PtG Article 09.06.2020

The man who blew the whistle on his own corruption

A new report documents a “tyranny of cash” and widespread corruption in international weightlifting. It confirms journalistic investigations published over the past decade. Most surprisingly, the first to reveal the corruption was the sport’s president and perpetrator himself.

One of the biggest shocks in my career as a sports political hang-around took place on 22 February 2011, at the magnificent Grand Ballroom of Hotel Corinthia Budapest, with its gold-plated stucco, voluminous chandeliers, and oil-paintings of the Hungarian elite from previous centuries looking at us from above the mirror dressed walls.

Here, the second day of the EU Sport Forum was well underway, gathering all sides of European sport, federations, Olympic committees, ministries, fan groups, anti-doping agencies – and quite a few of the 450 participants had their mind set on the upcoming dinner as a seemingly endless debate with 14 panelists was finally drawing to a close.

Then, a small man with a rounded body asked for the floor, stood up on the thick woven carpet, grabbed the microphone, welcomed us to his native country before delivering the most astonishing series of declarations.

“We have, we have to talk about corruption,” he insisted. Sport had become a very important source of income “in both civilised and uncivilised countries.”

“Corruption is an increasing trend in sport,” he said. “Purchasing positions applies to all areas of sport, and even the doping controls and the doping laboratories are tainted by corruption”.

He referred to the idea of creating an agency against sports corruption and sent a strong appeal to the EU Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou:

“Madam Commissioner, I will emphatically ask you not to neglect this issue. We have to bring publicity into this, we have to open up this issue to the public, because the public is the best remedy for stopping the spreading of corruption.”

Referring to his 45 years in sport he said he could – but did not want to – “give you specific examples in any area of sport.”

“There is no sports organisation today where the appointment to important posts would not be tainted by corruption. In some countries, money seems to be growing on trees, and these countries can buy positions in places where they have no professional influence.”

The speaker was Tamás Aján, president of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), honorary member of the International Olympic Committee, and a part of world sport’s power circles since 1975.

That such a high-ranking member of the Olympic family would spill the beans about sports corruption was sensational in 2011. It was a breach of the omertá – the rule of silence – under which sports leaders had successfully managed to keep the media and the public authorities from looking into their business. The fact that Aján urged the European Union – a public authority – to take action, just emphasised the surprise.

Today, nine years later, Aján’s statements seem even more revealing. Now we know that his words were not only a sharp attack on all sports. They were an accurate description of his own corrupt practices as president of the IWF.

Revelations by German reporter

The corruption first came to light in 2013, when investigative reporter Grit Hartmann exposed in German media and on Play the Game’s website how internal critics at the IWF tried to hold Aján accountable for millions of dollars that were missing in the Swiss bank accounts of the federation. Despite the accusations, Aján was since then re-elected twice as IWF President with overwhelming majority.

The critics tried to report the mismanagement to the IOC and to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The IOC coldly dismissed the complaint, stating it was a matter of internal regulation in the IWF. Later, CAS confirmed that the IOC had a right to deny dealing with the case, as the international federations were autonomous.

Nobody would disturb the corrupt weightlifting leaders, headed by the President, in continuing to cheat with doping procedures and pay out cash rewards before elections.

Not until Grit Hartman joined the German broadcaster ARD’s Sportschau team, which in January 2020 exposed a number of cases of financial mismanagement and manipulation of doping tests. This led the IWF Executive Board to suspend Tamás Aján for 90 days, and to appoint the Canadian lawyer Richard H. McLaren – who previously was in charge of two WADA-investigations into the Russian-international doping scandal – to examine the allegations. On McLaren’s team was, among others, a former forensic investigator in the U.S. tax authority IRS, Steven Berryman, who was also a key figure in the huge investigation of FIFA corruption led by the FBI.

Dysfunctional and ineffective

In spite of the COVID-19 crisis and the reluctance of most IWF officials to cooperate, the team proved effective. On Thursday 4 June, McLaren presented his findings in a report. The conclusions confirmed most of the previous journalistic footwork and is a blow to the credibility of weightlifting and its world body:

  • Tamás Aján has an “autocratic authoritarian leadership” style resulting “in a dysfunctional, ineffective oversight of the organisation by the Executive Board.” Aján “disabled anyone other than himself from understanding the overall affairs of the IWF.”  
  • “The financial records are a jumble of incomplete and inaccurate figures distorted by a failure to accurately record cash expenditures and revenues and disclose hidden bank accounts by Dr. Aján.”  
  • Aján ruled through “the tyranny of cash. Cash collected, cash withdrawn, and cash unaccounted for, which Dr. Aján was the sole collector. The primary sources of this cash were doping fines paid personally to the President and cash withdrawals of large amounts from the IWF’s accounts, usually withdrawn before major competitions or IWF congresses.” 
  • “It is absolutely impossible to determine how much of the cash collected or withdrawn was used for legitimate expenses. The McLaren Independent Investigation Team has determined that 10.4 million USD is unaccounted for.“
  • “The investigation uncovered 40 positive Adverse Analytical Findings hidden in the IWF records. This includes gold and silver medallists who have not had their samples dealt with.”
  • “The two most recent Electoral Congresses were rampant with vote buying for the President and senior level positions of the Executive Board, despite monitoring.”

Legal system of sport should change

If anyone doubted what Aján told the EU Sports Forum in 2011, there is now overwhelming evidence that he shared a truth that he knew better than anyone. He was very exact about weightlifting, but what about the other sports?

If the IOC, CAS, public authorities, and the media are reluctant to intervene in international sports federations, should we then trust sport to police itself?

In the hours after the release of the report, Play the Game asked Richard H. McLaren if the overall legal system of sport should change:

“It probably should, yes. In the case of the IWF, the federation has a very soft and not very well thought out code of conduct which does not give them the necessary provisions to allow proper internal investigations.”

Do you think the IOC failed its obligation to oversee the Olympic federations when the IOC dismissed complaints from IWF insiders back in 2011?

“The response from the IOC back then is standard policy. They think the international federations should handle their own affairs without IOC intervention, unless there is a clear cross-connection. This was not the case here, although the critics at the time, including the current Executive Committee member Antonio Urso from Italy, believed so.”

“They thought that the problem revolved around two Swiss bank accounts to which IOC grants where transferred, but it was not the case. The problem occurred further down the chain, after the money from Switzerland was transferred to Hungary. So the critics had the right idea, but they were barking up the wrong tree.”

Outside agency not needed

As you have through the past years documented corruption and manipulation of anti-doping procedures in athletics, weightlifting and other sports – do you think sport is able to police itself, or is there a need for an outside agency to curb corruption?

“I don’t think an outside agency is needed. International sports federations should be able to set up the necessary procedures that allow independent professionals to oversee them. A good example is World Athletics, who has established a completely independent integrity unit as an attachment to their structure, with full powers to investigate not only doping offenses but all sorts of integrity problems. FIBA in basketball cannot afford a similar structure but has appointed me and my team to serve as an external Integrity Office.”

But if, as a purely theoretical speculation, there should exist sports presidents in other federations with the same appetite for absolute power as Tamás Aján in weightlifting, can we really trust them to appoint truly independent persons?

“I take your point that there could be a problem. It does take a reform-minded president and a reform-minded board and administration to carry out meaningful reform. In the case of the IWF, the Acting President Ursula Papandrea is now facing the task of reforming an organisation which has former Aján supporters and even a known corrupt member on the Executive Board. It will be interesting to see where that goes, but I still don’t think the IOC is the right choice to oversee the federations.”

For the IOC and the IWF, Tamás Aján is now a figure of the past. In March 2020, he left his mandates as IWF President and Honorary Member of the International Olympic Committee. But his legacy will not disappear that easily. He has denied the conclusions in the McLaren report and may take steps to restore his reputation. And who knows if he is now ready to give the specific examples from other sports that he was unwilling to do under the gold-plated stucco in 2011?

Further reading