Corruption, fraud and fixed matches. It is high time that sport stopped being a lawless zone.
2016 was promising to be a year to be remembered in sporting history, being marked by the Olympic Games in Rio and the UEFA Euro in France. However it risks going down in history not for its sporting achievements but for the unprecedented scandals that have cast a shadow over these events.
Sport cannot remain immune to the global risks of the 21st century. The attacks of 13th Novembver 2015 at the Stade de France were a reminder that sport is a priority target for Islamic terrorism. However, sport is less threatened by external conflicts than by its own vagaries. In the 50s, Albert Camus was able to state: “Everything I know about morality I owe to football.” Today he would write, “Everything I know about corruption I owe to football.”
First of all, 2015 was marked by the fall of FIFA, which had become crooked and autocratic. Sepp Blatter, who was re-elected in May for a fifth term of office after having been on the payroll of the organsation for forty years, built up a system of governance based on bribes. Since his election in 1998, the sums he misappropriated for the attribution of the World Cup venue have been estimated at more than 150 million dollars. They culminated in the choice of Qatar for 2018 and Russia for 2022. It was only the intervention of American justice that managed to break down the barrier of impunity, obliging Blatter to resign. And Blatter brought Michel Platini down with him.
More anecdotally, the French national football team has again featured in the scandal columns. An earlier story about footballers using underage prostitutes gave way to a bad remake of Sex, Lies and Video: a sex tape affair involving Mathieu Valbuena which was coupled with an attempt to blackmail Karim Benzema. In face of the extortion attempt, Noël le Graët contented himself with removing Benzema temporarily from the team, saying that he “deplored playground behavior.” Can any teacher can still be trusted to look after young people when leading officials show such contempt for the law?
Athletics is not untouched either. The former president of the IAAF, Lamine Diack, casually admitted receiving 1.5 million dollars from Russia to finance Macky Sall’s 2012 presidential campagin against Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal. This was in exchange for keeping quiet about state-sponsored doping in Russia. In all points, the situation could be comparable to Kenya. This led the World Anti-doping Agency to denounce “a real culture of corruption, embedded in the IAAF.”
For good measure, match fixing came to light last year in tennis and handball, as well the fact that tennis and rugby officials were reselling (at inflated prices) complimentary tickets issued to federations. Finally, Bernie Ecclestone, the godfather of F1, chose to make a deal by paying out 100 million dollars in order to end his trial for bribery in Germany.
The unbelievable accumulation of such stories shows that, aside from the towering ambition of athletes and the base attitudes of numerous officials, there is something rotten in the state of sport. The explanation is simple. Sport has kept the rules and habits of the amateur world whilst becoming professionalized, finance-fueled and globalized. It has neither the principles, the governance nor the skills needed to underpin its ethics. It has built up a bubble outside the law and above nations, which enables the IOC and the most powerful federations to amass colossal royalties (4 to 6 billlion dollars for FIFA during a World Cup, 1 billlion euros for UEFA during a Euro), while all costs and risks are borne by the countries or cities that host the events. Sport has an annual turnover of 500 billion dollars, added to which is the development of e-sport (with a 500-million-dollar income). It is one of the few sectors of activity that resists any crisis. For this remarkable boom to continue, its competitive events need to regain credibility. This means a real revolution, based on the return of sport to the rule of law.
Professional sport is an economic activity that comes under the common law affecting companies, trade and the Stock Exchange; it must be controlled by the public authorities so as to ensure the regularity of sporting events and to avoid betting fraud. The federations must take a thorough look into their governance. Political orientation must be dissociated from management, as must control over sanctions imposed on athletes, the prevention of doping, and the source of funds. The latter must be the responsibility of independent bodies financed by media rights. The corrupt gerontocracy that rules by mutual coopting must be vigorously broken down by electoral control, by the systematic introduction of age limits and limits to the holding of multiple offices over a certain period of time, and by the declaration and tracking of officials’ wealth. Finally, legality and justice must be reestablished so as to stamp out any criminal activities and any mafia system.