Is Everything to Your Liking Mr. Samaranch?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1996

Is Everything to Your Liking Mr. Samaranch?

Landing the greatest sporting event on earth requires a dash of seduction, a pinch of politics, and shameless quantities of palm grease.
A recipe for bringing the Games to your hometown.

By John Tayman

For an event as freighted with ossified majesty as the Olympics, a city's decision to host the Games can be alarmingly casual. Boston's bid for the 2008 installment, for example, began with some Hub businessmen casting about for a way to promote the city, when in an Andy Hardy moment someone blurted, "Hey, let's have the Olympics!" Meeting a few days later in a volunteer's garage, the newborn Boston Organizing Committee rang up the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, which kindly faxed back an Olympic-bid help sheet listing the 15 steps to landing your very own Games. Number 11: Send your $100,000 application fee to the International Olympic Committee.

From that point on the process becomes a lot less casual. In fact, the journey from harebrained idea to bidding on and ultimately landing the Olympic Games can be as byzantine and sordid as Tammany Hall politics, relying on factors that have little to do with sport. Oddly enough, Boston might improve its chances if a human-rights-violating socialist regime were suddenly to seize power in Massachusetts. (The IOC once reasoned that awarding the 1988 Games to South Korea might restore order to the troubled land.) On the other hand, odds for landing the bid might increase if Boston lured the corporate headquarters of Kodak, UPS, Coca-Cola, or one of the other corporate sponsors of the Olympics. The city is lucky in one respect: It already enjoys favorable time-zone status (American broadcasting companies prefer events that unfold in U.S. prime-time, and their needs increasingly influence the selection process).

Above all, the surest--if least savory--route to the Games is through aggressive and constant courtship of the 90-odd voting members of the IOC, a clannish group based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and led by its slippery-smooth president, Spain's Juan Antonio Samaranch. And although hopeful

cities spend years conforming to rigorous standards, when the final selection is made the IOC often simply rewards the city that pitches the strongest woo, distributes the most thoughtful gifts, and bangs, Elmer Gantry style, the jangliest tambourine. Herewith some time-tested tips to wooing the eminently wooable, just in case your town gets Olympic Fever, too.

Step one: Let them know you mean business. Back in the old days, say around 1970, landing the Olympics was much easier. Nobody wanted them. Hosting meant shelling out millions for grand stadiums, shiny swimming facilities, boating basins, housing, transport, communications, security. Then, after two weeks of pomp, all that remained was confetti and a load of debt. Montreal labored 20 years to retire the $3 billion it spent on the 1976 Summer Games. Denver won the right to host the 1976 Winter Games but ended the relationship when Colorado citizens nixed using state funds for construction. (The Games went to Innsbruck). Things began changing in 1980, however, after Samaranch, Spain's former sports minister and a Blue Shirt in Franco's fascist regime, politicked his way into the IOC presidency. Always a lightning rod because of his past, Samaranch was nonetheless able to grasp the huge potential of the Games, not to mention his own committee, as a money-making engine. At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, for instance, Samaranch and Team IOC permitted corporate sponsors to link their image to the Games for the first time, in addition to helping orchestrate record-high television fees. When the dust settled, L.A. notched an astounding $215 million in net profit. Since then, the IOC's dance card has seldom been empty.

Step two: Size up the competition. To even attempt a bid, cities have to gain the favor of their local populace, then of the national Olympic committee in their country or region (American cities deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee), and finally of the IOC itself. "It's basically a three-pronged political campaign," says Stephen Freyer, chairman of the Boston Organizing Committee. There's no limit to the number of cities that can chase after a given Olympiad, but the field usually atrophies to about six serious bidders by the time the IOC begins the voting process, seven years before the games. Voting occurs by rounds, with the low city being booted out each round until one lucky applicant gains a majority of votes.

Step three: Exaggerate your strong points. The IOC is not a cheap date. Even the tightest of applicants coughs up at least $7 million to make a bid, as did Atlanta; more profligate courtships, such as Beijing's failed lunge at the 2000 Summer Games, can cost an estimated $50 million. Given the thin--and suspect--profit margins expected by these cities (Sydney's winning bid for the 2000 Olympics featured $960 million in expenditures offset by--hey, that's interesting!--a projected $975 million in profits), the wisdom of bedding the Games is often faulty. Typically, cities sell the event to the local and national folks by downplaying the risks and suggesting that "hosting the Olympics will vault [insert name here] into the ranks of world-class cities and add billions to our economy."

With the numbers properly cooked, there remains the positioning of the site for the IOC run--sort of a bait-and-switch ploy writ large. For example Boston, a notoriously difficult city to drive in, is cleverly sidestepping the specter of gridlock and Hub chaos altogether. "We're billing this as the first 'walking Olympics,'" says Freyer.

Step four: Pour on the flowers and candy. Once permission to pursue the romance has been granted, the most significant portion of the courtship begins: shamelessly cuddling up to members of the IOC and, of course, Samaranch himself. Ardor is incited in many ways, some ethical, some...well... While instances of actual vote-buying have been frequently rumored, they've never prompted the removal of an IOC member, although the U.S. representative, Robert Helmick, resigned in 1991 after being accused of cutting cozy business deals using the weight of his position. Impropriety, at least appearances of it, inspired rule changes in 1965 and again in 1991 regarding the proffering of gifts. The current rules forbid cities from staging cocktail parties and receptions for members and limit total gifts to $250 per member--and are routinely ignored. In fact, as soon as the wannabes officially file their bids with the IOC, the bounty begins. Each member is showered with direct-marketing gewgaws from contending cities: key rings, pins, caps, T-shirts, luggage, ties, crystal, mugs, cigarette lighters, liquor. The goal here is to lure as many committee members as possible to pay a visit. Once a member agrees to a date, the extravagance level escalates: first-class airline tickets, luxury hotel rooms, meals at five-star restaurants, and more.

Step five: Always be closing. All this largesse is pointless without the personal touches required for consummation. During the bake-off for the 1998 Winter Games, leading candidates Salt Lake City and Aosta, Italy, lost out unexpectantly to Nagano, Japan, which allegedly won the hearts of at least 15 IOC delegates with the always thoughtful gift of hard cash. (An independent investigation into the bribes was stymied when ledgers accounting for the $24 million that Nagano spent on its bid were, as the mayor put it, "lost.")

Payola usually comes in more sophisticated forms, however. Organizing committees typically hire one staffer simply to gather reconnaissance on IOC members, piecing together fat dossiers on individual likes and dislikes, quirks and peccadilloes. Thus when Augustin Carlos Arroyo visited Salt Lake City during its quest for the 2002 Games, the Ecuadoran dog breeder was escorted to a local elementary school, where students had been instructed to bring their dogs for the day for his amusement. "We also sent this prince from the Caribbean, an IOC member, a freezer full of snow," says Mike Korologos, of Salt Lake's organizing committee. "And whenever an IOC member was in town, we had a van full of booze follow us around, so that liquor was always there whenever they wanted it."

Beijing, adopting less subtle methods, promised to engrave the names of every IOC member onto a plaque on the Great Wall should it be awarded the 2000 Games. During Samaranch's visit to the city, Chinese air force pilots flew sorties overhead to break up rain-threatening clouds, lest Samaranch's pate be embarrassingly moistened. The city sent squads of flyswatter-wielding citizens into the streets, later boasting of killing 32 million flies before the great man arrived. When other IOC members dropped in one winter, almost 4,000 coal-fired factories temporarily shut down, ensuring relatively smog-free skies (and reportedly leaving millions of residents without heat for several days). And in what was perhaps that year's baldest ploy, one Juan Antonio Samaranch was unexpectedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The ingenuous nominator? The Chinese government.

Officially speaking, favor-currying of this sort has no impact on the final vote. The IOC gives lip service to such factors as universality (distributing the Games evenly among the world's regions), statesmanship (using sport to resolve international hostility), commercial considerations (basically, meeting the needs of American television and, at times, of the main corporate sponsors), and a bit anticlimactically, athletes' needs and security.

Step six: Be prepared for rejection. For all the mention of high-minded criteria, who gets what Olympics can be swayed by the most absurd of factors. Dishonored Games, a scathing book that documents countless cases of ethical conflicts and royalism within the IOC, suggests that sites are often chosen simply on a whim, a point reinforced a few years back by Sports Illustrated, which claimed that cities can win based "on the quality of the luxury hotel where IOC members will stay during the Games." This in mind, it's best for losing cities--let's call them unselected sites--to get up, dust themselves off, and return to the fray. (And perhaps build a new Four Seasons Hotel.) As it is with most courtships, persistence is often rewarded. To wit: Before finally winning the right to host the 2002 Olympics, Salt Lake City bid for virtually every Winter Games since 1966. Boston, though hopeful for quicker success, is similarly attuned to the way in which the game is played. "Boston can put on a great Olympics," says Freyer. "We want them, and we'll do what we can to get them, and we'll keep doing it until we do get them. But bidding is an art, not a science. Which, I guess, is good news and bad news."

John Tayman is an executive editor of Outside.

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