16 bars of gold

It was only a little more than a year ago, standing center stage on a wet and windy night at historic Maracanā Stadium, that Carlos Nuzman, president of the Rio organizing committee, declared at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Summer Games, “I am the happiest man alive.”

He added, “Let’s celebrate together this great victory, this triumph of sport, of youth.” Knowing what we know now: that is what is called chutzpah. Nuzman, authorities said Thursday, had 16 gold bars in a safe in Switzerland.

Carlos Nuzman, left, at Brazilian police headquarters on Thursday // Getty Images 

Carlos Nuzman, left, at Brazilian police headquarters on Thursday // Getty Images 

The real story of Rio, and perhaps the Tokyo 2020 Games as well, is now going to be written, and the International Olympic Committee — which bought itself time with the award of Paris for 2024 and Los Angeles for 2028 — is already looking out to the 2026 Winter Games, but the essential disconnect that is Nuzman and the IOC response to his arrest is at the core of why the institution is enduring such profound turbulence.

That happiest man alive thing? Nuzman was arrested Thursday as part of a cash-for-votes investigation into Rio’s winning 2016 bid. Leo Gryner, the 2016 director general, was also arrested.

For the IOC, the Rio 2016 Games are the gift that keeps on giving. After that closing ceremony, the IOC president, Thomas Bach, left Rio, seemingly never to return, perhaps hoping to close a decidedly unhappy chapter in Olympic history.


Or not. 

This space has noted before and does so again here: it’s all about culture and communication.

Police leading Nuzman away // Getty Images

Police leading Nuzman away // Getty Images

As the Wall Street Journal perfectly described it in a story this week, institutional culture — the way values and actions create a unique environment — matters, and a lot. Bad culture can damage reputation, results and recruitment.

The reason the IOC is getting absolutely killed is because of its culture and, as a corollary, the way it communicates what it is and what it stands for.

Young people are wary if not worse of the suits. Same for politicians in any number of nations. As for bid cities, which is the recruiting business the IOC is in — when your 2022 race gets down to just two and your 2024 contest also drops to just two, you have a big, big problem.

Indeed, you have a crystal-clear clash: the Olympic ideals against 16 bars of gold.

Those gold bars so perfectly encapsulate the symbology, the very real optics problem, the gut culture challenge the IOC must -- to reiterate, must -- confront.

Obviously, those 2022 and 2024 rejections of the IOC took place long before Thursday. But Nuzman’s arrest synthesizes the disconnect. Don’t misunderstand, because more referendums — looking at 2026 — are coming right up:

The IOC purports to stand for friendship, excellence and respect.

Instead, what you get are leading Olympic personalities — supposed to be modeling the very values the so-called Olympic family not only expects but demands of the athletes — with 16 gold bars sitting in a vault in Switzerland. 

Nuzman was brought in for questioning on Sept. 5. That day, police found about $150,000 in cash in a closet. They also took possession of his passports — his Brazilian and, er, Russian one.

Since, Nuzman amended his tax returns to add about $600,000 in income, authorities said.

While he was president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, over the past 10 to 22 years, prosecutors said, Nuzman’s wealth went up by 457 percent, without a clear sign of where the money came from, prosecutors said Thursday.

Nuzman at the 2016 closing ceremony, with the IOC president, Thomas Bach // Getty Imges

Nuzman at the 2016 closing ceremony, with the IOC president, Thomas Bach // Getty Imges

On Sept. 20, they said, he declared the 16 bars of gold.

“While Olympic medalists chased their dreams of gold medals,” prosecutor Fabiana Schneider said, according to Associated Press, “leaders of the Brazilian Olympic Committee stashed their gold in Switzerland.”

Upon news of Nuzman’s arrest, this from the IOC:

It “takes note” of Nuzman’s arrest. Its chief ethics officer asked the Brazilian authorities for “full information.” An IOC ethics inquiry started after Nuzman's first brush with the Brazilian authorities. Given “the new facts,” that ethics panel “may consider provisional measures while respecting Mr. Nuzman’s right to be heard.” Oh, and the IOC “reiterates that the presumption of innocence prevails.”


Of course, the presumption of innocence prevails. Say that first, and for emphasis. 

Then show some stones. For god’s sake. Nuzman is 75 years old. He is no longer an active member but “honorary.” What “provisional measures” is the IOC going to take? What “discipline,” what “sanction,” what “remedy” is there?

None, really.

So — be declarative. Say that the allegations offend the conscience of all reasonable people. Thus the IOC wants to get at the truth because transparency and the truth are good. Say, too, that if a crime or crimes were committed, that justice ought to run its course; the perpetrators, if convicted, ought to be punished to the full extent of the law; and the sooner we all know the truth the better. Offer the IOC’s full resource to any and all investigative, prosecutorial and judicial authorities. 

Is that really so difficult?