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Sunday, September 17, 2000

IOC old guard slow to change
 SYDNEY -- Simply watching members of the International Olympic Committee walk into and out of meetings before the start of the Sydney Games was a revelation.

 For an outfit dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in sport and charged with overseeing a dynamic multi-billion-dollar enterprise, and despite the recent inclusion of a small group of relatively young athletes to try and ward off charges of cronyism, privilege and corruption, the IOC remains an almost sclerotic organization imprisoned by its own arcane, archaic traditions and venal interests.

 Many of the IOC's most influential members and scores of its hangers-on are very long in the tooth. A few are just barely ambulatory. The athletes have a lot of spring in their step and look like true symbols of the Olympic ideal. But they have no power to speak of yet and look like tourists thrown by accident aboard a luxury liner.

 The official line is that the IOC is seized with the idea it must change, but its first impulse is always to protect its leaders, however great their failings. As a consequence, the balance of power is unlikely to shift much for 10 or 20 years. However, power is inexorably slipping away from the old guard and there is little they can do about it except hang on by their fingertips.

 The boss of bosses, His (self-styled) Excellency Juan Antonio Samaranch, is a sterling example of the prevailing orthodoxy of an organization that is not very deeply committed to change. Samaranch will surrender the presidency next year at the age of 81 not because he feels it is time, but because the global clamour to end his wounded reign is so loud.

 It is no different with drug use at the Olympics. The IOC has proven for years that it is not interested in hunting down drug cheats because this is the right thing to do. It does so only when outside pressures to do so becomes intolerable.

 The IOC is a huge corporation, but like many monopolies which make staggering amounts of money, it is not a meritocracy and has precious little real talent. Thumbing through the thick book of biographies provided by the IOC press office, it is impossible not to be unimpressed by the thin resumes submitted by most IOC members and honourary members.

 About one-third of the 110 IOC members are truly mediocre. Despite the fresh flush of golden athletes, the IOC very much remains a refuge for minor royalty, Third World army officers and judges and newly rich Eastern European apparatchiks with unattractive political pasts and dubious new business connections.

 The royal houses of the United Kingdom, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Belgium, Holland, Spain and Kuwait are represented, as are blue bloods from deposed royal families from France and Greece. There are five colonels and generals who earned their promotions from military dictatorships and there are judges from countries where the legal systems are notoriously unjust. Most of the Russians and other Slavs and the sole Mongolian, have meagre educations, brutal language skills and decades of faithful service to various Communist party Central Committees.

 The IOC's professional class is fairly small and somewhat younger than the others. It is comprised almost entirely of Western Europeans, Canadians, Americans and Australians. There are also a handful of competent Asians and Hispanics. Their histories reveal that in the future IOC, as already in the world today, American educations are important and good English is essential.

 To be fair, then, to this much maligned organization, the IOC is not much different than the United Nations or the big, bad, ugly world. The First World earnestly does the work and pays the bills, the Second World demands influence far out of proportion to its contribution but perhaps not its firepower, and the Third World doesn't do much of anything except send its elite to the banquet to get a fair share of the lavish perquisites that are available.