Little evidence whether IOC’s whistleblower hotline is doing its job

Photo: Colourbox

Photo: Colourbox

07.04.2017

By Juliana Barbassa
Two years after the launch of an IOC whistleblower hotline, expert raises questions regarding its independence and utility. The IOC offers little information about the extent of its use.

ZURICH - The IOC’s launch of a whistleblower hotline in April 2015 as part of an effort to fight corruption in sport was greeted with cautious optimism, but nearly two years later, there is little information regarding its use, and questions have been raised about its effectiveness.

According to the IOC, the web-based mechanism allows anyone, from athletes to coaches to members of the public, to anonymously report suspicions of financial misconduct and other legal, ethical or regulatory breaches. It is part of a broader plan by the IOC to distance itself from stubborn accusations of impropriety that date back to the 1990s but continue to this day, as new charges surface in connection to the bidding for the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2020 Tokyo games.

These allegations come at a time when the organisation is in crisis: it is fighting widespread criticism over its handling of revelations that Russia orchestrated a vast doping scheme involving 1,000 athletes over four years, and increasing evidence that the Olympic Games bring host cities few, if any, benefits. Stadiums and arenas in former host cities including Athens, Sochi and Rio are in various stages of disrepair.

Faced with these concerns, IOC president Thomas Bach has insisted that the organisation is actively fighting malfeasance in its ranks and making hosting more sustainable with measures such as the publication of an Olympic Movement Code to prevent the manipulation of competitions, and the Agenda 2020, which tackles the events’ mounting costs.

When the hotline was announced at an international summit on sports integrity, Bach said it would help protect the integrity and credibility of the Olympics and other competitions by making it easier and safer to denounce abuse and corruption

“The ultimate goal of all this is to protect the clean athletes and give them, as far as we can, fair competition,” Bach said at the time.

Two years after its launch, however, it is unclear to what extent the hotline has been used and whether it is fulfilling its role. The apparent lack of independence and of an independent ombudsman to oversee the effort, for example, is a problem, said Deborah Unger, spokesperson for Transparency International, an organisation that has investigated corruption in sport.

“A whistleblower initiative is important but it does have to have the right safeguards in place and be independent,” she said. “One of the issues with the IOC integrity hotline as presented on the website is that it doesn’t show that it is independent. It is part of the IOC.”

IOC officials said that claims filed through the hotline are handled through an “internal process”, and, when possible, by the International Federations and the National Olympic Committees, which work very closely with the IOC.

This apparent lack of independence, in addition to the absence of transparency and accountability surrounding an instrument intended to bring more transparency and accountability to a global sporting organisation under heavy criticism for failures on those same grounds raises questions about the seriousness of the effort.

“Our message has always been that it is time to act rather than sign up to principles,” Unger said. “In a closed environment like sport, there has always been a lot of talk about doing things and then little action.”

There is also scant evidence of the hotline’s use. The organisation’s communications officers said the mechanism has been “used very actively”, with 80 percent of claims relating to integrity issues and 20 percent to the manipulation of competitions. Citing confidentiality, however, they will not say how many claims have been reported, how many of the complainants requested anonymity, what kinds of organisations are involved, or how the IOC is handling the denunciations. They also turned down requests for an interview.

The hotline could have been an important tool for revealing malfeasance in global sport, and a source of legitimacy for the IOC at a time when their ability to function as a leader of global sports is battered by failures in accountability, transparency and sustainability.

The lack of information regarding the hotline’s use and of evidence of the independence that would ensure that whistleblowers’ lives and careers are safe undermines confidence in this mechanism’s ability to do its job.

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