The politics of greed: Is corruption ruining the image of global sports?

by  — 10 March 2016

As many world sports suffer from one scandal – match-fixing or bribery – to the next, athletes, officials and tournament hosts are counting the rising cost of cheating and corruption. Unexpected stakeholders – event sponsors - are now emerging to restore tattered reputations, but is it already too late in the game? asks Mark van Dijk.

Then the International Sports Press Association (AIPS) conference opened in Doha’s Sheraton Hotel last month, sport itself – the ins and outs of actually playing it, or other involvement in organisation sporting competitions – was not at the top of the agenda. Instead of discussing Leicester City’s unexpected English Premier League title bid or the upcoming ICC World Twenty20 cricket tournament, the AIPS delegates focused on a topic that has dominated recent headlines: corruption.

“The economic activity of sport represents almost two percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) and between EUR800 billion (QAR3.2 trillion) and EUR900 billion (QAR3.6 trillion),” said Massimiliano Montanari, chief of cabinet at Qatar-based anti-corruption watchdog group, the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) before pointing to the ‘numerous scandals’ that currently surround world sport, from tennis match fixing to the ongoing corruption scandal at world football’s governing body, FIFA.

Had Montanari chosen to list all the current alleged shennanigans in world sports, his soliliquoy could have been epic. For example, during the course of the previous days, a young Belgian cyclist had been caught concealing a motor in the frame of her bike during the Cyclo-cross World Championships; a veteran South African cricket player had been banned for 20 years for match-fixing; and two Kenyan athletes had accused a senior official of asking them for a bribe to reduce their four-year doping bans. More recently the tennis world has been embroiled in headline-making match- fixing scandals and has launched an independent enquiry into what seems to be systemic corruption in that sport.

Numerous scandals currently surround world sports, from tennis match-fixing to the ongoing corruption scandal at world football’s governing body, FIFA.

Qatar, the host nation of the AIPS conference, too, had recently been subjected to new allegations of sports corruption relating to the country’s successful bid for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) champions, to add, of course, to ongoing allegations of graft around the state’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup. The latter allegations had became a key talking point in the lead-up to FIFA’s presidential elections in Zurich at the end of February. South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale (who has since bowed out when the Gianni Infantino was elected as new president) was one of five candidates to replace Sepp Blatter as FIFA president, and had vowed to strip Qatar of the right to host the tournament if evidence emerged that bribes were used in the bidding process.

Ironically, Sexwale was part of the organising committee for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which – according to the United States (US) and Swiss investigators – paid a USD10 million (QAR36 million) bribe to buy the North and Central American votes controlled by former FIFA regional chief Jack Warner.  



South Africa – like Qatar, and any other bid candidate – had clear incentives for wanting to stage world sport’s biggest event. Scarlett Cornelissen, a professor in the Department of Political Science at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, outlined those incentives in Transparency International’s recent Global Corruption Report: Sport.

Speaking exclusively to The Edge, Cornelissen explains, “One of the main motivations regards international status and prestige. A lot of so-called ‘smaller’ states, or emerging states, are making bids for these big events. Many are rapidly growing economies, with capital to throw around. They are trying to leverage that capital to make up for other shortcomings, in terms of hard power and so forth. For these states, these events are ways of gaining ‘soft power’ or prominence within the international system. I would imagine that Qatar falls into that category.”

But if Qatar – or Russia, or South Africa or any other such state – hopes to raise its international profile through hosting a major sporting event, surely it would be doubly damaging if it were to emerge that it acted unethically to win the bid for whatever big event it was scheduled to host. Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University’s Centre for Sports Business, believes that – guilty or not – some of that damage may already have been done.

“With the FIFA presidential election pending and ongoing investigations by the authorities – like the FBI – taking place, these are somewhat uncertain times for the Qatar World Cup, and indeed for Russia, for other bidding nations and for FIFA in general,” Chadwick tells The Edge. “For each of these parties, I think there has already been some reputational damage caused in certain parts of the world. No matter what each country may or may not have done, such was the poor state of FIFA governance at the time of the 2018/2022 bids, that all are somehow perceived by various people as having somehow been complicit in the unacceptable bidding processes.”

Sponsors, are emerging as the great hope for cleaning up world sport’s cheating and corruption problems.

The danger for countries, even if they believe themselves to be innocent of any wrongdoing, is the actions of rogue actors or even just ongoing poor perceptions exacerbated by continued but ultimately baseless negative media spin. “My concern for Qatar is that the country might be singled out,” adds Chadwick, “while other larger, more established or more influential countries come out of this affair in much better shape. As such, Qatar needs to be prepared for this kind of scenario. It must remain vigilant to the outcomes of current investigations and be ready to carefully manage any negative fallout from them. To an extent, such outcomes are likely to be partly dependent upon who becomes the next FIFA president.”

All of this of course, comes in the middle of allegations that Doha’s successful bid to stage the 2019 World Athletics Championships had been referred to the IAAF ethics committee. Nevertheless, following its successful bid for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is now looking to host the world’s second largest sporting event. Speaking on the sidelines of February’s AIPS conference, Qatar Olympic Committee secretary general Dr. Thani Al Kuwari confirmed the country’s target to fly the five-ringed flag above Doha. “All the facilities are going to be ready for everything, especially after 2022, the facilities almost 99 percent are ready. Also, the logistics for those facilities are completed, so why not? You never know. Maybe 2028.”



When cities and states bid to host these high-profile sports events, they certainly do not do so for profit. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi cost Russia USD51 billion (QAR185 billion). The 2014 FIFA World Cup cost Brazil USD11.6 billion (QAR42.2 billion). The EUR9 billion (QAR37 billion) cost of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens triggered Greece’s dramatic economic collapse, while the 1976 Montreal Olympics almost bankrupted the city (it took Montreal 30 years to settle its Olympic debts).

But the ICSS’s Montanari was correct to point to the vast economic influence of the global sports industry. Ironically, given the vast amounts of purported ‘dirty’ money at play, sponsors are emerging as the great hope for cleaning up world sport’s cheating and corruption problems. For example, Dutch bank ING terminated its sponsorship deal with the Renault Formula 1 racing team after a race-fixing incident at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix.

Other cases include German sportswear company Puma, which ended its deal with the South African Football Association after FIFA found that four of the national team’s games in 2010 had been fixed. In the wake of world cycling’s doping crisis, sportswear company Skins terminated its sponsorship deal with the sport’s governing body Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and sued two UCI officials for USD2 million (QAR7.2million), claiming damage to its brand. Last month, Adidas and Nestlé both prematurely ended their commercial relationships with the IAAF over fears that doping scandals and corruption could damage their brands.

Chadwick calls this ‘market-driven morality’. “Sponsors currently seem to perceive that there is some pressure upon them to take action, either to moderate or change socially unacceptable behaviours by terminating their sponsorship deals,” he tells The Edge. “Such a decision, though, seems to be based on sponsors making judgements about what is and isn’t acceptable: in other words, serving as moral arbiters on behalf of their customers. As such, we see some sponsors terminating deals in the light of doping cases, but not in the light of corruption.”

Rather than being driven by morality, sponsors, he goes on to explain, are taking decisions based upon the perceived impact an incident or problem may have for them and their brands. “Morality is being driven by the market, and by market pressures,” furthers Chadwick. “My view is that this is somewhat cynical and creates inconsistencies in sponsor responses to different cases of transgression. I think sponsors need to start thinking rather more clearly about their positioning and how they stand on key issues such as doping. Furthermore, I think they need to publicly express their position, both to reassure their customers, but also as a means of threat to those who engage in transgressive behaviours.”

Of course, many of the above-mentioned allegations must yet be proven. Similarly, it remains to be shown, for example whether any alleged bribes in ‘brown envelopes’, came from official sources, or from other, independent, interested parties. “When it comes to this kind of corruption, it’s usually small groups of ‘boosters’: a collection of businesspeople who push aggressively to make these bids succeed,” says Cornelissen. “Unfortunately, it’s been the case that at organisations like FIFA and the IOC, the bidding process is not very transparent.”

This at the very least opens up grey areas and at worst says Cornelius, creates opportunity for graft and for money being exchanged. “The IOC has cleaned up their business. The bidding process for the Olympic Games is more transparent now, in the wake of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics bidding scandal,” Cornelissen concludes,“It’s likely that FIFA will also improve now, because of the scandals that have hit the organisation. If so, that would be good for international sports.”

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