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Olympic realities

There will be plenty of distractions in Australia, with questions about official corruption, athlete drug use and network tactics. But the focus ought to remain on the Games.

The 27th Summer Olympic Games begin Friday in Australia, and suspense builds. Will Marion Jones become the first woman to win five track and field gold medals? Will the Chinese field a team that can pass a drug test? Will more Olympic officials be arrested and charged with corruption?

Unfortunately, reality has intruded on the idealized contests that are supposed to make up the Olympic experience. Distractions such as corruption at the top, the blurring of amateur and professional status and the logistical nightmare of televising games from half a world away put pressure on the athletes to reclaim public attention with their performances.

It will be a challenge.

Well-documented cases of corruption continue to haunt the International Olympic Committee, which has responded by rewarding itself with more perks. Two prominent Salt Lake City men are preparing to answer charges that they bribed IOC officials to win the 2002 Winter Olympics. Their defense? Everybody bribes the IOC.

One IOC official, Mohamad Hasan, won't make it to Australia. He's locked up in Indonesia, charged with stealing tens of millions of dollars from the state during former President Suharto's rule. And Gafur Rakhimov, vice president of the Olympic Council of Asia, was denied entry to Australia, the Wall Street Journal reported. He is suspected of being involved in the Uzbekistan mafia.

The IOC response? Committee patriarch Juan Antonio Samaranch, nearing retirement, sees no evil. He tried to spring Hasan and act as character witness for Rakhimov so they could attend the Olympics. Meanwhile, those IOC members present will be well fed, ferried around Sydney in private boats and sheltered from accountability by public relations firm Hill & Knowlton.

The Games face other challenges. Chinese officials have cut 27 athletes from their Olympic team, nearly all because they failed a test for the performance-enhancing drug EPO. China is not the only country with the problem, of course. "EPO has polluted the world sports stage," said He Huixian, the Chinese Olympic Committee's spokeswoman. "Many countries know that they have athletes using EPO, including America, Australia, Germany, England, France _ they all know. It's a global problem."

Then there is NBC with its videotaped events, which will have been decided the day before in Australia, trying to build viewer excitement and suspense. NBC paid $705-million for U.S. TV rights, so it figures it can delay broadcasts until prime time if it wants to. Will canned events be able to compete with live sports offerings, including baseball and football?

It's a shame that so much is detracting from the many talented athletes who have earned our attention. After a short-lived retirement, Bela Karolyi will try to lead another American women's gymnastics team to victory. Australian 400-meter runner Cathy Freeman, an Aborigine, will be striving to win a medal and bridge the gap of misunderstanding between white and Aboriginal countrymen. American heavyweight Michael Bennett turned to boxing to rehabilitate himself after a prison sentence for armed robbery, but formidable Cuban fighter Felix Savon stands in the way.

Or consider Ester Kim, the American tae kwon do competitor who withdrew from the final round of qualifying rather than fight her friend, Kay Poe, who had injured a knee in an earlier bout.

That's the Olympic spirit. It's too bad Samaranch, the IOC and profit-driven athletes don't understand the concept.

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