Praise, Scandal Precede Sydney Olympics

July 30, 2000 — -- When Sydney, Australia was chosen in 1993 to host the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, euphoria swept the country and the people who secured the games were thought of as heroes.

“We’re really keen and enthusiastic about the Olympics,” says Stephen Juan, a columnist at the Sydney Sun-Herald and an anthropology professor at the University of Sydney. “We’re a real sporting nation here.”

But after the euphoria came the hangover, with “one scandal after another” that “has been devastating to morale” among Australians, as Juan says.

Many of the scandals began overseas, including site selection payoff allegations. But most touched Australian shores and joined a stew of domestic tensions — including threatened protests over historic treatment of Australia’s Aborigines and the controversial construction of an Olympic vollyball stadium on Bondi Beach, legendary among surfers.

But Sydney and international Olympics officials say when the games begin in mid-September, all the early distractions will be forgotten. They point to enthusiastic greetings for the Olympic torch that has been traveling through Australia as an indication that Australian public opinion has turned a corner, and to overflowing IOC praise of preparations as evidence that they are on top of logistical matters.

“There were periods where negative publicity or a fall in public interest as measured in opinion polls were certainly a concern,” said Richard Palfreyman, head of press operations for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. “We had some unexpected lows in the IOC [International Olympic Committee] scandals. But in the end, I think we’ve come out of it a lot stronger.”

Bumbles and Bribes

Allegations that payoffs influenced the selection of several Olympic cities, including Sydney, have stuck most securely to Salt Lake City, host of the 2002 Winter Games. On July 20, a U.S. grand jury indicted the former president and vice president of the organization that brought Salt Lake City the games on charges that they paid $1 million in cash and gifts to accomplish their goal.

Sydney escaped an IOC investigation into its successful Olympic hosting bid, but an independent auditor in March 1999 found evidence that the Sydney bid committee broke several IOC rules concerning gift-giving and travel. However, the auditor declared the IOC rules “unclear” and “unworkable,” and did not find grounds for further review.

Still, individual Australians involved in various Olympic organizations became enmeshed in a series of embarrassing situations.

Former Australian Olympics chief John Coates admitted in January 1999 that he offered to help fund athletics in the homelands of two African members of the IOC the night before Sydney won the 2000 games by two IOC votes. Franklin Servan-Schreiber, spokesman for the IOC, says the practice was legal at the time under IOC rules, but “now we actively discourage that type of aid.”

Later, Phil Coles, an Australian IOC member, accepted a two-year ban from his duties after allegedly accepting ski vacations from the Salt Lake City bid committee. The ban ends in June 2001.

Early this year, an Australian reporter accused Kevan Gosper, a senior Australian member of the IOC, of violating IOC rules by accepting trips to Salt Lake City for himself and his family. Later, the IOC and its independent investigator cleared Gosper and his wife of wrongdoing, saying that his wife had paid for what she thought was the cost of a 1993 trip, and that the true cost, which was much higher, had been hidden from her.

However, shortly before the Salt Lake City trip controversy cooled, Gosper became entangled in another. On May 11, his 11-year-old daughter Sophie displaced another girl at the last moment as the first Australian torch bearer at the Olympic torch lighting ceremony in Greece. Gosper issued a formal apology the next day, saying he was unaware that the Greek-Australian girl, Yianna Souleles, had been displaced.

“My fatherly pride clouded my judgment,” Gosper wrote. “In retrospect, I now know my acceptance on behalf of my daughter of their invitation was a mistake.”

Local Issues

While the payoff allegations were hobbling the Olympics on an international stage, local controversies and logistical problems were dogging the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG).

SOCOG was criticized for the decision to build a volleyball stadium on the famed Bondi Beach. Protesters call it an environmental hazard and a strong-arm violation of public will by government and Olympic officials.

Aborigines vowed to disrupt the games in protest over past racial injustice. An Aborigine who once led a government agency on Aboriginal affairs was quoted as saying he expects “burning cars and burning buildings.”

In November 1999, SOCOG officials came under criticism for keeping about 500,000 tickets out of a public pool with plans to instead offer them to corporate clients at inflated prices. In the face of public outrage, many of the tickets were offered to the public at the original prices. But ticket demand dropped after the incident and sales have yet to meet organizers’ expectations.

This July, Werner Reiterer, an Olympic gold medalist for Australia in discus throwing, said he knew of numerous Australian athletes who used drugs banned by the Olympics, some with knowledge of officials. However, a doping probe was put on hold when Reiterer, now retired, refused to name names and said the officials who condoned his own drug use no longer were involved with the Olympics.

Smaller problems kept emerging. SOCOG admitted that many tickets were manufactured too big to fit through turnstiles at most Olympic venues, and could not be replaced. And floating weeds have been afflicting a rowing, canoeing and kayaking venue.

IOC: People Love Olympics

But according to international surveys commissioned by the IOC in 1998 and 1999, scandals and other complications have not dampened enthusiasm for the Olympics in Australia or elsewhere. In fact, the survey showed the Olympics organization continues to be more highly thought of than Disney, which is’s parent company, and other companies and institutions with positive public images.

“We found that, in fact, the reputation of the Olympic games improved, especially in America,” Servan-Schreiber said. “There was no link in the minds of the public between the problems of the IOC and the Olympic games. … Basically, nobody has any understanding of what the IOC does.”

IOC officials add that a feared exodus of traditional Olympics sponsors disillusioned over the IOC’s troubles never materialized. Large sponsors including Visa, Kodak and McDonalds re-upped in the months before the Sydney games.

What’s more, upon its final pre-games visit in June, the IOC was so impressed with Sydney’s preparations for the Olympics that a committee member said it should be a model for future host cities.

“There’s never been a whole city so well prepared so far in advance,” Servan-Schreiber says. “All the venues are completed. Not only are they completed, they have run for most of them test events … in order to detect any last-minute flaws.”

Hope for the Human Spirit

Servan-Schreiber says criticism over logistical and political issues existed before past Olympic games and it’s “absolutely normal” for such problems to temporarily dampen spirits in the host country. But he said the effect fades once the games begin.

“It is like a wave crashing on granite,” he says of pre-games problems, “because the human spirit that is embodied in the Olympics is universal and eternal.”

He says he is encouraged by what he says is enthusiastic turnout to greet the Olympic torch as it travels through Australia.

“It’s fun for those [critics] to get media attention by saying the games are not going to be as great as they are,” Servan-Schreiber says. “Thirty-thousand people in the street [to greet the Olympic torch] blows that argument out of the water.”

Even Juan, despite his view that scandal has tainted public perception of the games, believes they will again become a source of pride for Australians once the competition begins in mid-September.

“It’s like when they had the long baseball strike [in the United States] and the teams said, ‘Will the fans ever come back?’” he said. “Well, slowly but surely the fans have been coming back and forgetting there ever was a strike. That’s what’s happening here.”

Reuters contributed to this article.

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