PtG Comment 28.05.2013

A week of words awaiting sport – but will they lead to action?

After many years in the shadow of taboos, sports corruption is now debated freely and at the highest level of sports policy making. All the right words are in place at three huge global meetings this week, but convincing action is still far away.

If the geopolitical situation in sport could be caught in one snapshot, this week would probably give one of the best opportunities to press the release button.

On the backdrop of a mounting number of scandals and challenges in sport - some related to anti-doping, some to match-fixing and others to mismanagement in sports organisations, but all requiring a concerted and joint effort from sport, governments and a variety of stakeholders – on this backdrop all the major decision makers in sport have decided to meet.

Not to meet each other, unfortunately, but to group in three completely different settings. While sports ministers and senior ministry officials gather in Berlin for one of their very rare congresses (MINEPS V) – the last one was held more than eight years ago – more than one thousand of the most important sports and sports industry leaders hold their annual SportAccord Convention in Saint Petersburg.

But the most powerful of all sports organisations, FIFA, does not take part in any of these summits. FIFA has placed its biennial congress this week in splendid isolation under the pleasant sun of the tiny island state Mauritius.

There may be good reasons for these three interdependent groups with common challenges to secure a safe distance between their meetings. There may not. But whether or not the calendars are clashing deliberately or by accident, it tells us that the three groups have one thing in common:

They are either unable or unwilling to coordinate their actions, in spite of the obvious need.

No action at sport’s meeting festival

The question is if there will be any action to coordinate when the week is over.

The key issue of fighting against corruption in sport – not only match fixing on the field or doping in the pack, but also the sometimes sinister trading in the corridors of power – is on the agenda at all three meetings.

To predict the outcome in relation to this issue is easy when looking at SportAccord: there will be none. The fight against match fixing is on the agenda at a side conference called LawAccord thanks to the steadfast efforts of SportAccord’s integrity department.

But none of the organisations that use SportAccord as a meeting festival, will announce major steps to curb corruption. In Saint Petersburg, most attention will be directed at the three applicants for the 2020 Summer Olympics, Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid, who get a last chance to massage the international sports community before the end decision is taken in Buenos Aires in September.

Some suspense is also building up before the election of a new SportAccord president after the former UCI boss and honorary IOC member, Hein Verbrüggen, who after nine years in the chair has asked to be replaced. The presidents of the international judo and rugby federations, Marius Vizer and Bernard Lapasset respectively, have entered a fight for the SportAccord top job that last week got surprisingly fiery in a sports community that usually keeps a polished political surface.

In a very direct language the judo president Marious Vizer said that SportAccord members – 107 organisations from sport – “have the option to vote for maintaining a SportAccord like it used to be in the past, manipulated from behind, with no perspectives, with insignificant funds, generated through controversial events and without generating a profit for the member federations,” he wrote in a letter to the constituency quoted by Around the Rings. Vizer warned against “certain limited, expired and under-performing leaders, supported from the shadows...with leaders reconverted into positions where they would continue to parasite the values of sport.”

It may be the last war cry from someone who senses that the battle is about to be lost, but at least it does refer to the need for more transparent and ethical governance.

Important gaps in the FIFA reform

Such governance is exactly what FIFA is going to introduce for itself at the congress in Mauritius, if the FIFA president Sepp Blatter is to be believed. Unfortunately he is not.

Up to the congress Blatter proudly declares that FIFA’s Executive Committee has agreed to put forward a “majority of the recommendations” made by FIFA’s advisory body since the autumn of 2011, an Independent Governance Committee headed by the Swiss professor Mark Pieth.

What Blatter does not mention is that the left-out minority of the recommendations includes some of the most vital proposals in order to get real transparency:

  • an independently verifiable, rigorous central integrity check addressing credible allegations and not only convictions for all FIFA officials, ExCo members and members of standing committees
  • the presence of independent observers in the FIFA ExCo meetings
  • transparency in the area of compensation and benefits

Pieth and his group has published an appeal urging the individual football federations to bring up these proposals despite the resistance from FIFA’s top. If this happens and the deleted proposals are ratified by congress, it will be a surprise of the same size as if Mauritius wins one of the next World Cups.

Alternatively, Pieth and his allies should look for the exit before Blatter will show it to them.

The only important progress to be expected from the congress is a vote for a limitation of terms for the FIFA president and ExCo members, and given the size of FIFA’s governance problems this will be like trying to kill an elephant with a flyswatter.

Blatter has announced that the introduction of age limits is not on the agenda, since they could be seen as a form of discrimination. Although this viewpoint deserves some merit, one cannot exclude that Blatter also have another re-election in mind in 2015, despite repeated promises that he would step down by then, at the age of 79.

Swiss legislators may act

Football is not the only sport that features some dubious management practices. Handball, volleyball, weightlifting and most recently also table tennis seem to be ruled by people who care as much about their personal finances and prestige as of the sport they are entrusted.

They may now find a serious opponent on their home ground in Switzerland where more than 50 sports organisations reside. The government has just released proposals for changes of Swiss law targeting corruption in the federations directly.

This may be the most positive outcome of any action for better governance this month, but the Swiss government cannot act alone. If it does, the international sports federations may just look for another and more tolerant host country.

The million-dollar question is how far the Swiss government is ready to go, and how far other governments are willing to follow Switzerland’s example.

This question takes us back to Europe, to the MINEPS conference in Berlin, where some 100 governments will discuss how to support all people’s right to sport and physical education and how to counter various threats to the integrity of sport – most importantly, match fixing.

It is somehow significant that only half of the countries in the world meet up in Berlin – much less than expected in Mauritius and Russia. But those who do attend, will find that the hosts, UNESCO and the German government, do not mince words about sport’s problems.

The German Minister of Interior, Hans-Peter Friedrich, calls match-fixing “a cancer that threatens the whole international sports world”. The only chance to fight the international crime behind it is “when all responsible worldwide pull the same string: the judicial authorities, sports federations and gambling companies.”

And the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, states bluntly that facing a “formidable” problem “the current methods of dealing with the problem are largely obsolete.” The progress, however, “won't be done spontaneously by self-regulation: it requires political will and sufficient, appropriate resources.”

The last statement from Irina Bokova may be a thinly veiled warning to the sports federations who use to shoot down even the smallest initiative if they conceive it as a threat to their autonomy.

In the area of match-fixing, it is pathetic to see how sports organisations on one hand call for the assistance from governments in the fight against the mafia, but on the other hand they fight tooth and nail to keep their internal corruption problems out of this debate.

Society must of course demand completely corruption-free, transparent and accountable leadership from organisations that pretend to be partners in a fight against crime. UNESCO and the German government deserve credit for putting it into the draft declaration that better governance in sport is indispensable for sport to keep its autonomy and for the combat against manipulation of competitions.

No binding agreements on the table

However, in spite of the good intentions of UNESCO’s Director-General and the German hosts, there are so far no binding agreements on the negotiation table. The draft declaration has all the right words and – so far – none of the required mutual commitments. Every single issue is, at the end of the day, left to more or less spontaneous self-regulation.

If you took a snapshot on the geopolitical situation of sport just 7-8 years ago, you would find a picture of complete inactivity in the field of sports corruption, and if you added a soundtrack you would only hear the sound of silence.

Today, the taboos have been broken, and all the rights words and ideas are discussed frequently and intensely at all levels of policy making. In that sense, the world has been moving in a positive direction.

But there are still no rules that bind neither the sports leaders nor the sports politicians in the same way that they bind their athletes.

It took decades for politicians and sports officials to accept binding rules and laws for the anti-doping efforts to make progress. Today, everybody hesitates to do the same in the anti-corruption arena.

If we take a snapshot today, for how many years will it take for the picture to start moving?