International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain escaped unscathed yesterday from a barrage of skeptical questions during an unprecedented appearance on Capitol Hill.
In a three-hour session before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which is investigating the yearlong bribery and corruption scandal that has tarnished the Olympic image, Samaranch remained cool, although one congressman ridiculed his preferred title of “Your Excellency” and called for his resignation.
Samaranch, usually treated with near reverence in the sports world, had to raise his hand to take an oath. Then he was peppered with questions about reports of his lavish lifestyle, a trip his wife took at the expense of the Atlanta Olympics organizers, the authority of the IOC’s new ethics commission and his assertion that he had no concrete evidence of a bribery problem until a year ago.
He told skeptical committee members that the 50 reform measures the IOC adopted Sunday would make the organization more accountable, open and responsive, saying, “I think we’ve cleaned the house and a fundamental reform package has been adopted.”
However, Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican, asked, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” while noting that the senator who first posed that question during Watergate, Howard Baker, Tennessee Republican, was present to testify as a member of the IOC’s new ethics commission.
Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, chastised Samaranch for giving the committee lengthy answers to questions about bribery allegations and other charges.
“The red light goes on quickly here,” she said, referring to the light indicating the time limit for each committee member’s questions. “I would appreciate it if you could keep your answers as short as possible.”
Barton was the lawmaker who asked the 79-year-old Samaranch to yield the office he has held since 1980, saying, “I would like you to announce today that you will resign.”
“While the IOC has just completed a reform process that is unprecedented in both scope and pace for a 105-year multicultural organization, the IOC leadership will continue to work toward regaining the public’s trust and ensuring the celebration of human effort that is the Olympic Games flourishes well into the next millennium,” Samaranch said in his opening statement.
Although the day-long hearing featured numerous other witnesses including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who helped draw up the IOC reforms, and former gold medal winners Bonnie Blair and Billy Mills Samaranch clearly was the star of the show. He had agreed to appear before the panel following threats by Congress to pass legislation repealing the IOC’s tax-exempt status in the United States.
Samaranch gave his opening statement in English and answered questions in Spanish. However, committee members were not impressed by his comments in either language.
“The IOC purports to have turned over a new leaf,” said committee chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican. “They say they have seen the light. The question is can we trust that the reforms will be vigorously enforced once the spotlight has dimmed? How can we be sure that the business-as-usual era has truly ended?”
One practice that caught the eyes of committee members was the IOC’s awarding of broadcast rights to NBC for five Olympiads without seeking bids from other networks. Shortly after the deal was made, NBC made a $20 million donation to a sports museum in Switzerland that Samaranch strongly supports.
“This looks like a quid pro quo,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat. “It appears to be a conflict of interest. Why didn’t you seek bids from other networks?”
Replied Samaranch: “We felt that NBC is a company that deserved our confidence.”
Samaranch was the picture of confidence as he basked in the glow of the IOC reforms that passed Saturday, including age and term limits, and a declaration that visits by IOC members to bid cities are “not necessary” or for representatives of candidate cities to visit IOC members.
Some committee members were troubled by the vagueness of “not necessary,” but Samaranch assured them that such visits would be banned. Also some committee members were disturbed that a rule against accepting gifts was not spelled out in detail. Samaranch said the problem has “disappeared. If there are no visits, there will be no gifts.”
Barton asked why the IOC reforms do not include the rules that govern the presidency as well in other words, Samaranch.
“We felt it was not necessary,” Samaranch replied.
Some committee members asked if the aggressive efforts by Congress to pressure the IOC for reforms and answers in the ongoing probe of the reported abuses in the Atlanta and Salt Lake City bids would be held against future American cities bidding for the games. Washington and Baltimore are seeking to put in a combined bid for the 2012 Summer Games.
Samaranch said it would not come into play in future bids.
“That is not something that would happen,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.