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Original Issue

Olympic Circus Maximus

Barcelona (surprise) and Albertville, France, won the 1992 Olympic sweepstakes at the International Olympic Committee's Lausanne meeting

In the final analysis, the week was one of such bewilderingly wretched excess that no one could quite believe it was not something out of an Olympian Alice's wonderland. As Churchill certainly never said, but might have had he witnessed the machinations last week in Lausanne, the Vatican City of the Olympic movement: Never have so many been so eager to give so much to so few in order to get so little.

What that would have meant, if Churchill had said it, was this: For the last three years, 13 cities with a combined metropolitan population of more than 17 million have spent a total of more than $100 million in separate, but equally frenzied, campaigns to win the hearts and minds of 89 living (or almost) members of the International Olympic Committee, who held a secret election in Switzerland last week to pick the host cities for the Summer and Winter Olympics of 1992. Because there could be only 2 winners, there had to be 11 losers, and each would leave Lausanne having spent enormous amounts of money, time, passion, brainpower and creative energy, for which they got in return almost nothing of tangible value.

And so it was. At the end of a surreal week that combined a peculiarly pushy brand of civic boosterism with the high-tech cool of professional trade-fair barkers and filmmakers, plus some hard-headed techniques of public relations and personal persuasion that never ever ruled out raw bribery, the besieged cadres of the IOC bravely chose the anointed duo: Barcelona, capital of Catalonia on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, got the Summer Games, and Albertville, an area of 12 tiny, rather tacky ski villages in the French Alps, the Winter Games. The 11 rejects were, in alphabetical order: Amsterdam, Anchorage, Belgrade, Berchtesgaden (West Germany), Birmingham (England), Brisbane, Cortina (Italy), Falun (Sweden), Lillehammer (Norway), Paris and Sofia.

The obvious question is why? Why would 13 perfectly sane and self-respecting municipalities want to enter such a sacrificial crapshoot against such long odds? More to the point, why would any-city want to invite into its environs the uncontrollable monster that the Olympics has so often come to be? The four Summer Games held since 1972 have produced, in order, a terrorist massacre, a $1 billion deficit and a pair of mean-minded Cold War boycotts that deeply undermined the competitive quality of the Games. So who wants them? Until recently, almost no one. Denver won the 1976 Winter Games, but its furious citizenry made the city give the damn things back. In 1978 Los Angeles got the '84 Summer Games because it was the only bidder, and in 1981 Seoul won the '88 Games against only one other bidder.

What is different now? Mainly, the fat $225 million profit that Los Angeles managed to turn from its ostensibly "Spartan" spectacular. At first Los Angeles's windfall was denounced by Olympic bleeding hearts as a blatant felony, but it wasn't long before the new Olympic ideal was to fit ever bigger dollar signs inside the five Olympic rings. In June 1985 the IOC itself followed directly in L.A.'s money-colored path and signed with a marketing company to recruit "worldwide Olympic sponsors" (such as Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, Federal Express and Visa for a cool $104 million so far). Thus it was no surprise last week in Lausanne to see that it was avarice over altruism by a million to one.

John Rodda of the Guardian, dean of the coterie of European journalists who specialize in the Byzantine workings of the IOC, put it quite bluntly: "These people are here to bid on a business contract. A commitment of $10 million for the Summer Games, for instance, is peanuts because they're trying to make a deal that could generate as much as $3 billion. Any good businessman would consider risking $10 million on a contract like that a very smart thing to do."

The losers convince themselves that they have done a smart thing, too, arguing that there is a global afterglow of publicity around even a failed Olympic bid that reminds a blasè world that dowdy or far-distant towns like Brisbane, Birmingham or Anchorage do indeed exist. This seems pretty thin gruel for a multimillion-dollar high-energy campaign that can last several years.

Nevertheless, most Olympic bidders play the game completely convinced they can win. And they know that they can never afford to lose sight of the sole purpose and single motive of it all: To snag—somehow—first the attention and then the allegiance of a majority of those 89 rare and easily ruffled birds who happen to belong to one of the most eccentric and inscrutable clubs in the world.

The tactics of Olympic bidders vary somewhat, but they are never very subtle. The most popular strategy is simply to shower everyone on the IOC with gifts, trips and parties, even though many of them are very rich, very sophisticated and very spoiled old men. No city did better in this area than Paris. Whenever an IOC member felt the need to vacation in Paris for a while, he was instantly sent airline tickets and given a free room in the elegant Hotel de Crillon, as well as reserved tables at Maxim's or Tour d'Argent with the bill paid in advance. Members traveled everywhere in limousines, sometimes with a police escort, and they were given perfume, raincoats, jogging suits and discounts at some of Paris's finest shops. An adviser to the Paris committee was Madame Monique Berlioux, who ran the IOC's secretariat for 15 years until she was forced out in 1985. "We do these things to get the bid, but I wish it weren't necessary," she said. "There are many things that $10 million could do for sports in Paris that are better than throwing parties and giving free hotel rooms."

Surprisingly, the most lavish party of all during the long campaign for the Games of '92 was produced by Brisbane and—more surprisingly—it was given in East Berlin, where the IOC met in full session in June 1985. The Australians flew everything directly into West Berlin—including Australian wine, fresh lobsters and live lambs. The food was prepared in West Berlin, then transported through Checkpoint Charlie to the Palasthotel in East Berlin, where a good time was had by all, and the $500,000 check was picked up by the Australian-born press lord Rupert Murdoch.

When the IOC convened for its 91st session in Lausanne on Oct. 12, a lot of heavy salesmanship had already been brought to bear on the IOC. Yet all of the bidders felt they could still change many minds. They were wrong. The most knowledgeable insiders felt certain that no more than six members might have their votes changed by the hoopla of this final period before the election.

Still, the hard sell went on and on. The bidding committees all erected booths in Lausanne's Palais de Beaulieu, a large convention center. The sales talks came in every language, from Birmingham English to Belgrade Serbo-Croatian. The committee from Falun apparently felt that full stomachs were the way to an IOC man's heart and served endless, lovely meals of smoked salmon, smoked venison, fresh forest mushrooms, aquavit and beer. The Socialists from Sofia seemed to feel that intoxication solved all problems, and they ran a bar that specialized in Bulgarian cognac and a local schnapps that would have dropped a horse. Anchorage put up an inexplicable exhibit in which models pantomimed skiing, skating and even luging in slo-o-w robotic motion while a woman dressed in a Disneylandlike moose costume shook hands with everyone she could reach.

The selling went on day and night and all over town. The Dutch had driven buses down from Amsterdam and offered free rides around Lausanne to anyone with Olympic credentials. Barcelona shipped in a show of Picasso's early paintings for exhibition at a Lausanne museum. Birmingham gave a dinner for 300 on a ship in Lake Geneva the same night that Berchtesgaden issued free tickets to the famed Knie circus. This was also the night that Cortina threw a dinner for 250, hosted by none other than Gina Lollobrigida. When asked what her sports experience was, Gina smilingly recalled that she had fallen three times from a trapeze while making the movie of the same name in 1956 with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

Gina was only the most glamorous of a long and illustrious list of celebrities the bidders rolled in and out during the week. On opening night Queen Silvia of Sweden was at Falun's booth, Grete Waitz was at Lillehammer's, Jean-Claude Killy at Albertville's, Sebastian Coe at Birmingham's, gold-medal hurdler Guy Drut at Paris's, miler Herb Elliott at Brisbane's and bobsledder Eugenio Monti at Cortina's. Later the Swedes brought in Bjorn Borg and Ingemar Stenmark. The Dutch countered with Johan Cruyff, Fanny Blankers-Koen and Anton Geesink, then brought in their cleanup hitter: Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers. He was only one of four national leaders who turned up—the others being Felipe Gonzalez Marquez of Spain, Franz-Josef Strauss of Bavaria and the charismatic Jacques Chirac, prime minister of France and mayor of Paris, who delivered pitches for both Albertville and Paris.

But the naked commercialism of it all grew increasingly irksome to some of the older eminences of the IOC. At one point during the star-chamber meetings of the committee, Reggie Alexander, 71, a member from Kenya long known as a loose cannon among the buttoned-up IOC aristocrats, suddenly launched into a sharp lecture about a dream he had had the night before. "In my dream, I went to the grave site of Baron de Coubertin and there, I had a vision," he said. "The grave opened up before my eyes; de Coubertin's hand reached out, grasped the Olympic rings and pulled them down into the ground. Then the baron said to me, 'You can have these back only after you have stopped misbehaving yourselves.' "

At week's end IOC executive board member Marc Hodler declared that the IOC was "deeply concerned" over the huge amount of money being spent on electioneering, and henceforth would outlaw receptions of any kind, and all exhibitions except one during the session at which voting was done. Whether this was enough to get the rings out of the baron's grave, no one seemed to know.

The irony is that this time all the high-priced hoopla and free lunches for rich men probably had no significant effect on the outcome. Barcelona is the hometown of IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, and that, most everyone agreed, was the beginning, the middle and the end of the story of who got the '92 Games. Though Samaranch loudly proclaimed his neutrality, the day after the winners were announced the daily Tribune de Genève ran a huge headline: BARCELONA EXULTS, "THANK YOU, SAMARANCH!" IOCologists had long ago constructed the Samaranch scenario: First, he got Barcelona to bid; then he talked Paris into trying, too, so Barcelona wouldn't be alone; then he got worried about growing support for Paris so he invited Amsterdam to try and also allowed Birmingham to go forward with its bid after the closing date of March 1985 to help dissipate Paris's strength. And finally, the order of voting—the Winter Games city would be selected before the Summer Games city—would favor the Barcelona bid. Why? It is simple: All of Barcelona's backers would vote for Albertville in the hope the French candidate would win. If it did, then Paris would be left for dead because not since 1936 has the IOC voted to hold both Games in the same country in the same year.

And so it was: Albertville won a majority on the sixth ballot (with 51 to runner-up Sofia's 25), and Barcelona won on the third ballot (with 48 to Paris's 23).

Still, both may well have problems with their respective Games. Albertville is one of the highest places in the Alps, with horrible roads; moreover, it is chronically plagued with bad weather. Barcelona is a city that has not handled major competitions (such as the 1982 World Cup soccer matches) very well, and that lives under a frequent threat of terrorism (a Basque group exploded a bomb there just last week, killing a policeman).

But money colored almost every action in Lausanne last week, and two other decisions by the IOC were no exception. First, the IOC voted to allow full Olympic participation to all professional hockey players regardless of age, NHL stars included. (The International Tennis Federation has adamantly refused to accept an age restriction for its players, and so a decision on whether to admit tennis to the Olympics was delayed until next May while Samaranch deals with opposition from almost all the national Olympic committees.) Second, in a decision as stunning for its suddenness as for its substance, the committee voted 78 to 2 (with 5 abstentions) to separate the Summer and Winter Olympics. After '92 the Winter and Summer Games will no longer be held in the same year; the Winter Games will switch their four-year cycle, starting in '94, so there will be either a Summer or Winter Olympics every two years. Though most everyone agreed it was a good idea whose time had come, this particular idea just happened to come at a time when American TV needs every bit of help it can get. And splitting the Olympics should allow U.S. networks an easier budget spread if they go to the well for one Olympics every two years, instead of two Olympics every four.

It was all probably necessary—and inevitable. Yet many people were unhappy, especially the old guard. Count Jean de Beaumont, now a jaunty, indomitable 82, and one of the few enduring loyalists of de Coubertin, said of the split Olympics, "To separate them is to depreciate them. Plus eat moins!" And when he was asked about the general state of things in the Olympic movement, he shook his head sharply: "It is only a question of money—pouff!"

And so it was—pouff!




Lobbying for votes were (from left) cinema star Gina Lollobrigida, a torchbearer from Alaska and Sweden's Queen Silvia.



The IOC even staged an Olympic-style Opening Ceremony at its business meeting.



A satisfied Samaranch signed the Barcelona contract as the IOC members looked on.



Protesters outside added their two cents to the millions spent inside by bidders.



Count de Beaumont bemoaned the Games' fate.