Someone is not happy with their job, perhaps even their life. They work longer hours than they want too, for less money than they need, while being overlooked for promotion, better careers, more attractive life partners. This wasn’t the way their life was supposed to pan out.
They just want to come home, leave life at the front door, turn on their favourite sport, and enter another world. The back page world. Where there are heroes, villains, but no one dies. Where you can howl at the sky, let go of everything you have in you, but instead of the cops getting called, it’s to support your team, your colours, your nation.
The Olympics are a few weeks of bliss for this kind of fan. A pause on normal life when the mortgage payments are less important than someone you had never heard of winning a Judo medal.
As a sport’s fan you are willing to have your emotions manipulated, bank balance exploited, and heart broken, just for that different feel, a snort of Karl Marx’s opium for the masses. All you ask for is for the sport to be fair. Not fair, fair. Sport fair. It isn’t fair your team has to play against Steph Curry or Lionel Messi, but that Messi and Curry are playing under the same conditions as the poor sods on your team.
Maybe they were never fair. Maybe that was just a myth that romantic old sports journalists sold us as they sat around typewriters swimming in cigar smoke looking for the perfect literary metaphor to explain the contest.
Sport is not fair. Worse, it is corrupt.
Baur au Lac has been a classy hotel in Switzerland for 170 years. It is a hotel for the one percenters. It overlooks the Alps while keeping its toes close enough to dip into the financial heart of Zurich. In May of last year, plain clothes officers entered it and Sport was changed forever. Not because football, or FIFA, invented sports corruption, but because the officers were from the FBI. Suddenly sport wasn’t a woman running past another woman, or even a man on PEDs beating a clean man. It was criminal on a federal level. Sepp Blatter wasn’t leaving the hotel in handcuffs in super slow motion with a rousing orchestral soundtrack behind him, but this scene was as much sport as the long jump.
And while it gained worldwide attention, because of the money and the FBI, sport has a problem everywhere.
The NFL now has feature films made about how they tried to shut down talk of the CTE injuries their players were receiving. Not to mention whatever happened during Ballghazi. Then there is the Olympics, in which Andrew Jennings was exposing corruption well before he was doing so at Fifa, and still is. The IAAF has their former chief in a near constant battle over bribery and far worse. Not to mention people are putting motors in bikes now. And then there is tennis and cricket, both involved in match fixing and betting. In the case of tennisthey appeared to clean their hands of it, in the case of cricket it’s been linked back to a relative of the man who ran the game. Not to mention the four cricketers who have gone to jail for spot fixing.
If your sport’s governing body’s initials are merged to create a word, chances are your sport has been involved in something dodgy.
Even if you haven’t heard of the governing body, or maybe don’t even consider it a sport, like Chess, chances are it has had trouble with corruption. So has badminton, speed skating and darts.
Sport is in such bad shape that bookmakers, forever the bogeyman in the proverbial cupboard, and still illegal in many countries, are now an ally in fighting corruption. Legal bookmakers are defrauded and often unravel it all through betting patterns on games. They don’t care if sport is tainted, they care that they are being ripped off. There is something very wrong when a betting company takes suspicious activity more seriously than a sport.
Sport is in trouble, and that is well before drugs are taken into account.
Transparency International, a group that has been founded to solely look into corruption around the world, recently released a 363-page document about corruption in sport. Three hundred and sixty-three pages and it’s not comprehensive, it’s an entree of sports corruption.
Sports make annually somewhere between 120 and 200 billion dollars. That isn’t a past time; that’s an unstoppable industry. Often it’s international nature makes legal matters tricky. It’s often ruled over by unaccountable amateurs or biased team owners. Taxes are often waived. Fans are more into it than they are politics. And governments help fund it.
It was a mix of sport, power and politics that pressured Sebastian Coe, the newly elected IAAF chairman. Coe has come into his position as something as a reformer, everyone knows the trouble his predecessor is in, everyone knows of the problems with Russian athletics and it was a big job.
One; he started while still on the Nike payroll. A payroll he was on during the previous 38 years as well. Meaning for Coe, it wasn’t a big deal. Why would he think it would be? He has been trained through sport to think that everyone is OK outside of being caught doping and cheating.
Nike hasn’t been caught doing that. Of course, they did hand a contract to serial drug cheat Justin Gatlin. And they also backed their coach, Alberto Salazar, when the USADA has spent three years trying to nail him.
Let us just imagine that Nike was squeaky clean, and all they were was a major sponsor of the sport itself. It still wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, be okay for Coe to be involved with them. They are a sponsor; how can he be seen purely as a man for the IAAF when a sponsor is paying him? It’s an obvious conflict of interest, but Coe didn’t see it that way, because in Coe’s world, this is how it works.
But it didn’t just stop there; Coe got his position through votes secured by Papa Massata Diack, who is currently on the run from Interpol. The same man who Coe received an email about, fully explaining Diack’s many alleged crimes. Coe forwarded that email to the IAAF ethics committee. But, according to him, he didn’t read the attachments. Before these latest claims came out, Channel 4’s Jon Snow interviewed Coe and put the question to him about Coe claiming not to know anything about the state of drug taking in Russia. “There are only two choices here – asleep on the job, or corrupt.”
Coe is a legend of athletics and British sport. He is known as the man that made the London Olympics work. He is known as a man of integrity. And yet now he is also known as someone who, at best, has his head in the sand.
One of the most respected men in world cricket is a man called Rahul Dravid. An Indian cricket legend. But more than that; a man of dignity, of grace, of class. When he speaks, which is rarely, he speaks quietly, but people listen. He is the exact sort of person that should be involved with the running of cricket.
Rahul Dravid is also the current Vice President of Indian Cements, a company that has been assisting him since he was a teenager. That company is owned and run by N Srinivasan. Srinivasan is also a cricket administrator. When he was secretary of the BCCI, he was part of the group that had the constitution changed so he could own an IPL franchise. It would be that one moment that ended his reign seven years later when the Supreme Court of India ousted him from his post as BCCI president for conflict of interest. Srinivasan’s biggest crime wasn’t being involved with fixing, that was the crime of his son in law (a man Srinivasan brought in to run his IPL team). Srinivasan’s crime was a botched early hearing clearing said son in law, and ultimately the team he owned, of wrongdoing. He didn’t fix, rather he allowed fixing to go unpunished while aiding his own personal interests.
So imagine now Dravid retired from cricket and went straight into cricket administration. He would have been expected to help clean up a mess that involved a company, and man, that was still his employer.
Sports fans often don’t care about what happens off the field, telling themselves it doesn’t affect actions on it. But it does. If these men (and let’s be honest here, it’s almost always men) are willing to make big decisions that corrupt the sport, you know that small decisions made behind closed doors are suspect as well.
In cricket all the major tournaments are scheduled to be hosted by the main three nations; Australia, England and India. If there is a formal bidding process, it is not one that is made public. Events just seem to be decided. Other than the obvious reasons why the biggest three nations would want a home event, the home side has a massive home advantage compared to most sports. In the last three ICC run one-day events, five of the six teams that made the finals were hosts or co-hosts of the tournament. And on top of that now the ICC has admitted to fixing their major tournament draws so that India can play Pakistan at every juncture.
Fixtures at sporting events are supposed to be so pure that they are done via ball draws to prove they aren’t biased. These are openly and honestly altered so cricket can make more money.
That’s just not cricket, and it’s not just cricket. Officials in all sports are tinkering things in the corridors and offices of their headquarters. They are making decisions that change the results of matches, often in secret, often without full explanation, and they get away with it.
The problem with sports fans is that we already think the world is against us. We already believe that it is our team the refs hate, our team that gets the raw deal, our team is the victim of some sporting conspiracy meant to defraud our personal enjoyment. We are all wearing tin foil hats when what we should be doing is looking beyond our team, our nation, our favourite athlete, and at the very way the sport is run.
And there are so many reasons why sports get corrupted. In professional sport, your worth, your future earnings, are predicated on your performance. Much more than a regular job. Put a whole team like that together and ethics slip into the shadows as otherwise good people convince each other that what they are doing is above board, that it’s necessary and that it will help them save their jobs and further their careers.
That is how the Essendon Football Club in Australia convinced themselves that what they were doing was okay when they started taking peptide supplements that were if not illegal, morally suspect. The players knew something was wrong. They asked to sign forms clearing them of any wrongdoing, and one player was told to keep this a secret from their team doctor. The club was not only found guilty of doping but also for breaching the state Occupational health and Safety Act after failing to provide a safe working environment. Essendon is just a team. You put national pride on top of money, and you get a hugely powerful force for evil. In East Germany, they were prepared to mate athletes with each other and have them perform as more drug than athlete. Now Russia’s doping crisis is so big that the Olympics almost entirely banned them.
Teams, brands, nations, they all want glory and all the great things that come with them.
The people who end up running sports start as fans. Fans who want their team to get that glory. Then they end up in charge of the entire sport, a sport run in dark hallways where huge decisions are made without anyone every seeing the details. Then there are the officials who want their team to host and bask in the glory you get from being the centre of attention for a few weeks, while they try and, to use a Transparency International phrase, ‘image launder’ their reputation by hiding undesirable things and people.
Then there is money. Sport has always been a business. Let that soak in for a second, because it’s not something many people admit, but from the first time sport became something that people watched, people have bet on it. Arguably sports first international match was Canada vs USA in cricket, and people paid both to get in and bet on it. That was in 1844. Uniforms, equipment and stadia cost money. Sponsors and ticket sales were superseded by cable TV and broadcast rights, but tickets and sponsors were still business. But now the money is crazy, off the charts, incomprehensible. Players are selling their image rights, TV companies fork out billions of dollars, an Australian footballer changed his name to Whiskas for a sponsorship deal. Sport isn’t business anymore; it is pure money. And there is no part of human experience that hasn’t taught us that money brings in corruption.
And then there is power. Most of the top sport officials are politicians at heart. Power hungry, deceitful, full of self-interest, and often better game players than the athletes they supposedly look after. If you are the head of FIFA, the IOC, or FIBA, you are an internationally respected man (again, always men) that travel in first class and have foreign dignitaries and major industries kissing your feet. Why wouldn’t they do things they shouldn’t to keep their posts, their power, their prestige, their relevance.
No one should be surprised at sporting corruption. We should be surprised we don’t hear more about it.
The reason we don’t is quite simple that sport controls the message. Sports are better at controlling their message than even the most officious despot. They do it through two simple ways, rights issues and access. If you sign a deal to show sport now, quite often on top of paying millions or billions, you also have to agree not to question the running of the sport. Even if it isn’t a signed deal, you are in partnership with the organisation who runs it, making you complicit. And controversies, dirt, scandal etc may affect ratings.
On commentary, the controversies often don’t happen. Very few people inside sport consider commentary as a form of journalism. Watch them run after a ball, don’t look at the boardroom, nothing to see here.
Of course, sports are moving beyond just trusting broadcasters, they are becoming broadcasters. MLB.tv has started a new wave of broadcasting that all sports want; the self-broadcast. Hooking straight into the computers and smartphones of their fans, and taking the money without any need for pesky middlemen, hired mouthpieces and PR people as broadcasters. Then there are their websites, in which they report on themselves. Again, missing out on the most important issues, or shaping the message with spin.
There is also the rest of the media, the majority of it, the non-rights holders and the written press are simply zombie travellers on sport’s gravy train. Sure, a big meaty story on sport corruption sells, but there are precious few investigative journalists in the world that specialise in sport. Most sports journalists turn up at a press conference, transcribe, perhaps slightly editorialise and then go home. On match days they watch the sport, grab a free lunch, then write about the sport while throwing in a few more quotes from a player or coach. If they do break a story, it is because someone has directly leaked it to them, usually for political reasons. Now they could write about the stories they know are out there, but that would mean that the meat and potatoes of their job, getting access to players, officials and stadia, could disappear. They are then in danger of losing their job.
That is the conundrum of modern sports writing. That is why sports’ journalists almost never uncover sport’s biggest stories.
Sports is a government that can control the media that should be reporting on them. And instead of self regulating, they close their eyes.
Dick Pound, founding chairman of WADA, recently spoke of a conversation he had with the PGA chairman Tim Finchem. Pound suggested that as golfers were well known for policing their actions out on the course, perhaps they could be moved into talking about drugs in the sport. According to Pound, Finchem said: “Ah, but if I do that then they are all going to think my guys are just like those baseball players and football players and I don’t want that.”
Better to cover up than be honest.
But it’s getting harder to ignore. Almost every sport has the kind of asterisk sports fans loathe. That nagging thought in the back of your head that something just isn’t right. That what you’re watching isn’t pure, ugly and as corrupt as the rest of life.
By the ‘90s the world had finally had enough of performance-enhanced athletes. In 1999 the World Anti-Doping Agency formed. Maybe it was decades too late, but that group today is an independent organisation that tries to make sure athletes are clean and pure when they take to the field. It is certainly not perfect and seems largely powerless against systemic problems. But they are at least running tests on the blood that runs through sport’s veins.
There is no such organisation looking into sporting corruption. Which as anyone who follows sports news will tell you is just as epidemic as doping was. Every time we flick on the TV, open an app, read a newspaper, we help pay for this corruption.
The very least sport can do is have an organisation like WADA that deals with corruption of all kinds. WADA may not be perfect, and even now their chief, Sir Craig Reedie, is in trouble for sending an email that some see as a tip off to Sergei Bubka about a documentary on the Russain doping system.WADA is at least trying, but if the sport is corrupt from the top then by the time they get the blood tests, it might already be too late.
What sport needs is an organisation that is funded by sport bodies and governments, as WADA is, that does everything it can ensure sport is clean, from bloodstreams to boardrooms. One that can ban sporting officials, penalise sports, organise tournaments ethically and bring in strict rules for better governance. Someone needs to clean up sport, and if it won’t or can’t be the sports themselves, then it has to be someone independent.
On the field, a player has a referee has someone who makes the final call. An athlete, in the heart of battle, cannot always be expected to be trusted on whether they caught the ball, kept inside the line or followed the rules. So sport evolved by having independent officials make those decisions. This is just the next step in sporting evolution.
One athlete is caught doping and we all shake our heads, but entire sports are cheating, behaving unethically or illegally and covering it up, while we yell at a teenager who has dropped a ball.
While sport drops the ball consistently.
If sport was the banana growing industry or pottery, we wouldn’t care. But sport, sport, wow, it is everything to so much of us. Think of all it does for us, how it moves us, the way it makes us cry and laugh. It is the best friend we have ever had, the best lover. It never leaves us, it is always there, it isn’t just another part of life, it is life at its best.
Look at the photo of Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman on the podium in 1966 (below). Really, look at it and try not to feel something. They are standing for an athletic achievement, and yet, by the way they hold themselves, they stand for the human race. They risked their future, and their present glory, and we watched because they ran fast.
Derek Redmond was halfway through the 400m semi-final, on his way to a gold medal race, and then his hamstring blows. His race is meant to end there, but his father runs out onto the track, helps him up and carries him over the finish line. It’s just an injured runner, the vanquished, a loser disqualified, and yet as he leans on his father, it is one of sport’s most beautiful moments.
Jason McCartney was an Australian Rules footballer who was enjoying an end of season trip when terrorists attacked the night club in Bali that he was in. Fast forward 237 days on from the attack, his burns barely healed, he went back out on the field and played one last game, kicked one last goal, and raised his middle finger to terrorism in the process.
When Saki Kumagai slotted a penalty shoot-out kick past Hope Solo the Japanese women’s team became the first Asian team to win a football world cup. But, more importantly, they gave their entire nation, still reeling from the earthquakes that devastated them only four months earlier, that one good news story, that one bit of hope and distraction they needed.
Not to mention all those athletes who have overcome dictators, class systems, racism, misogyny, disabilities, to change the sport and nations they play in. Athletes who pole vaulted through glass ceilings brought joy to the world and changed it.
Then there are the simple everyday sports stories. A kid from the wrong side of the tracks, who takes up sport, becomes rich and famous, inspires and unites a nation. Or the regular kid who uses sport as a way of getting away from the temptations of everyday life. They don’t become a hero, just an ordinary citizen, but are better for the fact that sport simply exists.
Those stories, and the promise of more, is what they use to hook us in. That sporting hit, straight into our veins. We’re the addicts who can’t get enough; the TV companies are dealers and the officials hold the supply. They know we will come back, maybe we now think Tennis is dodgy, still don’t trust cycling, and perhaps we are wary of FIFA, but they know that we will ultimately need another hit. We always do. Sport builds addicts out of its fanatics.
They know they will get a bad headline or two, but that we will forget that the next time someone drops or catches a ball, and they will be in the clear again. They have the ultimate product. People will ignore slip-ups because when it comes down to it, we’re here to watch the sport and ignore real world problems.
But we shouldn’t, not anymore.
Sport is about us as much as it is about Alex Rodriguez’s bank balance or Roger Federer’s backhand.
We are the passion, the desire, the heart, the soul, the body, its organs, and even the deformed toenails. We are almost all of it, except the head. These people wouldn’t have their jobs or status without us. Without us Michael Jordan would have just been the tall suave competitive guy in an office. We made Pele, we made Ali, we made Jean King, we made Navratilova, we made the dream team, Manchester United, the Afghanistan Cricket team, and even Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel. We are the best of sport; we are sport.
Even with our bias, our irrational anger, our crazy theories and our shouting, we are why this matters.
And that thing that we made, that beautiful, incredible, reason for getting up in the morning, is sick.
We can love something broken; everyone follows one team that breaks their heart, but we just want to know they are trying to put it back together. We believe in underdog stories, miracles, coming from behind, beating the unbeatable odds. We are all aware that corruption is all powerful, the big enemy with the perfect form and all the money backing it up, but we want to believe that there is someone we can root for, someone who is at least trying to make sport better.
The Olympic motto is Citius. Altius. Fortius. Faster, higher and stronger. No mention of honesty, but that would be nice. Because when we sit down to watch, we will take any victory, even a moral one. In this case, a moral one would be perfect.