Commentary: The Olympics: Corporate America Should Seize The Torch

If one thing is clear from the Olympics scandal, it is this: The International Olympic Committee thinks it answers only to itself. That is why IOC chief Juan Antonio Samaranch thought he could appoint close associates to investigate others he had handpicked. That's why he thought if he fired a few officials and offered mea culpas, the mess would go away.

But Samaranch--"Your Excellency" to his friends--does answer to a higher authority. It's Corporate America. True, corporations don't run the Olympics. They do, however, pay for them. In Salt Lake City, corporate sponsorship will account for more than half the $1.45 billion operating budget. "As stakeholders in the Olympics, [corporations] ought to be demanding a cleaning of the house," says Boston University Professor Otto Lerbinger, author of The Crisis Manager: Facing Risk and Responsibility. Not only do they have the clout to demand changes, it's in their interest to do so. If the public loses interest in tainted Games, sponsorship will be a waste of money.

GOLD RUSH. Two decades ago, the idea of sponsors as the conscience of the Olympics would have been laughable. But in the 1970s, with few corporate dollars behind them, the Games were a financial nightmare. So Peter V. Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Olympic Committee, increased fees from sponsors twentyfold for the '84 Games--and turned a profit. Now, corporate dollars rush in. Eleven worldwide sponsors--including Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, McDonald's, and John Hancock--pay up to $50 million each to wrap their products with the Olympic spirit.

Some sponsors seem pleased with the IOC's initial house-cleaning. "They've done what they told us they were going to do," says Ben Deutsch, Coke's Olympic marketing spokesman. But they warn that a few firings and promises won't do the trick. In mid-January, worldwide sponsor United Parcel Service met with IOC officials to call for "more than finger-pointing," says Susan Rosenberg, Olympic marketing spokesperson for UPS. "They showed an enormous amount of leadership," says David F. D'Alessandro, president and chief operating officer of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. But, he adds, "the real question from a sponsor standpoint is whether [the IOC report] represents a real devotion to change."

D'Alessandro seeks wholesale reform. He wants a new system for appointing the IOC that will be more democratic and include more athletes. And he wants committee members held to strict conflict-of-interest standards and the IOC audited regularly.

But the corporate sponsors are still hesitant to make the change that would really send a signal that reform is for real: sacking Samaranch. "On balance, he has done more good than harm," says D'Alessandro. That argument grows weaker daily. Sponsors should oust Samaranch and install someone with a reputation for the utmost integrity. Only then will the Olympics shine again.

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