In less than a month the world of international sports has seen two giant scandals result in sharp penalties. While such events are shocking, their exposure is providing a first necessary step in support of integrity and reform.
In early December the International Olympic Committee ruled that Russian athletes would not be able to compete in the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, South Korea, because of evidence that the country had allowed its athletes to use banned substances at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Some individual Russian athletes, if proved to be drug-free, will be able to compete in the coming Winter Games, but they will not be allowed to wear Russian uniforms or march under the Russian flag.
Then last week a New York City court found two officials of FIFA, the international body governing soccer, guilty of racketeering, bribery, and wire fraud. They join nearly two dozen others connected to FIFA who have already pleaded guilty. Others also have been indicted and are contesting extradition orders to avoid trials.
The New York federal court had jurisdiction because illegal financial transactions allegedly went through US-based banks and some alleged illegal activities took place in New York. In addition, prosecutors in three other cities (Bern, Switzerland; Paris; and Rio de Janeiro) are pursuing cases involving global sports, including the bidding process to host several recent World Cups and the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.
About 3.6 billion people – half the world’s population – watched at least some part of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
FIFA oversees events including the quadrennial World Cup tournament that will be played in 2018 at 12 Russian venues, with the championship match in Moscow July 15. Some 3.2 billion people watched at least some part of the last World Cup tourney in Brazil in 2014.
The defendants in New York – Juan Ángel Napout, former head of the football (soccer) association in Paraguay, and José Maria Marin, former president of the football confederation in Brazil – were accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes to steer their votes on key FIFA issues.
That stands as only a fraction of what prosecutors say has been at least $150 million in bribes paid out over decades.
Questions surrounding the integrity of international soccer are unlikely to fade anytime soon. Other investigations are under way, including a look at the process by which the tiny but wealthy Gulf country of Qatar managed to win the competition to host the 2022 World Cup.
Both the Olympics and FIFA suffer from a lack of transparency in their operations. When combined with hundreds of million of dollars at stake in determining who will host these mega-events – and in awarding contracts to media corporations around the world to televise them – the result is a breeding ground for corruption.
But now two moves to expose these deep-seated problems are bearing fruit. They’re necessary steps toward full, radical reform.