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Salt Lake City Weekly Power Play

Public accountability was the forgotten wild card in Salt Lake's Olympic gamble.

By Katharine Biele

JANUARY 25, 1999:  It's not like this is stock fraud. Or a Mormon bombing. No one really expected Salt Lake City's "motivation" of the International Olympic Committee to escalate into such a spectacle of revelation and denunciation.

Try as they might, the Salt Lake media couldn't even whip up sustained righteous indignation over Deedee Corradini's gift solicitations. Lobbyist gift-giving and political fund raising have long been accepted in a state where bribery is none of your damned business.

So Chris Vanocur, the KTVX Channel 4 reporter who lit the fuse, had to have been pretty incredulous when the floodgates opened. One after another the chessmen fell--right down to Olympic flag-waver Corradini herself. What started with a little tuition aid for the daughter of an IOC member, has exploded into a story hinting of sexual favors, jet-setting at state expense and money under the table.

"Utah is not without its share of problems, and the question is, where does this fit in the last 50 years of scandals?" says University of Utah economist Thayne Robson. "Utah is not more or less moral than any place in the world, but this one is international and involves people from a large number of countries."

And that, of course, is the difference.

"We care because the world cares," says political consultant Dave Owen, a longtime Olympics critic. "In this community, image is No. 1. Now we're the polygamist, sleazy Olympic state--that's where it's going."

Still, in the beginning, it didn't look like the international aspect was going to heat up much. Enter Marc Hodler, an old-time IOC member with an attitude. Owen calls Hodler the "fissionable material," with his charges of widespread wrong doing and long-standing greed within the IOC.

The sources of an unsigned tuition letter from SLOC's (former) Senior Vice President Dave Johnson couldn't have had any idea what the fallout would be, Owen says. Their agenda was to sink Johnson, a car salesman who engineered his own ascent in the Olympics movement. He and Tom Welch asked for government money long ago, just to bring world-class sporting events to Utah as precursors to seeking the Olympics. They became the top two men of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

The Vanocur coup: Reporter Chris Vanocur grills the mayor, before the Olympic scandal broke.
photo: Fred Hayes
But Hodler had his own agenda. He has long wanted to put decision making back in the hands of the elite IOC executive committee, taking it from the much larger group.

Suddenly, this no longer was the story of Salt Lake's pandering after the Olympics. The Olympic movement, it seemed, was endemically corrupt.

"You are dealing with the international sporting equivalent of the Gambino family," Owen says. Take, for instance, the Olympic housing requirement: something for the athletes and the media and, of course, a Hospitality Village strictly for the IOC and its entourage. Within the specs is the acceptable grade of caviar to serve.

"Our new line is: It takes a village to entertain the IOC," Owen says.

Robson recalls a trip to Lusanne, Switzerland, where he visited the Olympic Museum on the shores of Lake Geneva. "It was clear the Olympic people have taken good care of themselves," he says. "It's a tradition in sports in general, and entertainment in general. It's the economic and political context you put things in."

It's why the NBA and the owners are fighting and why cities spend too much to get the Olympics. It's about money.

Former Gov. Calvin Rampton remembers the fledgling attempts to bring the 1972 Winter Olympics to Utah. Oh, things were different then. No enormous television rights, for instance. The total budget for the Salt Lake Bid Committee was $35,000. The Salt Lake Organizing Committee has now admitted to spending some $15 million to win the Olympics.

But in 1966, Rampton and his little Bid Committee felt pretty cosmopolitan by hosting a cocktail party one evening in a hotel in Rome. They were supposed to do it, and were assigned a date and time. Had a pretty good turnout, too. It took about a third of the Bid Committee's budget.

"We never had any requests for money or anything," Rampton says. "The Olympic Committee has been self-perpetuating, and I think some people on there got used to a rather lavish lifestyle furnished to them by the bidders."

You'd have to be blind not to realize that the bid committees were showering money on the IOC. When Tom Welch and his group flew off in search of the Olympics, reporters came back with stories of plush hospitality suites flush with gifts, and of envelopes discretely slipped under doors. It was expected.

Even so, the annunciation of that is shocking. "The most incredible thing to me," Robson says, "is the Tom Welch proclamation of being good to people in the movement, and even [IOC President Juan Antonio] Samaranch's pitch that he's not affected by the $150 rule."

Welch, who exited SLOC amidst domestic problems, has argued that excesses were dictated by humanitarian and competitive considerations. Samaranch took gifts well in excess of the accepted $150 limit, but says he's exempt.

From the beginning, there's been no lack of skepticism. Just a lack of good sense. Some warned that the state shouldn't let Johnson use government funds to quasi-privatize his Better Utah. The Legislature toyed with the idea of oversight, particularly after Utah acquired the Games, but never gave much more than lip service to the concept. And SLOC held its books close to the vest, doling out only the kind of "public" information it deemed salutary.

Did anyone imagine that the problem might be one of accountability? Rampton thinks SLOC President Frank Joklik was a good business choice, but was never accountable to the public.

"There should be more public involvement because obviously tax money has been put at risk," Rampton says. "But I don't see how you can get public accountability unless it's the authority of someone's who's elected."

It was the public's business, but SLOC trusted only itself.

Ken Larsen's Quote O' the Week: Envision a Utah where cities, not state or national government, make zoning decisions.

E-mail Katharine Biele at biele@slweekly.com.

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