The Sickness of the “Sports Integrity Industry”

Nothing has changed.

On December 2, 2010 at 4.10 p.m. the ex-President of FIFA Sepp Blatter opened an envelope and pulled out the names of Russia and Qatar to host the 2018/2022 World Cups.

Since that time a flood of cliches, talking points and outright nonsense has swept over the sports integrity industry but little has changed in the real world.

There is still a flow of coffins back to rural communities in Nepal filled with their men killed in the construction of the World Cup infrastructure in Qatar.

There is still the existence in Qatar of what Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have called “modern-day slavery”. Extraordinary. We live in 2022 – not 1822. Yet this year, the infrastructure of the world’s largest sporting tournament has been built, in large part, by this kind of indentured labour.

The Russians were revealed in 2014 to have constructed a state-sponsored system of doping of athletes. Many of their top-level sports people had few practical choices but to dope. After years of investigations, reports and TV documentaries – few people inside the world of anti-doping think that the tide of artificial stimulants has been solved.

In match-fixing and corruption, I have interviewed top match-fixers, ex-fixers and their close contacts over the last six months – none of them said that their work has been seriously hindered.

And, perhaps most tragically of all, the silent plague of sexual abuse on young, impressionable athletes still continues.

There have been some criminal cases. Police and prosecutors have brought racketeering and organized crime charges against sports officials in Europe, North and Latin America. At the heart of each of these cases is that the claim that large sections of the international sports world is fundamentally corrupted. The prosecutors even managed to get convictions of some officials – but essentially nothing has changed.

Why not?

It is partly because of that tide of good sounding words. The conferences where much is said and little is done. This white-washed wall of cliches has provided a perfect shelter for business as usual in sports.

Building the Wall

The Qataris, for example, have founded a series of sports integrity agencies one of whose main purposes is, in my opinion, to make sure that everything can be discussed except the corruption allegations or human rights charges against the Qataris. If a speaker were to go to one of their events – often held in nice places like Paris or the Portuguese Rivera – they could say all they wanted about racism in U.S. sport – but almost nothing about the cover-up of sexual assault in Doha or Qatari royals refusing to acknowledge female referees on one of their soccer fields nor about the 6,000+ premature deaths of the labourers that the Guardian estimates have died on the construction of their sports infrastructure.

The Qataris have also, according to the Associated Press, contracted ex-CIA agents to conduct covert operations against their critics. Potential rivals were allegedly targeted in honey-pot traps, communications set-ups and media manipulation. One unknowing American academic was paid thousands of dollars to write articles attacking the United States bid for the World Cup. Unbeknownst to him the whole thing was a sophisticated false flag job.

The Russians brought the attack against the revelation of their state-sponsored doping to an even higher level. They engaged in a diplomatic take-over of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This is not a new tactic. They and the Communist Chinese have also done similar things at the International police agency – Interpol – using it to target domestic human rights activists with arrest warrants designed for drug dealers and sex offenders.

At the UNODC, the Russians put in a Putin-loyal diplomat (there are few others) whose previous job had been defending the nuclear poisoning of a dissident in a London restaurant. Between 2012-2019, they pumped millions-of-dollars into the perennially cash-strapped agency. In return, it pumped out thousands of pages of reports on sports integrity. Strangely, on very few of those pages was there any mention that the Russians had been named by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as running a government sanctioned doping program.

However, according to the Swiss judicial authorities the Russians stepped up to outright espionage. In a September 2016 meeting in Lausanne between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and WADA to try to sooth tensions after a year of doping revelations. Russian spies used the opportunity to break into the delegates rooms while they were downstairs fighting to preserve sporting integrity (Full disclosure – I was one of the people there).

To be fair, the Russian spies were only copying the tactics, according to French journalists at Mediapart, of the Qatari sports integrity agency – ICSS – who invited some of their sporting rivals to a conference on integrity and promptly hacked their computers.

No Compromise

Nicola Gratteri was angry. I was listening to him in the 19th-century theater in Reggio Emilia, northern Italy. He was, as always, surrounded by bodyguards. Their eyes scanned the room for possible threats. Gratteri is a tough, confident man but he is constantly ready for any attack. He has good reason to be careful. He is an anti-mafia prosecutor in the organized crime drenched area of Calabria, southern Italy. Many of his colleagues, predecessors and sources have been murdered. His mobster enemies are powerful. One criminal group that he has fought against – the ‘Ndrangheta – is estimated to be the fifth largest economic entity in the country – bigger than most of its banks, insurance companies and oil conglomerates.

An audience member asked Gratteri how, after the Italian state had spent so much money and so many resources in a decades-long war with them, could organized crime still be so powerful?

He replied, “They have been helped by too many people: lawyers, accountants or other financial agents. These people have nice jobs. They do good things in the rest of their lives but when they want to, they work to legitimize the mafia. Organized crime could not survive without those people.”

Qatar and Russia’s sports integrity agencies are not mafia organizations. But it is time that the sports integrity industry deals properly with these and others human-rights challenged countries. They and their agencies have been helped by a whole series of academics, consultants and journalists who have accepted sponsorship, support or aid from them.

I strongly believe that this is the wrong approach. You cannot, in my opinion, lecture about sports integrity and ethics while on public taxpayers money, and accept funding from human rights challenged governments.

It is perilously close to “sports washing”. This is the term coined by human rights activists. It means using sports as a way of giving credibility and positive images to problematic regimes.

It is also in direct contrast with the many young athletes – like the Norwegian or German men’s soccer teams or this Australian swimmer – who have risked their careers to call out the activities of these regimes.

The Blueprint for Change

“You know happens. It starts with good intentions but then they let everyone into the debate,” the speaker was a veteran of the sports integrity industry. We were speaking this week about yet another organization that has popped up in the last few years ostensibly to help fight for clean sports. “Then there are all these different people in the room and the agenda gradually changes. The words are great, but no action is ever taken.”

I write in this article about the “sports integrity industry”. Make no mistake – it is an industry. Each year, there are conferences, events, grants, articles and books worth millions-of-dollars. The moral outcomes and verdicts produced by the industry are worth hundreds-of-millions of dollars. If you are a tournament organizer or sports official, you want to ensure that your event/league has a virtuous image. Thus the industry has all kinds of people trying to influence those outcomes. So like any industry, sports integrity needs clear regulation. Here are two, very simple, rules to start the process:

  1. All sponsorship, including travel, research and honorarium/ salaries, should be openly declared by all sports integrity speakers/researchers. This is what is done in public health. Since the revelations in the 1990s of widespread tobacco sponsorship of medical research, most researchers begin their conference presentations/articles with a declaration of who/where they have received money from. It does not have to be complicated. A one-page form should suffice. But it should be done so that the public and media can understand the funding sources.
  2. All conferences and events sponsored by the Qataris, Russians or other human rights challenged governments and their agencies should be boycotted. This is not to avoid debate – it can be done in neutral venues with no financial support given – but it does ensure that there is no inadvertent sports washing.

Good-bye to Play the Game

Finally, a deeply-painful moment. Because of the reasons outlined above it is time to say good-bye to a Danish organization whom I have liked for years – Play the Game. In 2009, they were even kind enough to honour me with an award for my investigations into match-fixing in professional football/soccer.

However, after years of trying to coax them into asking their speakers to declare their financial support, I feel it is time to part ways. At their conference this week, there will be a number of presenters who have received money from the Qataris, Russians, Communist Chinese, Saudi Arabians and other groups. The public taxpayers – who pay for these events – and media will not know who they are. There are no disclosure forms. There has been, aside from my requests, little discussion about this issue.

I have had a sad argument with their international director – Jens Sejer Andersen. He came out in support of some of the people who have received money from the Qatari agencies, the Communist Chinese and the Russian controlled UNODC. During our correspondence he revealed that he had also worked with the Communist Chinese and gone to conferences sponsored by the Qatari agencies on sports integrity. My reply – and I paraphrase ironically – “How do that work out for you? How did it work out of the millions of oppressed people in those countries?” – was not appreciated.

Thus it is time for me to separate myself from friends, colleagues and professional opportunities at Play the Game. I do not do this with a light heart – but someone inside the world of sports integrity must stand up and ask for clear, simple rules to be followed. I can do it because I have received that award for my work. If others were to do it, it would not have the same effect.

It is time for change in the sports world. Millions of people around the world – the fans, the abused athletes, the indentured labourers – need us to fight clearly for change. It will not happen if we continue business as usual.

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Comments (3)

  • Martin Schultz Reply

    Given PTG has been at the fore of the anti-corruption movement in sport for the past 25 years, I don’t think you should cut ties with the entire organisation over this. You can disagree with their stance, but no one’s taking brown paper bags full of money under the table. You’re on the same side.

    June 27, 2022 at 8:21 am
    • [email protected] Reply

      Top man, Martin. Must agree to disagree on this one. No financial disclosure of speakers. Working with the Communist Chinese and Qataris. And enabling the enablers. Not good enough. If I don’t raise the issue in this way, it will get buried and nothing will change. All good wishes, Declan

      June 27, 2022 at 10:29 pm
  • Neil King Reply

    I agree with you Declan. I’m reminded of the rapid growth of the anti-doping industry to ‘tackle’ doping. There’s been little or no progress but we do have many more organisations, initiatives, regulations, staff, labs, conferences etc. etc. Much like the ‘Health’ industry, aka the ‘illness industry’. There is no profit found in healthy people. Sports integrity? It would be a start if organisations tackling a lack of integrity actually behaved with integrity, and that means saying no to ‘bad influences’.

    October 19, 2023 at 5:09 pm

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