PtG Comment 19.12.2013

2013: Rays of hope in a somber world of sport

Comment: While the public demand for better governance in sport rings louder than ever, sports leaders are confronted with troubles inherited from the past

It’s all in a name.

Should, for instance, the name of João Havelange continue to be applied to the stadium in Rio de Janeiro  that will function as the Olympic Stadium during the Summer Olympics in 2016?

The name would once inspire awe and subordination when for 24 years Havelange was an almighty president of world football and a hugely powerful person in his native Brazil. Today, his name evokes all the images that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) seeks to distance itself from:

Abuse of position, nepotism, personal greed, all in all corruption worth millions of dollars documented by public prosecutors and investigative journalists and forcing the now 97-year old to retirement as FIFA Honorary President and as a member of the IOC.

In March this year, the IOC Vice-President Thomas Bach was adamant concerning the stadium name. It must respect the IOC ethics policy, he said, “with a zero tolerance policy against doping, against corruption, against any kind of manipulation”.

A few weeks ago, now rid of the “Vice-“ title and holding the highest position in international sport, Bach chose a more diplomatic approach when asked about the Rio stadium that still bears the name of João  Havelange:

“We are still a couple of years away from the Olympic Games, and in the Olympic Games, stadia are Olympic stadia, so this for the time being is not a matter of major concern for us,” Bach is reported to have said.

For the time being, no.

But if the Brazilians decide to keep the name of one of the most visionary, powerful  – and corrupt – sports leaders of our time, so he can in 2016 celebrate his 100 years in a stadium bearing his name, it will of course be a major concern for the IOC.

The name dispute symbolizes a  tough, fundamental dilemma for sport that the year of 2013 served to sharpen.

On one hand, the business of elite sport seems to continue its constant growth, with television and sponsor contracts spiraling for the dominant sports disciplines and events. A number of newly rich countries are ready to step in as generous hosts for the events when the traditional strongholds – the Western-style democracies – find they can no longer afford to bid.

On the other hand, sport is under increased pressure from the world public to deliver on the values it claims to bring to the youth in particular and to the societies at large. There is a growing awareness at all levels of society that sport competitions and big events do not automatically provide public health, economic growth, employment, social cohesion, national pride and world peace.

On the contrary, much too often sport is connected to corruption, crime, systematic cheating and doping, match fixing, massive budget overruns, private exploitation of taxpayer’s money, undue influence on national legislation and other vices that shatter the positive image of sport.

The limelight shines on both sides

Asking for the glory of a global sports event has become a double-edged sword. The limelight that countries like Russia and Qatar desired when bidding for Olympics and football World Cups does not only shine on the beautiful front of the countries and their regimes. It shines on the back side, too.

The new anti-gay legislation in Russia is not that different from homophobic laws in dozens of other countries and would hardly have triggered a worldwide outrage if Russia was not to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.

The inhuman life conditions for immigrant workers in Qatar and neighbouring countries were never an issue for debate over the kitchen tables in the West until they were connected directly to the country’s hosting of a global event.

And this year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil was the perfect occasion for the troubled Brazilian people to take to the streets in massive numbers in order to protest against a range of deficiencies in the far from perfect democracy, most importantly corruption and irresponsible use of public money. More popular reactions in the streets can be expected when the real thing – the FIFA World Cup – arrives in June 2014.

Unheard actions from Brazil’s politicians

Although FIFA is not to blame for all what is wrong in Brazil, the organisation is not an innocent victim. From the outset the decision to host the World Cup was taken by a narrow group of men, including the aforementioned João Havelange and his ally and former son-in-law, the powerful Brazilian football President Ricardo Teixeira, both of whom have since been exposed as corrupt and left their positions in disgrace.

No Brazilians ever suspected that these two men would give priority to public interests over their own business goals. It took FIFA a long time to understand that the image of the World Cup was damaged from the start, and meanwhile FIFA added insult to injury with its loud complaints over the slow decision-making in a democracy that the Brazilians wish to protect – even if they share FIFA’s mistrust in their politicians.

Ordinary people’s skepticism of FIFA and the IOC has not gone over the heads of the Brazilian politicians who have taken unheard steps to defy the interests of the guests they invited. In August the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, called it “a shame that Brazil is hosting the Olympic Games”. The shock couldn’t have been bigger if the Pope started to swear on Saint Peter’s Square.

In October, Brazilian prosecutors announced they will sue FIFA for 106 million US-dollars spent on temporary stadium constructions during the Confederations Cup. And in November the cancellation of the Soccerex exhibition in the famous Maracanã stadium was a kick in the face of the global elite in the football commerce.

So if any single situation should be pointed out as the defining moment for world sport in 2013, it would be the demonstrations in Brazil. These protests raise some fundamental questions of global interest:

Can future mega-events be held in democratic societies? Are democratically elected politicians too weak and unreliable to protect the interests of international sport over a long period of time? Are the people ignorant of the advantages mega-events bring to them? Or has sport pushed its demands far beyond an acceptable limit?

Promising signals from IOC President

It is telling that when sports ministers and sports ministries from all over the world gathered in Berlin in May for the MINEPS V conference, it was the Brazilian government that brought up the only very concrete proposal:

They encouraged the hosts, UNESCO, to invite FIFA and the IOC to negotiate a framework for future bidding procedures, in order to avoid that only the size of a country’s treasure chest decides who will get away with the games. So far, no one has responded to this proposal.

The IOC, however, has given its own answer by choosing Tokyo as the host of the 2020 Summer Olympics, while sidelining the oil- and gas-rich bids from Baku (Aserbadjan) and Doha (Qatar) early in the selection process.

Also, the new IOC President Thomas Bach has sent some very promising signals about reforming the bidding process and allowing countries to bid according to their own cultural and financial characteristics, rather than adapting to what they – and the industry of expensive bidding consultants –  conceive as a global standard recipe.

Bearing in mind that Thomas Bach was elected IOC President with strong backing from some of the new power zones in sport, Russia and the Arab countries, it remains to be seen to which extent cultural diversity will prevail over big money during his presidency. With all respect for the rights of Russia and Arab countries to get their place in the Olympic sun.

Transnational expectations to sport

The MINEPS V conference is just one example of the growing engagement by public authorities in sport politics. Although such an event will inevitably speak in a soft and diplomatic tone, the end resolution is pretty clear about the areas where sport and governments need to do more:

The fight against doping and match fixing, the need for more sustainable mega-events, the challenges in the decreasing physical activity of people around the globe, and last but not least, the need for better governance of sports organisations.

Similar messages have been echoed by institutions such as the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council of Ministers, the Council of Europe and the Commonwealth countries, not to mention a great number of individual countries with Australia as one of the most aggressive in demanding a corruption-free sport.

Good governance on the election agenda

On this long list of different issues the most crucial is without any doubt the demand for better governance in sport. Without a more transparent, accountable and democratic sports community, organised sport will simply remain unable to deal with the rest of these formidable challenges.

Corrupt and inefficient sports organisations will never be able to contribute to the solutions that society asks of them; on the contrary they will become increasingly irrelevant.

It is therefore an encouraging sign that quite a few international sports leaders have recognised that time is up for change. Not only have we seen contested elections for presidencies of more than a handful of federations, good governance have been a key issue on the agenda for the hopeful rivals to a handful of sitting presidents.

In the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) and the International Automobile Federation (FIA) serious questions were raised to the incumbent presidents, and although they came out successfully from the elections, the questions are no longer confined to the corridors of power.

In the International Cycling Union, the International Wrestling Federation and Badminton World Federation new presidents have been elected on a reform agenda with promises of improved governance.

So there are definitely rays of hope in what is still a rather somber picture of international sport. When Play the Game starts to use its measuring tool, the Sports Governance Observer, in 2014, we hope to strengthen this trend.

Clumsiness FIFA style

And FIFA? Haven’t world football’s ruling body undergone a fundamental reform process?

Unfortunately not.

Sepp Blatter may have rid himself and FIFA of a dozen of his former close allies and friends, whose corrupt behavior he accepted and overlooked for decades. It is also true that some institutional change has been made, with the formation of more independent committees for auditing and ethics.

But the impact of these changes leaves a lot to be desired. In April, the new independent chairman of the adjudicatory body of the ethics committee, the German high court judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, summed up the role of Sepp Blatter in the largest systematic corruption affair in sport known to this date, the so-called ISL affair.

Eckert’s conclusion was that Blatter did nothing wrong when over 100 million US-dollars were paid as bribes to Havelange, Teixeira, and other sports leaders from especially FIFA.

The bribe festival took place at a time where Blatter was either Secretary General or President of FIFA. It happened on his watch, and the Swiss prosecutors once confirmed that “Blatter must have known” in a legal settlement signed by Blatter himself.

Nevertheless, FIFA’s own watchdog boils Blatter’s role down to being “clumsy”.

So much for an independent ethical eye.

The outgoing reform adviser for FIFA, Mark Pieth, said at our recent Play the Game conference that it was not only the rules of FIFA that had to be changed, but first and foremost the culture.

Nobody embodies FIFA’s culture better than Blatter, who has had leading positions there since 1976. And this culture seems to be pretty resistant to the winds of change.

World visibility of unseen cartoons

Another old friend that Blatter is now having a cultural dispute with is the Danish cartoonist Ole Andersen, a long-time resident of Switzerland. After having worked for FIFA with illustrations and design from 1976 to 1990, he feels that Blatter since then has broken a number of deals that was settled by handshake.

As a last resort and revenge, Ole Andersen has prepared a book with cartoons of a person called Platter, derived from the Danish word “plat”, meaning “vulgar” and “unreliable”. To stress his points, Andersen has sent samples of these cartoons to Blatter and three other top people at FIFA. Apparently, Platter did not flatter Blatter.

Perhaps the FIFA President thinks that if a small country like Denmark can cause a cartoon crisis, a world organisation FIFA is entitled to have one of its own. Whatever the reason, Sepp Blatter has convinced a Swiss court that the cartoons cannot be published; otherwise Ole Andersen must pay a 10,000 CHF fine.

The matter will be discussed again at a court meeting on the 15th January. Till then, the world will not know whether the cartoons are funny or not, whether they have artistic quality or not, whether they are defamatory or not.

But with his legal action Sepp Blatter has granted these unseen cartoons more global visibility than even the best cartoonists could ever dream of.In football, you would call it an own goal.

Platter? Blatter?

It’s all in a name.