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Clouds of Scandal Still Hover Over Olympic City

Salt Lake City takes centre stage as the much-awaited Winter Olympics 2002 kick off today with grand opening ceremonies. But behind the pomp linger the traces of bribery scandals that almost cost the city the games.

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Pristine yet blemished environs at Salt Lake City

As the snow falls softly on the Olympic site and athletes warm up for the events, the stench of one of the biggest and dirtiest bribery scandals in Olympic history lingers unmistakably in the crisp air of Salt Lake City.

The sleazy scam blew up in the face of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December 1998 when Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler made startling allegations of attempted cash-for-votes deals in Olympic votes.

Tom Welch, former President of the Salt Lake City bid committee and Dave Johnson, former vice president were accused of having made nearly $ 1 million in illicit payments to influence members of the IOC to select Utah for the 2002 Winter Games.

A scandal quickly buried?

The disclosure sent shock waves throughout the sports world and led to six expulsions and four resignations within the IOC. IOC members were found guilty of breaking rules on accepting gifts or favours from Salt Lake when it was bidding for the Games in the mid-1990s.

It also stirred fears among Olympic leaders that talk of the sleaze and scandal would dominate the 2002 Winter Olympics.

But to the relief of the organisers, the scandal appeared to die a quiet death last November when a district judge dismissed the final 11 charges against Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, whom prosecutors believe were the central figures in the scam.

Past catches up

But in a twist of irony, Salt Lake City's past seemed hell-bent on coming back to haunt it. Less than three weeks before the start of the Games, the US government asked a federal appeals court to reinstate 15 fraud and racketeering charges against the two.

The only saving grace for Olympic leaders is that the high-profile court case will not play out during the Olympics. Lawyers for Welch and Johnson have 30 days to make their filings so the case would not be taken up before the Olympics end.

The accused maintain their innocence. They say they were just following long-standing procedures in the bidding war. They also claim that other officials working to get the games for Salt Lake City knew they had pulled out all the stops to get the Games.

Yet another scandal?

But the bribery scandal is not the only one to have cast a shadow over the Games. Today's opening ceremonies are bound to be tainted by yet another whiff of scandal.

This time regarding the uniforms supposedly manufactured in Burma and worn by more than 10,000 runners who helped carry the Olympic torch to the Winter Games.

Human rights and labour groups are now lambasting the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee (SLOC). They demand the SLOC explain why a country that has such a terrible labour record and brutal military regime that it was suspended by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), could be commissioned to manufacture official Olympic garb.

Olympic officials mired in all the muck are now scratching their heads to come up with a good answer to that one.

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