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  • Scoundrels and Their Scandals -- OpEd


    12/29/15

    (ATR) If there were a tone poem composed about the past year in sports, it would have a recurring theme with discordant sibilance to express sporting scandals, from silly to scurrilous to sordid, that resounded across the globe in 2015.

    Former president of the Peruvian Football Association, Manuel Burga is under investigation by U.S. courts for corruption. (Getty Images)
    Implicated were presidents of the world’s two most far-reaching sports federations, Sepp Blatter of FIFA and Lamine Diack of the IAAF.

    (A Swiss and a Senegalese. More sibilance.)

    Blatter, the defrocked FIFA boss, allegedly participated in (or overlooked and thereby condoned) financial corruption shown to have a boggling scale. Diack, whose 16 years as IAAF president ended in August, allegedly packed bribes and doping cover-ups into an immense steamer trunk full of Russian sleaze.

    “Yes, these are difficult times for sport,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach would write in an op-ed column for the Los Angeles Times in December. “But yes, it is also an opportunity to renew the trust in this power of sport to change the world for the better.”

    Such trust will be almost impossible to rebuild, given how much skepticism always has existed about the management of international federations, whose governance usually escapes both internal and external scrutiny.

    Without the U.S. Justice Department’s ability to follow the money and the dogged brilliance of German TV journalist Hajo Seppelt, neither the FIFA nor the IAAF scandals would have been exposed.

    Because “Ssshhh” always has been the operative articulation of the omertà within many of those federations.

    That makes many in charge of sports and many who play them full of hot air when they speak of the values they espouse.

    As has been the case in the past, the Olympic motto, “Swifter, Higher, Stronger,” was widely replaced by “Inhale, Inject, Swallow.” In cycling, said to have reformed after its past excesses, there were some two dozen new doping cases or revelations, involving riders from a laundry list of countries.

    The tone of what was to follow in 2015 was set in January by the “sssssssssssss" you hear when the air is let out of a ball, leading to the sound and fury of the Deflategate scandal in the National Football League.

    While the affair may not have had a big impact globally, it made front-page news in the United States for weeks on end.

    It grew out of charges the eventual Super Bowl champion NewEngland Patriots, notorious for rule-bending, reduced the air pressure of footballs used at the Jan. 18, 2015 conference championship game below the permitted level at the request of Tom Brady, the most successful quarterback of this millennium. The league’s investigation wound up signifying nothing when a judge overturned its four-game suspension of Brady.

    The year ended with a more “traditional” scandal: performance-enhancing drugs in weightlifting. That sport has been so historically riddled with doping it changed all its weight classes in 1992 to start with a fresh set of world records because the old ones had been rendered meaningless by steroid use.

    Lamine Diack, former IAAF president (Getty Images)
    So what happened after November’s World Championships in Houston? As of this week 24 (twenty four!), including Russian world champion Aleksey Lovchev and seven other medalists,were suspended by the International Weightlifting Federation for positive drug tests.

    Add to that the IWF’s decision to ban the chronically miscreant Bulgarian team from the 2016 Olympics after 11 of its athletes had tested positive during the Rio qualification period and, with apologies to the Talking Heads, the weightlifting picture is the same as it ever was.

    Despite rumblings of bribes having affected the choice of Russia and Qatar as, respectively, 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts, it also was illicit business as usual at FIFA until May, when Swiss authorities executed U.S. warrants to arrest several top federation officials at the swank Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich. By the end of the year, 41 people from 24 countries – including top FIFA, regional and national federation officials, as well as several sports marketing executives – were charged with corruption focused on bribes for marketing rights.

    Blatter, reelected as FIFA president two days after the first arrests, has not been charged. But he resigned as president as of February 2016, a decision pre-empted in December, when the FIFA ethics committee – there’s an oxymoron – barred him and potential successor Michel Platini of France, head of UEFA, from any soccer-related activities for eight years over improprieties in a $2 million payment from Blatter to Platini.

    A Seppelt documentary for the German TV network ARD uncovered the Russian doping that catalyzed the IAAF scandal. In an irony of timing and location, it aired last December as the IOC was meeting in special session to discuss and pass the major Olympic reform program known as Agenda 2020 less than two miles from the track federation’s headquarters in Monaco.

    Seppelt’s work led the World Anti-Doping Agency to empanel an independent investigative commission. In November, it released a stunningly damning first report identifying a state-sponsored Russian doping program that:

    - Had the complicity of top Russian government and sports officials.
    - Involved intimidation of doping control officials by Russian security forces.
    - Included "corruption and bribery practices at the highest levels" of international track and field, including Diack.
    - Led to the threat of Russian track and field athletes being barred from the 2016 Summer Games.

    "This is hugely damaging to the IOC and to the credibility of Olympic-related sport governance more broadly," Roger Pielke, a political scientist at the University of Colorado who studies sports governance, told the Chicago Tribune.

    Philip Hersh was the Olympic sports writer of the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. (ATR)
    It was clearly damaging to incoming IAAF President Sebastian Coe of Great Britain. The Olympic champion and London 2012 boss, an IAAF vice-president from 2007 until his election as president, sounded positively disingenuous in denying any knowledge of the organization’s corruption.

    Because of potential legal proceedings from a related criminal investigation undertaken by the French and being coordinated by INTERPOL, the commission’s first report provided no details of what it had learned about an extortion scam to cover up the Russian doping, the so-called "IAAF Chapter."

    Such information is expected in a report that will land with a loud thud January 14. It will be perfect counterpoint to a year of sibilance that could continue in the form of deserved hissing at the snakes and snake-oil salesman whose venal actions have left sports leaders with a moral compass searching for trusted antidotes.

    After all, didn’t Brazil’s attorney general just level the accusation that the speaker of his country’s lower legislative house took nearly half a million in bribes from a company that wanted a piece of 2016 Olympic construction?

    Philip Hersh was the Olympic sports writer of the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @olyphil.

    Written by Philip Hersh.

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