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Corruption in sports: here and abroad

| Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Scandals and alleged corruption in the U.S. sports entertainment industry have been widely discussed over the last few years. Whether it’s ESPN pulling a report on concussions in the NFL, the steroid era that left baseball with a black eye and asterisks in the record books or NBA conspiracy theories ranging from blocked trades in New Orleans to the allegedly rigged 1985 draft. These conspiracies and scandals are publicly discussed and condemned — as they should be. But they pale in comparison to what has occurred in some international sports governing bodies, namely the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

Some people in the United States got their first taste of international corruption and favoritism a few years ago when the IOC inexplicably removed wrestling from the list of core sports at the Olympics, a turn of events that nearly eliminated one of the founding Olympic sports from competition. The move came after the committee attempted to decrease the number of core sports from 26 to 25, and wrestling was pitted against the modern pentathlon for inclusion. Despite wrestling’s international footprint being triple the size of the modern pentathlon and commanding more viewers in the previous Olympics by more than 10 million viewers. What did wrestling not have? It did not have someone on the Executive Committee of the IOC like Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who happens to be the vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union. Wrestling was eventually reinstated through a process admitting “new” sports, so this type of inside dealing is hardly the worst of international sports regulation.

Although the IOC’s handling of Russia’s bid and subsequent execution of their Sochi Olympics could easily fill this page, FIFA’s underhanded selection methods and willful ignorance to the working conditions in the 2022 World Cup host country Qatar are a much more urgent problem. First, FIFA’s internal hierarchy that has allowed for such little accountability in the world’s most popular sport must be explained. Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, conveniently crafted the process of selecting the president of FIFA and has overseen the creation of a system whose sole purpose is not to elect a president, but to elect him president. Blatter maintains control through bribing small nations with “development money” as well as having proxy control over the ethics committee that cuts his enemies down before they can truly challenge him. What this system boils down to is an organization that lacks accountability and can allow the types of atrocities occurring in Qatar to go unpunished.

Qatar’s handling of the 2022 World Cup represents the pinnacle of what can happen when corruption is left unchecked. Forget about the bribes it took for Qatar to win its World Cup bid or the fact that the world soccer schedule will be shuffled so drastically that it would be akin to scheduling the Super Bowl in August (as of last week, the 2022 World Cup will be played in the winter instead of the summer because of Qatar’s heat-related health risks). Sports are typically not matters of life and death. In Qatar, however, soccer has become life or death for the thousands of migrant workers building the stadiums that will be played in come 2022. Nepalese officials have estimated that anywhere from 157 to 188 Nepalese workers died building the stadiums in 2014 — averaging a death every two days. These numbers represent only workers from Nepal. When the additional workers from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and other countries are considered, experts estimate the death total during 2012-13 was 964 workers.

International organizations and media outlets have raised awareness for the plight of the millions of migrant workers in Qatar, but little has been done by the Middle Eastern country to improve working conditions. One body that could affect the situation is FIFA. Removing the games from Qatar — or even admitting fault and demanding changes from the country — would go a long way in saving the lives of Nepalese, Indian and Bangladeshi workers. But Mr. Blatter has already made his decisions, and without accountability or even an ethics committee to challenge him, Blatter’s organization stands idle as hundreds die.

Corruption in sports seems sinister enough when we discuss cheating, tanking or steroids. But the transition from affecting games to affecting hundreds of lives is not one that should be ignored. Controversies in the NFL, NBA or IOC pale in comparison to Blatter’s transgressions. His absolute control over FIFA has caused the organization to be corrupted absolutely.



The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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