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Improving the Olympic image

Before its own history of underhanded dealing was bumped off the front page by the likes of Enron executives and the pedophile priests, the U.S. Olympic Committee was a fast-rising star in the annals of sleaze in high places. The Olympic image took another hit this month when the USOC's embattled CEO resigned over misconduct allegations. Lloyd Ward had lost credibility and he had to go. But his departure stems from a larger problem engulfing the Olympic movement.

Ward was accused of excessive spending and trying to steer Olympic business to his brother's company. His resignation came the day after two U.S. senators charged that the USOC might have misspent millions of dollars on pay and perk packages in recent years.

Ward's ethics and management practices also drew out the knives within the USOC's back-stabbing corporate culture. His resignation was followed by the departure of the committee's chief operating officer, the eighth top USOC official to resign since the latest ethics scandal erupted in December. This sustained turmoil makes it impossible to position the USOC strategically to polish its battered image.

The next chief executive needs to put an end to the USOC's ethical obtuseness. Senior management needs to be selected more carefully. Clear guidelines need to be established to cover ethics and spending. A stronger line needs to be drawn between volunteers and staff. And the group's inner workings need to be more transparent.

Ward's successor also needs to confront the competing self-interests among individual sports under the USOC umbrella. Special interests within the movement are making it difficult for the national organization to speak in a single voice. The group also needs to improve its image and effectiveness at the international level.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., a former Olympian who is reviewing the USOC's management problems for the Commerce Committee, said his investigation has revealed "borderline criminal" accounting practices and a poor record of accountability and internal controls. A growing number of senators want an independent commission to recommend broad structural reforms.

This would be a good step, and maybe the USOC's last chance to avoid protracted congressional intervention. The focus needs to be on lifting the shadow over amateur competition. If the USOC won't do it, Congress should.