Olympic Bribery Scandal


On 24 November 1998, the Salt Lake City (Utah) television station, KTVX, reported that the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee for the Olympic Winter Games of 2002 (SLOC) had been paying for Sonia Essomba to attend American University in Washington. Sonia Essomba was the daughter of René Essomba, the late International Olympic Committee (IOC) member (1978-98) to Cameroon. The payments, it would be revealed, were part of a larger scheme set up by SLOC to award scholarships to the family members and friends of IOC members in an effort to win their votes to become the host city. Within a few days after the revelation of the Essomba “scholarship” the media reported that, beginning in 1991, shortly after Salt Lake City had lost the 1998 Winter Olympic bid to Nagano, 13 individuals had received scholarship assistance worth almost $400,000 from the Salt Lake Bid Committee or SLOC. Of these 13 individuals, at least six were close relatives of IOC Members.

Shortly thereafter, at the close of the IOC Executive Board that on 12 December 1998, Swiss IOC Member Marc Hodler spoke openly to the press, stating that at least 5-7 percent of IOC members had taken or solicited bribes by bid cities. Within a few days, all manner of revelations were published by the media, which descended like sharks on a feeding frenzy. Shortly before Hodler’s interview, upon the recommendation of the Juridical Commission, President Juan Antonio Samaranch had already formed an ad hoc commission to look into the allegations and accusations made against the host cities and bid cities. Canada’s Dick Pound was named to head the inquiry, usually called the Pound Commission.

At the beginning of 1999, investigating the IOC and the bid city process seemed to be all the rage. In addition to the Pound commission, the SLOC formed its own Board of Ethics to investigate its own practices. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) also formed an investigative panel, headed by the former U.S. Senator from Maine, George Mitchell. Concurrently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began its own inquiry into the SLOC to determine if any federal laws were violated relating to bribery and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Of note, only the Pound Commission actually interviewed the IOC Members under investigation, allowing them a chance to answer the charges before them.

New announcements from Salt Lake City appeared in the press almost daily in January 1999. On 7 January the Associated Press reported that IOC Member Jean-Claude Ganga of the Republic of the Congo had earned a $60,000 profit on a land deal arranged by a member of SLOC. On 8 January 1999, the president and CEO of SLOC, G. Frank Joklik, resigned, as did his senior vice-president, Dave Johnson. At his press conference, Joklik described some of the transgressions of the bid committee and SLOC, and said,

Therefore, I have today obtained the resignation of David Johnson, who was a vice-president of the bid committee, and has been acting as senior vice-president of the organizing committee until today. I have recommended the appointment of a new Chief Operating Officer. The other two principal members of the Bid Committee, Tom Welch, who was Chief Executive Officer and Craig Peterson, who was the Chief Administrative Officer, are no longer employees of the corporation. … Finally, to ensure that the Games go immediately forward, I must take steps of my own. Although I had no knowledge of these improper payments during my tenure as the volunteer Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Bid Committee, in order to assure the people of Salt Lake City, the State of Utah, and the world that the Organizing Committee is distinct from the Bid Committee and is off to a fresh start, I have tendered my resignation today.

Tom Welch was the main impetus behind the Salt Lake City bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. Though no longer in an administrative position with SLOC, he was on their payroll as a consultant when the scandal hit. Joklik stated that Welch’s consulting agreement was terminated as of his announcement. Over the next few months, Welch was a marked man, and a reclusive one, who made no public statements but spoke only through his lawyers.

On 15 January 1999, Samaranch called for an extraordinary IOC session to be held in Lausanne, Switzerland on 17-18 March, but he also stated that he would not resign, despite frequent calls in the media for him to do so. On 19 January Finnish IOC Member Pirjo Häggman resigned. She was one of the first two female members of the IOC, having served since 1981. But her “crime” was that her ex-husband had worked for the Salt Lake City bid committee and had also worked for the Toronto Bid Committee when that city bid to host the 1996 Olympics. The second IOC Member to resign was the Libyan, Bashir Mohamed Attarabulsi, who did so on 22 January. It was revealed that his son had attended an English language center at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, with tuition paid by SLOC and the son was provided with $700/month by the organizing committee. The Sydney bid for the 2000 Olympics, to this time, had been relatively unscathed. But on the same day that Attarabulsi resigned, John Coates, who had headed the Sydney bid, admitted that he had made last-minute offers of $70,000 to two African IOC officials, but said the action was legitimate.

On 23 January, the IOC Executive Board met in Lausanne to discuss the preliminary findings of the Pound Commission and make some early decisions. At the end of the meeting, Samaranch announced that the IOC had made mistakes, that they were responsible, and that it must never happen again. Six IOC Members were suspended, pending the final Pound Report, with a vote to be taken on their possible expulsion at the special IOC session in March.

The six IOC Members suspended (and eventually expelled) were Lamine Keita of Mali, Agustin Arroyo of Ecuador, Charles Mukora of Kenya, Zein El-Abdin Mohamed Ahmed Abdel Gadir of Sudan, Sergio Santander of Chile, and the aforementioned Jean-Claude Ganga. A third member resigned voluntarily, David Sibandze of Swaziland, while investigations continued into the status of other members.

On 8 February 1999, the Board of Ethics of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic Winter Games of 2002 was released. It described a litany of indiscretions by the bid committee and SLOC. These included payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars to IOC Members and their families, usually in the form of “scholarship assistance.” As an example, the revelations that began the Scandal, the payments to Sonia Essomba, were noted to total $108,350. The Board of Ethics report also revealed direct monetary payments to IOC Members, often in the form of sports assistance programs for their National Olympic Committees.

The Board of Ethics did not stop with the above, and it noted that

Many witnesses before the Board of Ethics described Mr. Jean-Claude Ganga as the IOC member who most took advantage of the Bid Committee’s and the community’s generosity.

The report then gave details of a litany of indiscretions concerning Ganga and the Salt Lake City Bid Committee.

On 1 March 1999 the Mitchell Commission released its report. The Mitchell Report was more encompassing, dealing with several arms of the Olympic Movement. It looked at the bidding process, the IOC structure, and the USOC itself. Its 50 pages of documentation ended with seven pages of conclusions and recommendations, aimed both at revamping the structure of the IOC and the bid city selection process.

The IOC Extraordinary Session was planned for 17-18 March. Before this meeting the Executive Board met again and the final Pound Commission report was released. The Pound Report began with a short description of the conclusions of the Board of Ethics Report and the Mitchell Report. It then made its final recommendations near the beginning of the document, although these recommendations were supported by almost 50 pages of documentation describing the transgressions of certain IOC Members. The report recommended expelling six IOC members: Agustin Arroyo, Zein El-Abdin Mohamed Ahmed Abdel Gadir, Jean-Claude Ganga, Lamine Keita, and Sergio Santander Fantini, and Paul Wallwork of Samoa. Charles Mukora, whose expulsion had been recommended earlier, had since resigned. Nine other IOC members had been investigated, but were given only warnings with no recommendations of expulsion.

After describing its recommendations concerning the IOC Members, the Pound Report made several conclusions. It noted that the IOC must take action to correct the problems within its membership, and it must implement reforms to be certain these problems could never occur again. The Commission also noted that the IOC should have done more to avoid the problems concerning Salt Lake City’s candidacy. The Pound Report then recommended changes in the host city selection provess, limitations on travel by IOC Members to bid cities, and creation of an IOC Ethics Commission.

The IOC met in full session a few days later. It voted to expel the members as recommended by the Pound Report, meaning that fully 10 members of the IOC lost their position in the scandal. But more importantly, the IOC voted to form two new commissions to help reform the structure of the IOC and the Olympic Movement and to ensure that such problems would never happen again.

The two commissions were the Ethics Commission and the IOC 2000 Commission. The IOC 2000 Commission was charged with reforming the entire structure of the Olympic Movement into the next millennium to help prevent such ethical breaches in the future. The IOC 2000 Commission was made up of 82 members, with less than half of them IOC Members, and with an Executive Board of 26 members, of whom 13 were IOC Members. The commission produced an intermediary report in June 1999 and its final report was released in November 1999, although early leaks of information were available. Altogether the IOC 2000 Commission studied more than 100 possible ideas concerning reform of the Olympic Movement, and eventually made 50 separate recommendations to the IOC.

The Ethics Commission’s primary focus was to address the responsibilities of the IOC and oversee the selection process of host cities, and set guidelines for future conduct by members of the Olympic Movement. The Ethics Commission produced an IOC Code of Ethics, in the spring of 1999, which addressed many of the concerns voiced by the public and in the media relating to the recent actions of several IOC Members and the Organizing Committees.

During 1999, the United States Congress also began hearings into the conduct of the IOC. The House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation also requested an investigation into the Atlanta Bid for the 1996 Olympic Games. This was assigned to the Atlanta law firm of King & Spaulding, and was headed by former U.S. Attorney General Griffin B. Bell. Its final document, termed the Bell Report, was released on 15 September 1999.

The IOC met in Extraordinary Session in Lausanne on 11-12 December, to vote on the recommendations made by the IOC 2000 Commission. At this historic session, the IOC voted to enact all the recommendations made by the commission. The most important changes implemented were:

  1. an age limit of 70 for IOC Members;
  2. term limits of eight-years for most IOC Members;
  3. creation of four categories of IOC Members

    a. athletes b. National Olympic Committee (NOC) presidents c. International Federation (IF) presidents, and d. individual members;

  4. eliminating visits by IOC Members to the bid cities;
  5. a complete change in the process of selecting host cities;
  6. opening IOC sessions to the media via closed-circuit television, and
  7. much more transparency in the financial transactions of the IOC, the bid cities, and the Organizing Committees of the Olympic Games.

In the end, all 50 recommendations of the IOC 2000 Commission were approved, most of them unanimously. (These are listed in the IOC 2000 Commission entry.)

After the implementation of the numerous IOC reforms, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch testified in the U.S. House of Representatives before the House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on 15 December 1999. It was a somewhat contentious appearance as the members of the Subcommittee were underwhelmed by the IOC’s reform process. Representative Joe Barton (Republican Party-Texas) asked him to resign on the spot. However, Samaranch was supported by former Senators Howard Baker and George Mitchell, who had been involved in the reform process, as noted above. Both stated that the IOC was cleaning house and Mitchell noted that the IOC had even gone beyond the recommendations made by his Commission.

Why did the Olympic Scandal occur and why did these problems seemingly hit all at once? As has been well documented elsewhere, the IOC was once in dire financial straits, and it was only in the 1980s that it began to achieve financial independence. But all this happened quickly, too quickly for the IOC to adjust. And it is unlikely that the problems described here began only with the Salt Lake City bid. There were similar allegations going back to the mid-1980s. During his testimony before the United States House of Representatives on 14 October 1999, IOC Director-General François Carrard said,

Unfortunately, while the Games evolved, our organizational structure did not keep up with the pace of change. In effect, we did not realize we were going through a growth crisis. The result of an old-fashioned structure managing modern Games was not corruption, but a situation in which some of the less responsible members – a small minority – showed poor judgment and abused the system. Our problems were caused by weak people, structures, and procedures.

Were the new reforms undertaken by the IOC at its December 1999 session adequate to address the problems? The media were critical of these reforms and skeptical that they would truly solve these problems. Some of the criticisms were valid, but as George Mitchell noted, in many ways the IOC either enacted all of his Commission’s recommendations, or in some cases, went even further than they recommended.