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4th February 2016

Sports’ governing bodies are misbehaving

With a different sport’s governing body being in the spotlight each day for a scandal, it’s time to ask for transparency.

On the first day of the 2016 Australian Open, the first Grand Slam event of the season, the thoughts of the tennis world were dominated not by on-court matters, but by off-court ones instead. This was because BuzzFeed News and the BBC unveiled evidence they had received alleging that match-fixing in tennis is prevalent and is not being investigated properly. Sixteen players who were at one point ranked in the world’s top fifty—including one Grand Slam champion—were named as potential match fixers.

In the past, abnormal betting patterns, involving bets totalling to hundreds of thousands, and even up to millions of pounds were placed on the results of tennis matches, have been detected. A famous example occurred in 2007, when Martin Vassallo Arguello beat the highly ranked Nikolay Davydenko, who retired hurt in the third set, after losing the first set 6-2. More than $7 million was bet on the match, and Betfair even refused to pay out on wagers and reported the match to the authorities.

An investigation into the match was commissioned by The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) after the match, but neither Davydenko nor Vassallo Arguello were ever charged with match-fixing. The investigation grew beyond just the Davydenko versus Vassallo Arguello match. Leading to the creation of a Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), who now investigate reports of match-fixing, and identifying 28 players who were involved in suspicious matches, and as a result were to be investigated. The following year, a new anti-corruption code was introduced by the tennis authorities, but they could not retrospectively charge players with breaching this code. According to the BBC and Buzzfeed News, the TIU was informed again about suspicious betting patterns on matches involving approximately one third of the players named on the report, yet no further was taken.

This apparent lack of action by the authorities has been scrutinised extensively, and so too has the lack of transparency in which these organisations operate. The TIU only publicly comment on their investigations to announce the outcome of an investigation that results in disciplinary action being taken. Anti-corruption expert, and member of the panel examining match-fixing in 2007, Ben Gunn stated: “The transparency of the Tennis Integrity Unit leaves something to be desired… It’s difficult to gauge how successful they are because we don’t know what they’re doing.”

Tennis is certainly not the first sport in which governing bodies are alleged to have acted improperly. Take the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for example. The findings of the second part of a commissioned World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) report into doping in athletics were announced at a press conference in Berlin. The first part of the report described the state sponsored doping programme in Russia; but the second part examined potential corruption in the IAAF and to what extent it had known about, and covered up, Russia’s systematic doping.

The report was damning. It found that the IAAF Council, of which elected President Lord Sebastian Coe has been a member since 2013, must have been aware of Russia’s activities. The report states: “The corruption was embedded in the organisation. It cannot be ignored or dismissed as attributed to the odd renegade acting on his own.” According to the report, Lamine Diack—Coe’s predecessor as IAAF’s president—was able to renew sponsorship deals of his own accord, and when confronted by Huw Roberts—the IAAF’s legal chief, about Russia’s systematic doping, Diack is alleged to have said that he would resolve the problem by speaking to Vladimir Putin personally. Papa Massata Diack, Lamine’s son, was found to have asked Qatar, who will host the 2019 Athletics World Championships, for $5 million while working for the IAAF.

While what remains of the IAAF’s credibility was trodden upon by the report commissioned by WADA, Coe’s beleaguered tenure as president was strengthened, at least temporarily, by the press conference, during which commission head Dick Pound supported Lord Coe and backed him to reform the IAAF. Pound went on to absolve Coe of criticism that he should have been more alert to the Russian doping scandal, saying that: “I don’t want to lay the failures of an entire council at the feet of one individual.”

Despite this show of support, Lord Coe has been embroiled in controversy ever since taking over the IAAF presidency in 2015. After becoming president, he had to resign from an ambassadorial role with Nike after initially refusing to step down from the position. Furthermore, Nick Davies, an ally of Coe, was the subject of an investigation by the IAAF ethics committee after Le Monde leaked an email to Papa Massata Diack that he had sent while working as the IAAF’s deputy general secretary. The email suggested ways to stifle Russian doping allegations ahead of the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. Davies’ actions were criticised both in the report into the IAAF and by Dick Pound.

Initial responses by tennis and athletics’ governing bodies concentrated on defending the sport by sidestepping the allegations—rather than by accepting them or refuting them with solid evidence. Chris Kermode, head of the ATP, bemoaned the timing of the match-fixing story, coming as it did on the first day of the Grand Slam, but that paled into insignificance to Lord Coe who called allegations of widespread doping made by The Sunday Times in August 2015 as a “declaration of war”, and said that to protect athletics’ reputation, it was time to “come out fighting.” As time has passed on, and the controversies surrounding himself, the IAAF and athletics have persisted, his position has softened, appearing contrite in public and eager to reform the IAAF.

If there was one sporting organisation that had a worse 2015 than the IAAF, it was The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). In February 2016, elections will be held to determine who will succeed Sepp Blatter as FIFA’s president. The favourite, currently, is Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family. But allegations about his role in the crackdown of pro-democracy protesters in 2011 have circulated since he announced his candidature last year. In particular, Sheikh Salman has been forced to deny any involvement in the identification and torture of footballers and other athletes who participated in the protests. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy have written to FIFA’s sponsors about their concerns regarding Sheikh Salman. In their 2014-2015 report, Amnesty International stated that Bahrain was a place where: “The authorities continued to clamp down on dissent.”

Electing a man accused of being complicit in the torture of footballers as the new president of FIFA is deeply unsettling, but still a very real possibility. The other candidates do not inspire confidence in driving the complete structural form that Fifa needs, either. Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan—who finished second to Blatter in the last presidential election—has stated that he would not reopen the bidding process for the next two World Cups were he to be elected. Gianni Infantino is the current Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) general secretary and only announced his candidature after Michel Platini had been provisionally suspended by the FIFA ethics committee. In fact UEFA have confirmed that they are still paying Michel Platini, despite his recent eight-year ban from football, and will continue to do so “until further notice.”

It is not original nowadays to describe FIFA as a morally bankrupt cesspit that not even the finest satirists or tragedians could have dreamt up. Its reputation has been shattered as more details of the tawdry, corrupt bidding processes for the World Cup and a succession of questionable backroom deals and bloc-voting by an exclusive elite that constitute elections nowadays have disseminated publicly. Its an organisation that seems unperturbed by the lead investigator into the bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups resigning his position, after declaring that the version of his report released to the public was “erroneous.”

And, most importantly of all, the evidence about the deaths of hundreds and thousands of migrant workers does not seem to warrant action. Human suffering became seemingly inconsequential compared to the platitudes executives spout about how “the World Cup is being shared around the globe”—even if, in the process that workers have to die, there is evidence suggesting voters may have been bribed, and the winning bid was won on false pretences (who remembers the floating clouds).

Sport captivates billions of people who watch it for the spontaneity and the unpredictability of world-class athletes competing against one another. Those organisations who regulate these sports are ever-increasingly seeking to profit from these audiences, but we must demand that they are transparent and held accountable if they fail to investigate—and ultimately stamp out—cheating or corruption. Currently, these governing bodies are too concerned with trying to discredit or dismiss negative press in the hopes that the outcry doesn’t become too loud to ignore. Even then, the organisations that issue proclamations of rigorous investigations and structural change rarely—if ever—follow through with action. For sport to prosper in modern society, this cycle of events must simply stop.

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