The IOC's China problem

No matter how clean his record is, even the newly elected president of the world's most corrupt sports organization is suspect within its sordid structure.

Published July 18, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Why is it, exactly, that the majority of worldwide sports fans still fail to comprehend what a foul, corrupt ethical vacuum the International Olympic Committee really is? What more would have to happen before the sports press pours the same withering scorn on the Olympics that it reserves for clay pigeons like the XFL? Would it be slimeball former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, standing in front of a huge photo of himself while the Russian Interior Ministry Chorus sang "My Way" at his retirement ceremony? Naw. That actually happened -- swear to God -- and it scarcely made a dent. It was the most ludicrous sight in the history of sports, and it made a couple of late-night sports shows, but no more.

Would it be the revelation that one candidate for the president's position campaigned by promising voting members $50,000 each if he was elected? Uh-uh, because that one happened, too. South Korea's Kim Un Yong -- the same guy who got a severe reprimand not long ago for setting up his son in a plush, meaningless IOC job -- really did do that, and then compounded the offense by claiming that he meant the money to go for an office and staff for delegates. Just what the IOC needs, an enormous bureaucracy for volunteer delegates. Another candidate for the office says Kim's proposal "goes against everything the IOC has stood for since our inception." I wish that were true, but the ugly fact is that Kim's proposal is right in line with nearly everything the IOC has stood for since its inception.

Or, how about the deal to bring the 2008 Olympics to China's bloody dictatorship? Guess what, the IOC did that one, too, and not everybody was outraged. This is the same organization that decided, in the early '90s, not to let South Africa back into the Olympics until Nelson Mandela was released and apartheid was removed from the constitution. An absolutely correct stand, to say the least, but, then, South Africa didn't have too much to offer in the way of lucrative deals. Whereas with China, just think of the possibilities. The IOC certainly has. "We don't by any means suggest that human rights are not a fundamental issue," says IOC executive director Francois Carrard, "but this situation is totally different [from South Africa's]." Carrard would not elaborate on why he thought the situation is totally different; we are left to assume that white on black oppression is bad but that yellow on yellow oppression is also bad but something that the IOC can live with. But can't the IOC at least ask for concessions? For instance, the estimated 500 executions of political dissidents per month carried out by the Chinese government this year -- can't we at least ask to get it down to, say, 450, and settle for, oh, 475? I mean, if we don't ask, how are we going to know?

But the IOC isn't asking, it's just assuming. The assumption is that the presence of the Olympics in the ruthless dictatorship of China can, in the words of an IOC spokesman who asked not to be named, "help speed along the process of human rights in China." Forgive me, but I think sports promoters Don King and Vince McMahon would have about the same effect, with one important exception: With King and McMahon China doesn't get a big public relations boost in front of the world. With a major U.S. network broadcasting the games around the world, China scores a huge P.R. coup. After all, are TV producers going to cut from Olympic ballroom dancing and synchronized swimming to reminder shots of the massacre in Tienanmen Square? I rather doubt it.

As I write this, the world's most corrupt sports organization is trying to reform from within, or at least appears to be. It's difficult to know what one is to make of the election to president of former Olympian (sailing) and orthopedic surgeon Jacques Rogge, of Belgium. A French journalist I consulted on why Rogge would be an improvement thought, "At least he won't insist on being addressed as 'Your Excellency.'" Well, that's something. But the sad fact is that by now the IOC's rep is so shot that anyone who attains power within its sordid structure is by definition suspect no matter how clean his or her record looks. Whatever else his intentions, his un-excellency Rogge seems to have no plans to break up the cozy relationship with China.

As the last seven IOC presidents have been men -- European men -- it isn't surprising that former bronze medalist (1976, in rowing) Anita DeFrantz, of Los Angeles, the second most publicized candidate for Juan Antonio Samaranch's post, was eliminated on the first ballot, exposing the IOC's supposed liberality for the sham that it was and is. Not that DeFrantz seemed to be any more of a bargain than her male counterparts. For instance, when she was asked about the controversial China issue, DeFrantz's say-nothing answer was, "There are those who say that this is a risk [holding the games in Beijing]. There are others who say this will change the country. I believe that being at the games changes one's life." Yes, well, fine, it changed your life, Ms. DeFrantz, but what if it changes the lives of a whole lot of Chinese and makes them more anxious for human rights and they go out and get squashed by tanks?

One waits in vain for DeFrantz or anyone else to address issues like this, but all one gets is self-congratulatory gush. To the New York Times' William C. Rhoden DeFrantz offered, "I'm 21 years late for my race. To come back as the first vice president of the I.O.C. is incredible and historic. I am the first woman to be able to say that I should be the president of the I.O.C. That's remarkable." And so it is; DeFrantz stands perhaps eight years (or one IOC president's term) of being her own Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. The way IOC politics work she may be the first woman in sports to find an opportunity for personal growth in mass murder.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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