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Thursday, Aug 12, 2004

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To win is to put rules back into the game

WITH a great game coming up soon in Athens, here is Dick Pound with his book, Inside the Olympics, from Wiley ( It promises `a behind-the-scenes look at the polities, the scandals, and the glory of the games', touching upon topics of concern for accountants too — such as independence and commercialisation, transparency and impartiality.

"There is not enough money to make everyone equal," notes the author in his preface. "But the expansion of the number of countries able to produce Olympic medal-winning athletes is a direct result of the funds given to talented athletes who might otherwise never have been able to realise their full potential."

Chapter 2 is titled `who guards the guards: judging', something that reminds us of `who watches the watchdogs: auditing'. It is about the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics pair figure skating medal scandal that `opened up a Pandora's box'.

"It is hard to imagine any competitive sport that does not require at least some element of judging by independent officials," writes Pound. However, all events are not as easy as races and javelin throws to decide the winner.

"Judging `artistic merit' inevitably involves some element of subjective opinion. And subjective opinion can be manipulated to produce results that can destroy the integrity of the competition," is a statement that can apply well to auditing of accounts too. Remember also that there are spectators who see what judges see and "many spectators are very knowledgeable about both performance and rules."

When measurements are in milliseconds and millmetres, it becomes necessary that Olympic officials' abilities should match the performances they are judging.

Well, we're not talking about auditing, are we? "Transparency is a concept that is currently popular," observes Pound. "It is a useful notion, provided that it does not degenerate into mere mantra."

For instance, one can paint `transparency' all over to make things opaque.

Let me fast forward to chapter 6 on sponsorship. Financial independence became a priority only in 1980. The economic model that prevailed till then "was a prescription for disaster" — with governments providing almost all financial resources and "not the slightest bit shy about tying such support to their own political agendas."

While raising money, a golden rule that The Olympic Program (TOP) laid down was that all sponsors should be at arm's length from the marketing agency.

"To sponsors, we have the duty to give value if we want to receive value," writes Pound. "I want happy sponsors, not those who are disappointed or for whom the Olympic sponsorship is neutral — just another media buy."

If that sounds like an unpopular thought, read this too: "I would happily forgo any money we might get from an unhappy sponsor." Wonder how one would account for such a move.

Another chapter on money matters is the one titled `broadcast bonanza: TV rights'. Let us not forget that the Olympic games are the most universally watched event in well over 200 countries: "Some 3.7 billion individual viewers watched the 2000 Games." From $400,000 in 1960, rights fees are estimated to be $2 billion for 2008. Strangely, till mid-1980s, "the economic return from television did not seem to attract much attention at Olympic headquarters," writes the author.

While concluding, Pound talks of his belief — that the Olympic movement can provide an extraordinary values system for today's and tomorrow's youth.

Because, "we live in a world that has lost its ethical path, in which values that enabled society to develop in the confidence that they were doing the `right' thing are no longer unshakable, no longer reliable guides."

May be, accountants too can do their bit in getting rules back into the game.

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