we can say - but how to put it nicely? - the official line is a big fat lie. Only last week the United States Justice Department published a list of IOC members, some still happily ensconced, who took money from the Salt Lake bid team.

By far the IOC's most decisive move in its bribery crisis was the appointment of world-class spin-doctors Hill and Knowlton, who've done magnificent work over the years protecting profits when big business inadvertently kills, maims or otherwise upsets the public. They controlled the financial damage after Bhopal, the world's worst industrial accident, which killed three thousand people in India, they protected reputations when the Exxon Valdez spilled its poisonous cargo into Prince William Sound, and they have done more than just about anybody to support the view that smoking is not bad for you.

In the first days of the Olympic crisis the damage controllers told their new clients: this is your Bhopal, this is your Exxon Valdez. We know, because someone helpfully sent us parcels of documents, some revealing the spin doctors' multi-million dollar advice to their clients, others minuting the Olympians' own private meetings during the crisis.

Leafing through those papers you could easily forget that the Olympics has anything at all to do with sport. ‘Seize news initiative,’ Hill and Knowlton urge. They would, ‘strategically place op-ed pieces by IOC ambassadors.’ They pledged but failed to deliver Henry Kissinger in the New York Times and Margaret Thatcher in the International Herald Tribune.

In the public's mind, the IOC must be transformed from a ‘secretive club,’ into a ‘modern, transparent and effective trustee.’ The keepers of the Olympic flame speak with palpable fear of the sponsorship stampede and plot ‘a major restoration programme for the Olympics brand.’

The cost of all this spin — $3 million and rising for Hill and Knowlton's machinations, several million dollars more on a global advertising campaign to restore the Olympic brand, and who knows what on ‘communications’, the IOC's biggest single area of activity these days — could have bought an awful lot of footballs for barefoot kids in shanty towns around the world.

Away from the flurry of reconstructing the IOC's public face, something deeply worrying has happened in the Olympic world, something that makes the bribery and the doping seem tame. The mafia has quietly taken root. Among the Olympics' attractions to the Mob are kudos, opportunities for laundering money and reputations, and, best of all, an open door. Victories in sport and sports elections are traded now for cash by Eastern European mobsters.

Samaranch's choice of friends and tourism spots might raise eyebrows around the boardroom table at a self-respecting corporation. Imagine the stink at Marks and Spencer or the Guardian Media Group if the chief executive spent time, as Samaranch has done, flying to distant Tashkent with Andre Guelfi, the man who laundered millions for Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand.

The stench that hangs on the Olympics adheres to cities that bid to host the Games, to politicians who pay obeisance to President Samaranch, and to all the athletes, dopers or not, for how can we tell them apart? But the Olympics can be rescued. This past year's multi-governmental effort to wrest doping control from the IOC's jealous grip points the way ahead. An intergovernmental conference on giving the Games back to the people would be a start. Tony Blair might like to champion it and strike a blow for youth and sport and decency.

The Great Olympic Swindle (Simon & Schuster) by Andrew Jennings and Clare Sambrook was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 2000.