May 18, 2010 11:58 am

Construction probe overshadows Italy Olympics bid

Italy’s favours-for-tenders corruption inquiry – which has already led to the resignation of a key minister – is overshadowing a decision on whether the national Olympic committee should back Rome or Venice in their bids to host the 2020 Games.

An announcement by the committee is expected as early as Wednesday. According to media reports, the capital is seen as the frontrunner because it offers better accommodation and logistics possibilities than its lagoon city rival and has more experience in organising large sporting events.

But an investigation by magistrates into suspected high-level corruption in Rome in awarding contracts to a Rome construction entrepreneur, who was among four people arrested in February, has sparked controversy over how the Olympics would be handled.

The national Civil Protection agency, which organises “grand events” as well as dealing with national disasters, is at the centre of the probe led by prosecutors in Perugia, including contracts related to last year’s swimming world championships in Rome and the G8 summit in L’Aquila. Guido Bertolaso, who is under investigation as head of the agency, has denied accepting money and sexual favours in return for awarding contracts.

As the investigation unfolds it is not clear what role the agency would play in preparing for the 2020 Olympics should the International Olympic Committee choose an Italian venue when it names the host for the 32nd Olympiad in 2013.

“It is in the interest of all of us that our country leaves the ‘emergency culture’, which leads to less transparency (in the running of public tenders)”, Aurelio Regina, head of the Industrialists Union in Rome, a group of entrepreneurs backing the capital’s bid, told the FT.

His group also includes Mauro Moretti, head of the Italian national rail company, Alessandro Profumo, chief executive of bank Unicredit, and Rocco Sabelli of Alitalia. The entrepreneurs estimate the Games would create 80,000 jobs, boost national GDP by at least 3 per cent and raise tourism by more than 20 per cent.

“There are sufficient elements to dream about bringing the Olympic rings back to Rome. We are stronger, as Venice has to build everything from scratch,” said Gianni Alemanno, Rome’s right-wing mayor. Rome hosted the 1960 Olympics.

Luca Zaia, a leading member of the right-wing Northern League and governor of the Veneto region that includes Venice, has cast doubt on the process of selection.

“The Veneto region system works and is credible. What worries me are the criteria of the choice. Allow me to doubt the transparency,” he commented. “The Roman candidature is just expression of the salotto buono,” he said, referring to what Italians call the elite network that decides on important deals.

Referring controversially to Venice’s history under the rule of Austria’s Habsburg monarchy, Mr Zaia commented: “We are rigorous and far from the squabbles of Roman public tenders.”

In a dispatch from Venice, Corriere della Sera, a Milan-based newspaper, expressed concern over the tenders process and said the timing of the Olympic committee’s decision was unfortunate.

“If Italy were to be awarded the 2020 Olympics then the ‘machine’ of public tenders would start moving,” it said. “For Rome this is a bad moment. Already it is being said that the ‘Olympic business’ of the future rotates around the gang (under investigation).”

Rome said it would invest more than €13bn ($16bn) for the Games. Some €6bn would be spent on infrastructure projects, including extension of the underground rail network and upgrading of the city’s Fiumicino airport.

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