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Countering corruption: Will spring come to sport?

Hungarian Tamás Aján, honorary member of the International Olympic Committee. Photo (c) www.iwfantidopingconference.org

Comment: Spectacular statements at this week’s EU Sport Forum in Budapest may influence the outcome of next week’s IOC symposium on irregular betting and match-fixing. IOC Honorary member Tamás Aján and WADA Director General David Howman called for rapid action against not only match-fixing, but all forms of corruption in sport. Play the Game was present in Budapest and in the following comment, Jens Sejer Andersen, International Director asks if the IOC will bring spring to sport or let the melt-down continue.

There are contradicting signs in the run-up to the first Olympic symposium against match fixing and illegal betting. Will a meeting with governments Tuesday bring a break in the frost or a continued meltdown?

“Madame Commissioner, I urge you to take this issue seriously”. At the first glance, these few words may not take your breath away. But if you consider that the issue referred to is corruption in sport, that the setting is a meeting hall crowded with representatives of European sport and politicians and staff from the European Union, and that the appeal is delivered by an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee – then you may understand that something unusual is at stake.

It was the Hungarian Tamás Aján who grabbed the microphone at a general debate on EU’s sports policy in Budapest last Tuesday the 22 February. Aján, who is also the president of the International Weightlifting Federation, told the assembly that corruption exists on every level in sport, even in the handling of doping tests. He said that sport will never overcome the problem without help from outside. He called for more public awareness, warning that a new generation of sports leaders is emerging from countries where money “seems to grow on trees”.

To my knowledge no IOC member has ever before stated publically that corruption is widespread in the Olympic federations. And absolutely no one from the helmet of international sport has never, ever asked the European Commission to interfere in their internal affairs. On the contrary, the IOC and FIFA have in recent years issued joint warnings to an EU increasingly interested in sports politics: Hands off!

The Hungarian IOC member’s revelations can be seen as a prelude to another ground-breaking meeting, the symposium on match fixing and illegal betting staged by the IOC next Tuesday in Lausanne. But Aján shall expect no praise from the headquarters. There are many signs that the Olympic leadership has a contrasting agenda, aiming at limiting the debate rather than opening it all up.

In all fairness, the IOC deserves credit for finally acknowledging that sport on its own cannot conquer the global networks of gangsters that carry out illegal gambling and fiddling of sports results. Choosing 1st of March, the first day of spring, might also be an omen of better times ahead.

However, what seems to be a break in the frost may end up as a meltdown and lead to increased corruption. An effort against corruption must, just as Tamás Aján indicated, from the outset build on values like transparency, inclusion of all stakeholders and a universal approach.

These values are not necessarily present next Tuesday in Lausanne. The IOC symposium has been surrounded by much secrecy. A number of obvious stakeholders Play the Game talked to in Budapest are not invited or have had to push hard for an invitation. According to the IOC, sports ministers from the UK, France, Switzerland and Australia take part. Why these governments have been invited and others not, remains unclear.

One guest, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), is raising the stakes on the road to Lausanne. Its General Director David Howman issued a statement this week, calling governments and sports to form a World Sports Integrity Agency.

“Our compelling information, and that includes an extensive briefing I had last week from American enforcement agencies (which added to the information we received from the Major League Baseball investigators) is that the criminal underworld is now heavily engaged in ways that, if unchecked, will seriously jeopardize the future of modern sport,” Howman writes.

WADA wishes a three-armed institution, suggesting itself as the first arm, an anti match-fixing body as the second, while the third arm should combat corruption in a wider sense. This announcement is not well received at the IOC which regards it as an untimely attempt from WADA to position itself for a lead role in the future fight against corruption.

The IOC will go far to avoid that WADA is allowed such a lead role, as the agency has already performed much too independently in the fight against doping over the past decade. In this tension between WADA and the Olympic top you might find the very reason for the IOC to call a closed group for a closed meeting. The IOC does not want to relive the trauma from 1999 when it lost control over the global struggle against doping and was forced to share powers with governments in the creation of WADA.

The recent public debate about widespread corruption in FIFA in particular and football and cricket in general has had such an outreach that the IOC may have good reasons to fear that history will repeat itself. Several governments have expressed their concern; most notably the Swiss government which hosts the vast majority of sport’s governing bodies.

All in all it is necessary to observe carefully if the meeting in Lausanne Tuesday is in reality an attempt to regain control over the international agenda. A decisive factor will be if the IOC will again hold the idea of autonomy of sport up as a shield against external control. Nobody, neither national governments, the EU nor the mass media, has so far been welcomed to look over sport’s shoulder. This has left too many windows open for perpetrators of corruption, mismanagement and power abuse. It is inconceivable if the IOC will continue to protect organisations with a slack administration of billions of dollars.

Formally speaking, the IOC leadership does not have the mandate to instruct the international federations and it will meet resistance if it tries. But for historical reasons the IOC has the moral and political authority to set the record straight on behalf of sport.

The public and the governments have an obvious and rational interest in helping sport towards stronger measures: If tax payers shall co-finance a new international institution against corruption in sport, they are entitled to expect that the institution becomes reasonably efficient.

This means among other things that the owners of the institutions must be beyond suspicion. In this case the demands can be more rigorous: Sports organisations will not be the kind of owners that are at a safe distance of the daily work, like when you have shares in a bank for instance. The sports organisations will be deeply involved in the tournaments, mega-events and individual arrangements where the battle against corruption will take place. They select referees, they licence players and trainers, they monitor the matches – and often they derive big earnings from the events in question. In other words there is a double reason to demand that sports leaders accept that their own conduct is X-rayed by the public.

You cannot imagine that responsible governments will buy a model in which the fox is let into the henhouse and corrupt leaders allowed to control gangsters?

If the aim of the IOC operation is to appease the world public rather than pressure sport to more transparency, then criminal forces will get time to strengthen their position inside as well as outside the organisations. This perspective is strengthened by a development that must be monitored closely, especially by the European public and the EU.

As exemplified by the choice of Russia and Qatar as hosts for the FIFA World Cup, money and power in sport is currently moving eastwards. It is moving to countries where sport, business and political life are played by very different rules than in the Western hemisphere. Countries where “money seems to grow on trees”.

There are many reasons to hope that spring will come to sport as a break in the frost, not as a continued meltdown.

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