Passing the Torch: Who Will Succeed Samaranch?

The scandal-tainted IOC has a chance to complete its comeback

Beijing's full-court press for the 2008 Summer Olympics underlines the renewed swagger of the world's largest, most expensive, and most watched sports event. Although U.S. TV ratings for the Sydney Olympics were disappointing, the Games went off without a hitch. They showcased an efficient organization and allowed the Olympics to expand its reach into Asia. Perhaps more important, success in Sydney helped the Olympic Movement to scrub off the stain of the 1998-99 bribery scandal that engulfed Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games.

At its congress in Moscow, starting on July 13, the International Olympic Committee will have an opportunity to complete its rehabilitation: It will choose a new president to replace the autocratic Juan Antonio Samaranch, who at age 80 is retiring after two controversial decades as leader of the Lausanne-based Olympic Movement.

Of course, the IOC could squander a golden opportunity. Instead of selecting a reform-minded leader, the 127 IOC voting members could instead pick a member of the old guard. The most likely choice would be a 70-year-old South Korean, Kim Un Yong, who was given a "severe warning" for his role in the Salt Lake City imbroglio. Kim allegedly helped his son (who was indicted but has not yet been tried) to get a no-work job through the bid committee in Salt Lake.

Of the five candidates vying to be the next IOC president, reformers Richard Pound, 59, a Canadian tax lawyer, and Jacques Rogge, also 59, a smooth-talking Belgian doctor, seem most likely to succeed. Pound launched the IOC's marketing program in 1985, negotiated lucrative TV contracts, and most recently led the internal investigation of IOC members involved in the Salt Lake City scandal. Rogge, who supervised the Sydney Games, wants to curtail the growth of the spectacles. "We build venues that are too big for cities to use afterward, and we spend too much on sophisticated technology," he says. Two other long-shot candidates are America's Anita De Frantz, 48, and Hungary's Pal Schmidt, 59.

LIMELIGHT. The fact that Europe holds the balance of power within the IOC, with almost half the total members, will work to Rogge's benefit. But, says Lisa Delpy-Neirotti, professor of sports management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Rogge "hasn't been in the limelight as much as Dick Pound...[who] has been involved with so many important committees in the Olympic movement, especially the finance committee." Pound made enemies, though, as the IOC's chief enforcer during the Salt Lake City crisis.

Among them was Kim, who now argues that the IOC should pay its members to take all-expenses-paid trips to bidding cities--even though it was just such currently verboten visits that led to the bidding scandal. Apparently, this stance is popular within the organization: A Munich sports newsletter that polled Olympic insiders has Kim as the first-round leader

"If Kim is picked, it will show that nothing has changed, that the IOC is still a self-selecting private club populated by a large proportion of corrupt members with a marginal interest in sport," says outspoken Olympics critic Andrew Jennings, who has written three books critical of the IOC. Adds David D'Alessandro, chairman and CEO of Olympic sponsor John Hancock Financial Services Inc.: "Kim's platform is outrageous. He is running on a platform to return to the old days." In the end, the least controversial choice could be Rogge, who spouts a novel approach to commercialization of the Olympics. "We need money," he says, "but sport should come first."

By William Echikson in Brussels, with Moon Ihlwan in Seoul, Diwata Fonte in Washington, and William C. Symonds in Boston

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.