Perhaps we should blame Peter Ueberroth. By treating the 1984 Los
Angeles Olympics more as one might treat a business venture than a
social cause, he demonstrated that hosting an Olympics didn’t have to
mean a huge drain on city or state treasuries or the building of stadia
and venues doomed to be expensive white elephants. By showing that an
Olympic Games could not only pay for itself but bring economic benefits
as well as the less reliably negotiable currency of prestige and being
viewed as “world class,” he may have set in motion the train of events
that has led to the scandals of Salt Lake City.

The panel chaired by George Mitchell has proposed to tighten up the
regulations that failed to deter a “culture of improper gift-giving,”
and wants to make the International Olympic Committee a “public
international organization,” so bribing its officials could be
punishable under the U.S.’ Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Does anyone think that would really work for long?

The International Olympic Committee has pressured certain members,
mostly from Third World countries (which might explain the
susceptibility to bribes unless it has to do with Eurocentric
wagon-circling in the upper reaches of the committee). Unless the
Olympic movement is converted into a chronically money-losing operation
that always costs host cities money — a possibility if it becomes a
“public international organization” but perhaps not likely so long as
the athletic competition and spectacle value is of a high enough caliber
to continue to attract large sums from television networks eager to have
exclusive rights — the Olympics will continue to generate both money
and less tangible economic benefits.

Cities (and the prominent businesspeople who live in them) desirous
of sharing the Olympic spotlight will find ways to lure it to their
hometowns. They will use money, overtly and covertly, to do so. Any
shiny-new reformed international committee will develop licit ways to
channel money into its coffers in return for the prestige and economic
benefits attendant on hosting the Olympics. And eventually, perhaps in
10 years, perhaps in 20 — or perhaps sooner — back channels for
baksheesh will develop as well. Sooner or later another scandal will
hit.

It would be smarter to convert the Olympic movement into an overtly
commercial venture, perhaps by selling stock in some IOC-created
corporation. That would at least promote the virtue of honesty. It
should also make the various financial transactions that go into
deciding where Olympics will be held and preparing for them to be
successful more straightforward, more open and therefore less remarkable
than the under-the-table transactions exposed in the Salt Lake City bid
— which apparently have been commonplace if somewhat less blatant in
the Olympics for longer than most of us would prefer to believe.

The National Football League, while it trades on the perception that
a professional sports team is a way to increase community pride and
togetherness to get cities to dun taxpayers to build stadia, doesn’t
pretend to be a humanitarian venture holding the key to world peace and
understanding. It is a commercial venture that grants franchises to
owners who pay serious money for them.

At this point (things could change and probably will) the NFL is
lucrative enough that there’s little incentive for potential franchisees
to achieve its blessings with under-the-table money; there’s plenty of
money on the table in plain sight. When one city ups the bidding,
there’s no shame and no pretense, no secrecy if a would-be ownership
group in another city matches or increases the bid. The sums involved
may seem ludicrous to some of us — making the common plaint that deals
just won’t work without subsidies from beleaguered taxpayers all the
more ludicrous — but the process is reasonably straightforward.

Despite having allowed an increasing number of openly professional
athletes to participate in the Olympics (undermining in a mostly healthy
way the old aristocratic superstition that athletic activity undertaken
by anyone but gentlemanly amateurs is somehow dirty) the Olympic
movement still clings to the pieces of the notion that it is an
international brotherhood movement unsullied by crass commercial
considerations. Since it requires and generates money, this stance makes
it more likely that money will pass from one to another in secret ways
defined by unrealistic rules as corrupt, rather than as straightforward
commercial transactions.

It would be healthier to drop the non-profit pretenses and make the
Olympics a commercial operation.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.