Scandal, conspiracy and ridicule -- all have been synonymous with the Maryland State Games for close to two years.
When the eighth annual games kick off today, Josh Waldorf, the sports marketing specialist for Maryland's Department of Economics and Employment Development, will try to eradicate some of the damage.
"What these games are all about is people getting excited about their sports and excited to play," said Waldorf, who helped bring the U.S. Olympic Gymnastic Trials to Baltimore last month. "The purpose of the games is to provide all Maryland citizens with a chance to play the sport or sports they love. That got lost in the scandal."
The State Games program was begun by former state Health Secretary Adele A. Wilzack in 1987 to promote amateur athletics. But things went awry when then-Maryland State Games Foundation Inc. president James E. Narron and his supervisor, Deputy Health Secretary John Staubitz, were audited and found to have spent State Games money for personal use.
The auditors found, among other things, that Narron used government funds to try to launch a sports clothing business, that he continued to pay state salaries to a man in jail and to another man -- his brother-in-law -- who was enrolled at a state university at the time.
Also, the auditors said that Narron's foundation spent roughly $53,000 to buy two new cars and a new sport van for Staubitz's father, $3,000 for a scholarship for Staubitz's niece, $25,000 to establish a fencing academy that immediately employed Narron's wife, and $7,166 to rent two Ocean City condominiums for the summer.
Wilzack fired Narron and Staubitz and, under increasing pressure, she resigned in early February of 1991. In late May of this year, Staubitz pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct in office and is awaiting his sentence. Narron also pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is scheduled to be sentenced next Tuesday.
Last year, amid the problems and the investigation, the State Games continued, albeit in an abbreviated form. Advertising and recruiting of athletes did not begin until early May, about three months later than normal.
"The best testimony to this event was last year when everyone thought the games were canceled," Waldorf said. "We still had close to 2,000 people sign up. Normally applications are sent out in January, along with posters, mailings and all kinds of excitement. We did none of that and got that many people."
While Waldorf expects about 2,000 athletes to participate this weekend in 18 events ranging from table tennis to tae kwon do, he said getting corporate sponsorships has been tough.
"It's difficult to get support because of what happened," Waldorf said. "When money gets misappropriated, it's hard to convince people that you are legitimate and that they should help you."
Marilyn Corbett, a spokeswoman for the DEED, said it is impossible to compare the pre-1991 State Games to this year.
"It's a different competition," said Corbett. "It has become much more focused on the amateur sports and athletes."
The start of the State Games coincides with that of the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
"Don't sit home and watch the Olympics," Waldorf said. "Not everyone can be 16 and be Anita Nall, but you can feel you are the best in the state by winning a gold medal at the State Games."