It was the best of trials. It was the worst of conferences.[email protected]
It was the best of trials. It was the worst of conferences.
Lets start with the best. In Paris, last week, a proverbial rocket hit the world of sport. The former head of the International Athletic Association Federations (IAAF) – Lamine Diack – was convicted of collecting millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.
The actual scheme was shocking. Diack, along with many of his top aides – including his ‘thug’ son (his words) – was running a racket where athletes, coaches and sporting officials could pay to have positive doping tests ‘disappear’.
Richard Pound, a senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) official, said when this affair was beginning to unravel, “it puts in doubt the results of hundreds of track and field events”.
He is right.
This criminal enterprise puts every single track and field result, from the 100 meters to the marathon to the high jump – for sixteen years, through four Olympics and dozens of World Championships, PanAm, Asian and European Games – in doubt. If you were a clean athlete competing during this time, you should be wondering what you were really up against. Two French athletes have already begun a civil lawsuit alleging that their rightful places in competitions, and all the resulting prize and sponsorship money, were stolen by systematic corruption.
And that is what this was – systematic corruption. No overlooking by one particular corrupt official or a mistake at one specific drug test. This was the head of the entire organization taking corrupt payments. It is the bullet in the head to the much promoted (by senior executives) falsehood that corruption is the brainchild of the middle manager or low-ranking athlete and therefore the way to solve the issue is to give these wayward types ‘ethics’ lessons by high-priced consultants.
The Best of Systems. The Worst of Systems.
The criminal trial demonstrated that there were two systems in international track and field. One for the non-connected athlete. One for the bribe-paying, ‘connected’ athlete.
The Stepanovs – Vitaly and Julia – as quoted in David Walsh’s book, “The Russian Affair” (https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Russian-Affair/David-Walsh/9781471158155link), describe it as being like boarding a plane. You turn right, you are in economy class – where no matter your talent, work ethic or even doping regime, you will never quite make it to the podium. Turn left, into business class, and you are in the running for medals. Here is an excerpt after Julia Stepanova began to think about her failure to make the podium in an international competition:
As she (Julia) did the forensics on the loss, it emerged that for some athletes there was a category of service even beyond first class. It seems Portugalaov, a senior Russian official who was running part of the doping program, worked differently with different athletes. Savinova, for example, was in a category that might be called ‘first class plus’. She enjoyed those little extras that made the difference. She was provided with more help and this continued right to the eve of the big race… Savinova was the horse in the stable who was trained to win. This is what she paid extra money for. Yuliya, on the other hand, had been trained to make the podium. It stood to reason, therefore, that Savinova was making a lot more money than Yuliya and could afford to keep paying extra – the system fed itself.
(The Russian Affair: the true story of the couple who uncovered the greatest sporting scandal, David Walsh, Simon and Schuster, London, 2020. pp. 144-145)
Martin Dubbey – the former anti-drugs investigator who uncovered much of the evidence that the French authorities began their work with is on my newly created podcast – CrimeWaves (www.crimewavespodcast.com). Listen to the interview. Dubbey is an extraordinary detective and his assessment – after decades of chasing drug lords and organized mobsters – that there is little difference between them and some sports officials, makes for compelling listening.
“Better if it were Murder or Arson…”
All this wonderful news, contrasted with the corruption trial of high-ranking sports officials that opened in Switzerland. An extraordinary legal case. It is pretty unusual that anyone, at any time, goes on trial for corruption in Switzerland. Particularly in sports, which is pretty much a ‘trial-free zone’, except when the American Department of Justice holds Swiss officials’ feet to the fire. This is the first case, of the many related to “FIFAgate”, that has actually proceeded in the legal system. So this trial is massive.
It features Nasser Al-Khelaifi, one of Qatar’s highest ranking sports official, who also runs the French team, Paris-St-Germain. He is accused of offering a multi-million dollar villa, rent-free, to the former FIFA second-in-command, Jerome Valcke, for the broadcast rights to the World Cups of 2026 and 2030 (which were eventually awarded to Qatar).
The trial is exceptional but what is even stranger is that the Qatari football executive, while he was under arrest, was allowed to sit on the board of directors of the other major international football organization in Switzerland – UEFA.
In the words of one senior sports official I spoke to, ‘It is bad enough that UEFA allows a man who is criminally charged to sit on the board. But he is charged with sporting corruption at an international football organization, and he is being invited into another international football organization?! It would have been better if he had been charged with murder or arson ….’
New UEFA, the old FIFA?
We have to presume – until the verdicts are announced – that the Qatari executive is completely innocent and that all this talk of rent-free villas is simply a cultural misunderstanding. However, UEFA’s choices do shatter the Cesar’s Wife – “not only must she be virtuous, she must be seen to be virtuous” – principle that is supposed to hold sway in international agencies.
This, along with the other UEFA board members with questionable backgrounds, begs the question: has the new UEFA become the old FIFA?
The Conference of the Deluded, Desperate and Disappointing
Just before the start of these two trials, the sports integrity world was afflicted by yet another conference from that ridiculous group, Sports Integrity Global Alliance (SIGA). SIGA was founded and is partly funded by the Qataris and their teams of foreign, media-advising executives. It, now, receives money and support from other agencies, but the conference itself – online in these days of Covid-19 – was a strange event, filled with cliches, hyperbole and hot air about the need for ethics in sports.
It all had a whiff of what John Oliver and other progressive types call ‘Astro-Turfing’. Where a large corporation sets up a ‘grass-roots’ organization to empower change.
The weirdest example was the panel set up to discuss human trafficking in sport. An impartial observer might think, “Well, that’s a pretty easy subject to discuss! Human Rights Watch has just issued a report that – yet again – points out the suffering of hundreds of thousands of labourers building the sporting infrastructure in Qatar.”
(https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/08/24/how-can-we-work-without-wages/salary-abuses-facing-migrant-workers-ahead-qatars FIFA World Cup 2022)
Strangely, the SIGA delegates claimed that all was well in Qatar. One proclaimed that a new resolution had been signed and all those workers – whom Human Rights and Amnesty International claim are still being oppressed – See AI’s “World Cup of Shame”….. – are being well-treated.
You might have thought that with the fate of hundreds-of-thousands of people at stake there would be debate about this issue but there was no more discussion about Qatar’s role in potential human trafficking in sports.
Nor did they have, at a ‘sports integrity’ conference, a panel on all the allegations that surround the Qataris – including the Swiss trial – and corruption in sports. A pretty notable absence. It’s not like Qatar’s reputation is unknown in the sports world. Heck! Even Wikipedia has a page devoted to the controversies and scandals linked to the Qatar World Cup of 2022. It goes on for some five-thousand-plus words and has seventy-nine citations.
Some of this resounding silence may have to do with the fact that SIGA is, effectively, an offshoot of that other alphabet soup of a group, ICSS – International Centre for Sports Security, also founded by the Qataris. Indeed, the launch of that organization featured a keynote speech by Mohammad Bin Hammam who, four months later, was thrown out of FIFA for allegedly offering bribes.
A few years later, the investigative website, Mediapart, showed that at ICSS conferences on sports integrity (No, I am not making this up. There is such a thing as irony overload.) some of their officials were breaking into delegates’ rooms and hacking their computers.
The state of affairs in Qatar and sports integrity is so bad that German football official, Theo Zwanziger, who was delegated to work with them, gave up after eleven months, declaring publicly that “Qatar is a cancer on world football” and that they effectively corrupted everything they touched.
The Qataris quickly sued Zwanziger for defamation. Just as quickly, a German court threw the charges out, saying in effect, “We are not saying Zwanziger is correct in his opinion. It is just that it is not an unreasonable opinion to have…”
So why would anyone in the sports integrity world have anything to do with the Qataris and one of their organizations?
For some delegates the answer might be that they were deluded – they did not know that SIGA had been founded by the Qataris.
Other SIGA delegates may be so desperate that they will grasp at any fig leaf of respect. Some of this desperation is due to their disappointment that there are so few other organizations funding any discussion of sports integrity.
I understand, but I have no sympathy. Part of the reason there are few other institutions in the sports integrity world is that these Qatari-founded organizations have sucked up enormous amounts of resources and discussions. And while these desperate delegates sit and make speeches about ‘ethics’ and ‘integrity’ – outside under the baking hot, Qatari sun are hundreds of thousands of people still toiling away.
Meanwhile, the best fight against potential sports corruption is being fought by police and prosecutors in trials across the world.