Corruption in sports – are we too naïve, and who cares?
Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game
During several decades of intensive involvement in international sports, I came to view the prevalence of corruption in various forms as a major threat and evil. Perhaps my view was colored by the fact that my main tasks were as a referee and supervisor of refereeing, an area where the success and credibility depends on a strong sense of ethics and integrity.
So for me it was a natural development that I would be eager to support the fight against corruption also after my days in international handball were over. It has been engaging and refreshing to participate in conferences and discussions with experts on broader and specific issues such as governance, anti-doping, match fixing, and the drawbacks of the hosting of mega events in contrast with the inadequate attention to resources for grassroots sports.
But gradually this immersion has made me start wondering about two questions: first, are we not, as insiders, rather naïve when we view the issues related to corruption in sports, so that we get unrealistic expectations and goals, believing that sports can be protected from all evil; and second, are we too optimistic in thinking that the general public will be as concerned about the purity of sports as some of us might find it natural to be, and can we really count on public support for our efforts?
Is it realistic to expect sports to be essentially free from corruption?
Over the years I have heard many colleagues explain their longstanding and enthusiastic involvement in sports with the assertion that "it is so refreshing to be involved in something that is so different from the ugly world of politics and business". Having had the opportunity personally to compare with prevailing practices in politics and business, I can understand what they mean. But I also think that their fervor for the positive aspects of sport may make them a little bit inclined to close their eyes and ears to aspects of sports that are not very different from what happens in politics and business.
We need to recognize that sports organizations and teams are entities perfectly suited to the interests of those are seeking ways of becoming prominent and gaining exposure. Federations really amount to the same kind of power structures and vehicles for 'climbing a ladder' as the 'pyramids' in business and politics. Gaining power and control through the world of sports may often be easier than making similar progress in business and politics, because in many instances sports organizations may remain a bit 'amateurish' and thus offer an easier path for someone with ambitions and 'elbows'. And one would assume that the special 'limelight' of sport is also highly attractive to people with strong egos.
Moreover, while the world of sports is bound by laws, rules and codes of ethics, just as in business and politics, the desire to get ahead, to win, is likely to be a driving factor also in sports, even if this means ignoring what constitutes fair play. For many, the investment of money or time deserves its rewards, and the notion that 'the end justifies the means' then becomes more relevant than the ideal that 'the most important thing is not winning but taking part.' So when we reluctantly accept that corruption has become a normal ingredient in politics and business, how could we realistically keep believing that corruption could be kept out of sports? Human nature is what it is, in all walks of life…
Does the general public really care about the purity of sports?
If we then accept, however reluctantly, that the world of sports lends itself to corruption, it seems logical that any effort to combat and limit the corruption would require an element of public outrage. But can we really count on this kind of support in our endeavor?
I have sometimes become inclined to think that those of us who are immersed in sports may instinctively have a more naïve and emotional approach to corruption in sports than the general public. To some extent it may be because we became involved for specific, positive reasons, so we do not want to accept the reality, and to some extent it may because our enjoyment depends so much on the notion of 'fair play'. But for an external observer, a spectator, the considerations may be different.
Of course one would like to believe that the general public, and especially those who are keen spectators, in the arenas or in front of the TV, really would care about fair play and consider rigged competition to be unacceptable. But they may struggle with the question of what constitutes fair play and a 'level playing field'. Many seem less concerned about the purity and may tend to feel that "if all of them have the same conditions", then why should one worry? This may apply, for instance, to the issue of doping. Many sports fans tend to see the athletes as 'gladiators' or entertainers, who should be allowed to do what it takes to get ahead. If they risk their health, then that is simply their own problem. And if it then it becomes apparent that different sports have different rules and attitudes, this also tends to create doubts about the issues and their importance.
Corruption in the sense of power abuse and bad governance is often even less of a concern for the general public, in part because it is largely ignored in the sports media except in some very glaring cases, type FIFA. But I often get the cynical reaction that as long as it does not affect the competitions and the athletes, why should one care so much? That public funds are wasted seems to matter less, especially when people compare with the much larger amounts of money spent in questionable ways in the public sector. Match fixing is perhaps too recent an issue to be clear in the minds of the public yet. To some extent there is disbelief that the problem could be so big and growing so fast. Yes, the concerns about 'rigged' competition and what that does for the enjoyment seem to be catching on. But so far I have mostly heard expressions of outrage from those who are heavily into sports betting and then tend to view sports more as a vehicle for their obsession than as an important activity in its own right.
What is then the best approach?
You may have noted a tone of frustration in my comments above, but my real point is rather to instill a sense of reality. I am most definitely not suggesting that we should feel discouraged in our efforts to combat corruption in sports, and that we should not try to limit the influence of politics and business. Instead I want to suggest that in our efforts we need to have a clearer appreciation for what we are up against. To see corruption eliminated from the world of sports is clearly not realistic. Too much of what goes on in society at large will always carry over into sports. If anything, we need to dismiss the naivety that sports could be immune to corruption and increase our efforts to detect and reduce the existing corruption and its impact.
As I see it, we must strive to limit the scope for the corruption and its impact. Statutes and decision-making processes must contain strong control mechanisms. Democracy must be accompanied by education and empowerment, so that the voters have the necessary information and the means of exercising their right and obligation to get rid of the abuser.
Similarly, we need to understand the objectives and desires of politicians and businesses to use sports as a vehicle. We must make a special effort to ensure that these interests are used to support sports activities, moreover in a way that protects the fundamental values of democracy, ethics and fair play.
Finally, if the sports movement wants to count on a stronger support from the general public in the fight against different forms of corruption, then there must be a willingness to admit openly that there are problems and a readiness to deal with them. The more common approach of 'sweeping problems under the rug' and denying their existence is an unsuccessful tactic to maintain a false image, and it obviously does not help in creating awareness and engaging the resources of the society around us. If the sports movement inappropriately prefers to turn a blind eye, why should the general public care!?