"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 18 September 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Summer of Samaranch

The torches have been duly lit, the sonorous ideals of global comity and peace have been dully intoned, and athletes have sent up countless silent prayers beseeching victory in the most exciting new event — the spot drug-testing trials. But as Olympiad 2000 gathers steam, we are being grimly reminded that the real Olympic competition has long been concluded. This would be, of course, the unalloyed PR triumph of the great banana republic of moldering aristocratic privilege, merchandising contracts, and payola of all description, the International Olympics Committee.

By now, most everybody knows the broad outlines of the bidding scandal that rocked the committee in the wake of Salt Lake City's, uh, determined campaign to win the rights to host the Winter 2002 games in a lavish sports complex local magnates had already constructed for the occasion. To ensure that, having built it, they would come, Salt Lake City boosters Tom Welch and Dave Johnson unleashed a million-dollar cornucopia of graft, giving the sons and daughters of the IOC brass plumb jobs with city bureaucracies and broadcasting outfits, supplying them with college tuition grants, outfitting swing voters on the IOC (and their relations) with medical surgery, furs, and shopping and sightseeing junkets. In one widely reported instance, they even arranged a paid concert performance with the Utah Symphony Orchestra for an aspiring pianist who also happened to be the daughter of powerful IOC Vice President Kim Un-Yong. (Her concert CV serves as a thumbnail précis of the recent contenders for the revenue-drenched spotlight of Olympic glory: Atlanta, Berlin, Melbourne, Lausanne, and Paris). There was plenty more, less widely reported juice flowing from spigots of the Great Salt Lake, including a special piece of congressional legislation allotting prime Forest Service preserve land for the Snowbasin site of the 2002 pageant. Yet now, in the sepia-toned glow of the lit torch and the premier Olympic pageant of the new millennium, we are already being urged to forget the whole distressing, confusing business and — all together now — get on with the Games! After all, wasn't there an in-house purge of the IOC's most shameless shakedown artists? Wasn't there some stiff talk of smiting down the "culture of corruption" that had enveloped the Committee? Wasn't there a comforting squall of ballyhooed (if wanly self-administered) "reforms" passed at last year's IOC confab? Didn't John McCain hold hearings, for God's sake?

But as with other "cultures of corruption" — the Tailhook scandal, presidential fundraising, the VMAs — the easy recourse to the diffuse causal power of culture and hastily pronounced patchwork reform initiatives conceals a quite specific skeleton of institutional protocols, standards, and practices, soldiering grimly on sans serious modification or fresh moral equipage. And to the great dismay of genuine sports enthusiasts and would-be global humanitarians the world over, the IOC's institutional armature is, well, fascist. And we don't mean fascist in the spirit of "The Man appropriated my subculture and all I got was a lousy T-shirt." No, this is the genuine, blue-shirted article, courtesy of the longest running fascist regime in the West, the cult of Spain's Generalissimo Francisco Franco. It takes a rather willful flight from consensual reality to behold the modern history of the Olympic Games in all its monumental spectacle, its sanctums of graft, its wheezing fraternity of authoritarian strongmen, and proclaim with a straight face that the culture did it.

No, the actual villain is far more corporeal and closer to hand — and he comes bearing an impressive CV in 20th century paleo-ideology. He is the IOC's president, the Marques Juan Antonio de Samaranch. At the age of 16, Samaranch was an eager young recruit to Franco's war on Spain's newly elected republican government. He proved a loyal apparatchik of the Generalissimo until the Great Man's death four decades later, serving as the minister of sport, adjutant of his native province of Catalonia (where he presided over successive crackdowns on labor unrest and political protests in this exceedingly anti-Francoist region), and finally ambassador to the Soviet Union, where he undertook a sort of sporting and diplomatic version of a nonalignment pact, leveraging, among other things, a Spanish breaking of the embargo on Western participation in the U.S.-boycotted 1980 Olympics. Once the gig was up in fascist Spain, however, Samaranch, who had already won a spot as vice-president on the aristocratic old boy's club of the IOC, became in short order a born-again, family-of-man internationalist, paying grandiose lip service to international brotherhood and human rights, even cultivating reveries of a Nobel Peace Prize as his term as IOC prexy wore implacably on.

Samaranch's assumption of the post of Olympics Maximum Leader in 1980 coincided with the dawn of a blinding new era in sports merchandising. The Olympics, which had just limped through the dull and dollar-hemorrhaging Montreal Games of 1976 and the prestige debacle of the US-boycotted Moscow Games of 1980, was now uniquely primed to cash in. Samaranch had, after all, been handpicked by Adidas sports apparel cofounder Horst Dassler, who, in leveraging the leaderships of the global federations of soccer, boxing, and track and field (to name just a few marquee operations) was about to transform the fusty precincts of global sport into a wind tunnel of cash. There would be TV revenues, to be sure, but as possessor of the five-rings Olympic symbol, the IOC was sitting on a copyright goldmine, one even grander in prestige than the three-stripe Adidas logo. Meanwhile, still boasting the note-perfect political instincts of the selectively reconstructed Francoist, Samaranch set about surrounding himself and his august body with the sort of cronies the words "thug" and "tinpot" were coined to describe. Among the special friends upon whom Samaranch has selected to bestow the high honor of the Olympic Order are not merely the late Dassler, a useful shill for the shoe industry, but also such great humanitarians of yore as the late Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu and former South Korean president, army massacre leader, and convicted bagman Tae-Woo Roh. (Queried by the press on his selection of the Butcher of Bucharest, Samaranch replied, "I'm proud of him," then thought it prudent to remind his questioner of the epic sweep of the IOC's moral authority: "We are more important than the Catholic Church," he said.)

This is to say nothing, of course, of the gorgeous mosaic of boodlers Samaranch has appointed to the IOC proper. There are far too many to do justice to here, but consider at the least the estimable Pakistani Professor Anwar Chowdhry, who heads up the IOC's powerful and staggeringly corrupt boxing operation. Chowdhry's judges are nothing if not dedicated. In an infamous light-middleweight match at the 1988 Games, a fighter from the host South Korea team was awarded the gold, even though he landed a mere 32 punches against an obviously dominant US title opponent, who landed 86. The panel's new math was so baldly weighted that the medalist, Park Si Hun, lifted the American Roy Jones Jr. in the air to signal to the audience who he thought was the real winner. Hun said he was "ashamed" to have won the bout. To their credit, 50,000 Korean fans flooded their local TV studio's switchboard to register the same opinion. In the words of Olympic muckraker Andrew Jennings, this marked "one of the few occasions in the controversial history of boxing when both fighters, the world's media, and a billion or so TV spectators were certain the judges were wrong."

But shame remains in notoriously short supply among Chowdhry's nomenklatura: Come the off-year world championships in Houston in 1999, Chowdhry's judges were determined to settle an old score with the Cubans and robbed light featherweight Juan Hernandez of a title he'd clearly won, which then triggered the first-ever, on-site walkout by a competing national team. And clumsily tendered cash-in-the-envelope bribes are routinely reported at many of the competitions Chowdhry has presided over since acceding to office in 1986.

Next: More charming Old World boodlers [Next Page]