IOC Official Apologizes Over Torch

Friday, May 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) — Kevan Gosper got the message and did what he had to do: say he was sorry.

Pilloried for allowing his 11-year-old daughter to replace another girl as Australia's first Olympic torchbearer, the IOC vice president apologized Friday for his ``lapse in judgment.''

He also offered to forfeit his own leg of the torch relay in his Australian home city and give the spot to the other girl.

``I had no idea at the time .... that it would cause such an outcry,'' Gosper, blinking back tears and his voice choking, said at a news conference. ``I started the week elated and excited, and I ended up the week as one of the most controversial figures in Australian sports.''

Gosper, Australia's senior Olympic executive, has come under severe criticism at home and abroad for what many viewed as a blatant act of nepotism and cronyism.

A 15-year-old Australian-Greek student, Yianna Souleles, had been expected to be the first Australian to carry the torch after the flame for the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 Sydney Games was lighted Wednesday in a ceremony in Olympia, Greece.

But Gosper's daughter was a late selection for the prestigious spot, provoking a huge outcry in Australia.

For two days, Gosper maintained he did nothing wrong and said he was astonished by the harsh reaction. But Friday, sensing the continuing uproar, he apologized.

While insisting he never sought his daughter's involvement in the relay and only accepted an invitation by the Greek Olympic Committee, Gosper acknowledged there was a perception he had received a special favor.

``My fatherly pride simply clouded my judgment,'' he said in a statement released by the IOC. ``In retrospect, I now know my acceptance on behalf of my daughter of their invitation was a mistake. It has led to a perception of undue influence by me as vice president of the International Olympic Committee and upset many Australians. ...

``I accept personal responsibility for the decision to accept the invitation. I apologize to all those who have been upset by my lapse of judgment, especially Yianna Souleles, who may have hoped or expected to be the first Australian torch runner.

``I also regret that my decision has led to unfair criticism of the IOC and its membership and has diverted attention from what was an uplifting event leading up to the Sydney Olympic Games.''

Gosper already is under investigation by the IOC over accusations he received excessive hospitality from Salt Lake City during its winning bid for the 2002 Winter Games. The accusations stem from a ski trip his wife and two children took in Utah in 1993.

The ethics panel is to announce its findings Monday, and Gosper is confident he will be cleared.

``My attachment to Sophie clearly got in the way of my normal judgment,'' Gosper said Friday.

Gosper was to run a relay leg in July in his home city of Melbourne, where he won a silver medal in the 1,600-meter relay before 100,000 spectators at the 1956 Olympics.

``It would have meant a lot to me because it would be first time I've run in the Melbourne Cricket Ground stadium since winning the silver medal,'' he said after his news conference. ``They are expecting another huge crowd of 100,000. Giving up the relay leg was the most important thing I could do.''

Gosper said Sydney Olympics Minister Michael Knight had approved the switch, and he would try to reach Souleles to make the offer personally.

``Perhaps she will accept this as a gift from me,'' he said.

Souleles did carry the torch later Wednesday in Greece, but New South Wales Premier Bob Carr said he would give her another chance to join the relay in Australia.

After its journey through Greece and the Pacific, the torch will arrive June 8 at Uluru in central Australia to start the 100-day countdown to the Sept. 15 opening ceremony in Sydney. About 11,000 people are to be involved in the torch relay around Australia.

The latest dispute comes at a time when the IOC is trying to regain public confidence in the wake of last year's Olympic bribery scandals.

``You know we've worked very hard over the last year to open up, to be more transparent,'' Gosper said. ``One of the concerns I've had today is that the perception of my own action looks as if I've stepped back.''

Gosper denied reports that he had threatened never to return to Australia as a result of the backlash.

``I can assure you I have no intention of leaving Australia,'' he said.

Earlier, Gosper said he was ``shocked and appalled'' by the criticism in the Australian media and referred to himself as ``today's ugly Australian.''

``I've never been so upset, ever,'' he told Australia's Channel 7. ``We didn't even talk about the enemy in the war like that.''

Sydney's Daily Telegraph devoted its entire front page to a six-line headline playing on the letters of Gosper's name. The headline spelled out Gosper from top to bottom in the first column but, reading from left to right, it said: ``Greedy, Obstinate, Selfish, Pompous, Egotistic, Reptile.''