PtG Article 20.09.2019

A German role model: “More investigative journalists could cause earthquakes in sport”

Interview: After exposing the Russian state doping regime, German journalist Hajo Seppelt and his doping editorial team at ARD and EyeOpening.Media became role models in investigative sports journalism. Now, the award-winning reporter has written a new book in which he explains how and why the team is fighting “the enemies of sport” in a billion dollar business of both industrial and political impact.

Back in the 1980’s, during the last years of the Cold War, Hajo Seppelt was a young Berliner struggling to find his place in life and the right tone of voice as a young sports reporter at radio RIAS -Rundfunk Im Amerikanischen Sektor – built by the American army in 1948 and based in the US-controlled western part of his then politically divided hometown.

Today, three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German reporter has found his place in investigative sports journalism and his voice has become famous for its exposure of the Russian state doping regime and many other major doping scandals in sport.

But even though Seppelt’s coorporation with a number of whistleblowers in sport like the Russian runner Yuliya Stepanova, her husband Vitaly Stepanov and the former head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory Grigory Rodchenkov has brought many walls to fall in the turbulent world of modern elite sport, the now 56-year-old award winning reporter is still fighting to improve sports journalism.

“More investigative journalists could cause earthquakes in sport,” Seppelt states in an interview with Play the Game in which he calls for the sports media to let the divided world of sports journalism fall.

“There are two kinds of sports journalists: Those who mainly entertain and those who investigate. The first group is a large majority, but if the numbers were fifty-fifty we could really leave no stone unturned, and I assume, a lot of things in sport would change,” he argues before travelling to the US next month, where he will be one of the speakers at Play the Game’s 11th international conference on sport and society in Colorado Springs.

A minor group

The imbalance between entertaining sports journalism and investigative sports journalism is well documented and has often caused public debate about the sports media’s role in elite sport.

In 2005, Play the Game’s International Sports Press Survey (ISPS) comprising 10.000 articles in 37 newspapers in 10 countries concluded that the sports press was ‘the world’s best advertising agency’ for popular elite athletes, clubs and sports organisations. 

And in 2011, the next ISPS survey of 17.777 sports articles from 80 newspapers in 22 countries concluded that just 2.7 percent of the articles focused on sports politics, while sports finance and economy were the topics of only 3.1 percent of the articles. 

Since then, many political and financial scandals have haunted sport. But according to Seppelt, the number of scandals has not changed the imbalance of the media’s sports coverage. As an example, he points to the fact that his investigative journalism team is still an exception in the global media landscape.

The team is driven by the production company EyeOpening.Media. The budget mainly comes from the German public radio and television broadcasting organisation ARD, a network of ten public broadcasting companies.

“In total, more than 200 people are covering sport at ARD, but roughly five to ten percent of them are working on doping or other background stories related to real sports issues. At EyeOpening.Media we are currently eight people. So even if the size of our team may be large compared to other media outlets in sport, we are still just a small part of the sports journalists at ARD.”

A public role model

Despite this view, Seppelt praises the public German television network for building the doping editorial team and even giving up its broadcasting of the Tour de France from 2012 to 2015 because of the many doping scandals in the race.

“There are investigative sports journalists at other European public television broadcasters like ZDF and France 2 who are also good at covering doping. But to have an editorial doping team like ours is unique and that makes from my point of view ARD a role model among public sports media,” he says.

In an era when most sports media are focusing on commentary and analysis, ARD and EyeOpening.Media stand out as providers of hard facts about doping in sport instead of just opinions. And even though documentary is expensive to produce, the public television network keeps on finding the money to do it.

“It is really important to us not only to cover live sport but to show all our viewers the different sides of sport – also the dark ones, like corruption, doping, sexual abuse in sports and much more. About the financing we can’t give any details. But all these investigative documentaries are worth the money they cost,” the ARD sports coordinator Axel Balkausky says.

Since June, ARD has also presented a new talk show ‘Sportschau Thema’ mixed with feature elements in which the public television network around five times a year plan to intensively investigate different sports issues. But the intense investigative focus on sport is a new tradition at the network.

Before the boycott of the Tour de France, ARD had a history of being an official sponsor for the German cycling team Telekom from 1998 to 2004. According to Seppelt, that made it very difficult for sports journalists at ARD to cover doping in cycling in those years. 

“In the 1990’s, ARD had little interest in covering doping in sport. We had a few doping stories, but most of them had the character of an alibi, and the support from the management was weak.”

A huge difference

One of Seppelt’s first experiences with investigative sports journalism was a documentary about state doping of children in the former East Germany in 1997. But in 2006, he was fired from his main job as a swimming reporter at ARD, because he criticised the broadcaster’s lack of doping coverage.

A few weeks later everything changed when ARD asked him to come back and cover the relation between Telekom’s German cycling star Jan Ullrich and the Spanish doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. Soon after, ARD presented him with the idea of creating a doping editorial team and invited him to be a part of it.

The ARD doping editorial team was a reality by 2007. At first Seppelt was engaged part time as a freelancer.

“It was not expected to become so big. But in 2016, the doping issue was so important and huge that they proposed to build a production company that works at the national level exclusively for ARD.”

Two years earlier, the team had exposed the Russian state doping which opened many eyes in the world of sport and kick-started an international investigation that is still going on. And the exposure of the Russians also broke down some of the hostility that Seppelt and his colleagues felt from other sports journalists who accused the investigating ARD doping editorial team for disrupting their work.

“Many sports journalists had a problem with our work because they felt it had a negative effect on their own interests in sports journalism. But the Russian case made a huge difference. Then people really began to understand why we need do this,” Seppelt says.

“Today, the opposition to our work is much less than ten years ago. There is more respect. I have even received an apology from one of my colleagues at ARD for the way he had judged the doping editorial team when we began our work. And it also helps that our documentaries have a lot of viewers and many people read the doping stories at our webpage. People are interested in what we do.”

A billion dollar business

Last year, the Russians reacted to ARD and EyeOpening.Media’s coverage of the greatest state doping case of our time by declaring Seppelt persona non grata in the country. They denied him a visa, which prevented him from travelling to Russia to cover the FIFA World Cup 2018.

But Russia is not the only country where elite athletes and sports leaders cheat. With the support from ARD and EyeOpening.Media, Seppelt and his colleagues at the doping editorial team have travelled all over the world and exposed doping in countries like China, North Korea, Kenya and Brazil.

And in order to explain some of the challenges he and his team are facing when investigating athletes, coaches, managers, politicians and businessmen in sport, who often prefer to hide their actions from the public, Seppelt has also written a new book about the team’s work.

The book is titled Feinde des Sports – Undercover in der Unterwelt des Spitzensports (Enemies of Sport – Undercover in the Underworld of Elite Sport). With the help from German co-author Wigbert Löer, a previous investigative editor at Stern magazine, Seppelt in the book explains how his team is investigating doping cheaters and their helpers in sport and why sport is not just ‘a minor matter’ to him:

“Elite sport is really a billion dollar business of both industrial and political impact. It affects people all over the world. Company groups and heads of states want to use it for their own interests. A minor matter? Not for Visa, Samsung and Coca-Cola. Not for Putin. And certainly not for the elite athletes, who have invested so much in their sport without always getting that much out of it. For this reason alone sport deserves that we are aware of its enemies and try to cover their actions,” Seppelt writes in the foreword to the book, which is to be published in Germany by the end of this month.

In the book, Seppelt also focuses on how doping is often connected to other sports related crimes. But so far, his editorial team sticks to the doping coverage.

“Fortunately, there are really good journalists around the globe, also in my country, who regularly publish stories about other relevant sports topics e. g. corruption in FIFA. At my team we have considered whether we should also investigate other controversial issues in sport than doping. So far we still have a lot of doping stories in our pockets. Many of them are connected to potential corruption. And to be honest: Also investigating other fields of crime in sports would, at least at the moment, exceed our capacities,” he argues and explains one of the biggest challenges investigative sports journalists are facing:

“Investigative journalism is expensive. You need a lot of money to do it right, and the high prices sports media have to pay for broadcasting rights to major sports events like the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup does not make it easier for investigative television journalists to be critical.“

But according to Seppelt, there are still many walls in the world of sport that needs to fall. At the end of his new book, he calls on all stakeholders in the global sports industry to do more to protect a popular sports culture, which moves and fascinates people all over the world, from the enemies of sport by speaking out in public. To do that, he argues, they do not all need to have the same bravery as Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaly had five years ago, when they spoke out about the Russian state doping, fled their home country, and moved to the US.

“Sports administrators are not bound to the sponsors. First of all they owe their loyalty to the athletes. For that reason alone they should be more aware of the dangers of doping and corruption. It’s in their hands.”

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Investigative journalism will be one of the topics up for debate at Play the Game 2019.

You can see the full programme, the list of speakers and all other information you need about the conference at the conference website.

Play the Game 2019 would not be possible without the generous support from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and a great number of sponsors in Colorado Springs and Denmark. You can see the list of sponsors here.