Sepp Blatter and his ilk have ruined trust in sport’s leaders | Owen Gibson

Governing bodies need new faces and fresh thinking to emerge from mire of corruption, incompetence and malpractice

While Sepp Blatter, the suspended Fifa president, was being admitted to hospital last week with a stress‑related condition and Lamine Diack, the former IAAF president, was resigning his honorary positions after his arrest, the wider world of sport continued its collective nervous breakdown into a fetid swamp of bribery, corruption, incompetence and malpractice.

The extraordinary has become commonplace over the past 12 months as the castle walls have collapsed on many of the self-important captains of the sporting world who once saw themselves as impregnable.

With Blatter and Diack as their spiritual leaders (to borrow a phrase from Sebastian Coe), the Fifa meltdown that has gathered pace since those dramatic May raids in the Baur au Lac, in Zurich, have left it in a position that would have been unimaginable a year ago.

The roots of this malpractice, of course, stretch back decades, to João Havelange at Fifa, Juan Antonio Samaranch at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Primo Nebiolo at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The latter, for example, both turbocharged the development of the sport and was implicated in covering up positive drug tests at the 1984 Olympics (which also goes to prove there are no new stories).

But there is a definite sense in which Blatter’s last two terms – both of which were billed as his swansong – and Diack’s U-turn in 2011 to fulfil one last term in his late 70s gave the greed an extra level of desperation.

At Fifa, it was as if all the old rogues were scrambling for one last payday and brought each other down in the process, as they double- and triple-crossed one another and finally over-reached amid the chaotic 2018/2022 bidding process.

At the IAAF, the process still has to play out, but the dynamic was different. The French police investigation still has further to run, but it already seems likely that a small cabal took hold of a sport with little oversight or checks and balances for their own ends.

As has been well-documented, it was Blatter’s generation – in league with commercial partners such as Adidas and Coca-Cola, and a new breed of middlemen – who first turned on the cash taps. As money flooded in from broadcasting and sponsorship deals, later accelerated by globalisation and the emergence of new media opportunities and platforms, so the potential for malfeasance increased.

A perfect storm of reliably huge cashflows and light-touch, or nonexistent, regulation was created. That in turn bred an extraordinary arrogance. For much of that time, the miscreants have been hiding in plain sight. Investigative journalists have done their best (the ARD reporter Hajo Seppelt just the latest in a heroic line), but until US law enforcement got involved – and now Interpol – there was little external influence that could be applied to effect change.

It is rapidly becoming clear that virtually any World Cup bid or presidential race during that period is open to doubt. Realistically, given the men making the decisions, how could they not be?

Europe does not criticise this model from a position of strength, even if it is the rapid and unstructured dash for new markets that helped hugely inflate the sums involved and the “opportunities” on offer.

Cast from its place as the cradle of the sporting world by those who came to despise our arrogance and entitlement, England has spent the decades since in a state of confusion.

In football, the FA has tended to career wildly between trying to play the game in an inept and hamfisted fashion and throwing rocks from the outside. This conflicted attitude was best exemplified by the chaotic, corrupted, confusing 2018/22 World Cup bidding race that indirectly led to much that has followed.

Having fawned over Jack Warner and clumsily tried to offer friendlies and pay for dinners, spending £21m in the process, the FA has spent the five years since insisting, with ever-more force, that they were robbed and should be reimbursed.

Having habitually backed such committed reformers as Blatter and Issa Hayatou in Fifa presidential elections, they recently stumbled over anointing Michel Platini as their preferred successor to Blatter, only to regret their enthusiasm.

Is it a coincidence that Russia, China, Qatar and other countries have alighted upon major sporting events as a means to project soft power and buy influence? No, it is not. Nor was it any coincidence that these sporting organisations were based in havens of secrecy and low taxes, such as Zurich and Monaco.

One key factor in the recent reckoning has been the shift in attitude among the political and prosecuting classes in Switzerland and Monaco. In the former, in particular, there has been a clear and definitive shift in mood among the public, the media and the chattering classes. If they were once proud to be home to major international sporting organisations, that has been replaced by embarrassment and shame. He could not care less about the rest of us, but the fact that Blatter endlessly bemoans that his local Swiss media has turned on him shows what a pivotal shift it is.

And while the IOC has often been held up as a model for Fifa after the reforming strides it made in the wake of its own Salt Lake City bribery meltdown, it too still has bigger issues than it cares to acknowledge.

Sport in general, and Fifa and the IOC in particular, have lobbied long and hard for their independence and for the “specificity of sport” to be recognised, endlessly suspending or threatening members over “government interference” or insisting that sport and politics do not mix. It has fostered a sense that they are untouchable and it is an argument that can no longer hold.

In both commercial and political terms, sport has become hugely lucrative and powerful. It is time that it had governance and oversight to match. Not to mention an executive class hired for their professional skills rather than their ability to maintain the status quo.

Getting there from here is the difficult bit, and you might hope that the current full-scale meltdown would be a start. But scanning the list of candidates to replace Blatter does not exactly inspire confidence.


Owen Gibson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
It’s not just Russia: Britain helped create this corruption in sport | Simon Jenkins
The doping allegations rocking athletics seem inevitable given how nations bow before those running sport

Simon Jenkins

12, Nov, 2015 @7:00 AM

Article image
Russia must end systemic culture of doping and corruption, says IAAF
World governing body wants Russia to issue a mea culpa for its behaviour but IOC president Thomas Bach says he is confident Russia will compete at Rio 2016

Sean Ingle

14, Nov, 2015 @10:30 PM

Article image
Fifa and IAAF ride aboard a gravy train where normal rules do not apply | Marina Hyde
Tennis came under the spotlight this week but sport’s terminally compromised governing bodies are forever forming a disorderly queue to regain the attention

Marina Hyde

20, Jan, 2016 @1:50 PM

Article image
Darya Klishina, Russia’s only track and field athlete in Rio, banned
The long jumper Darya Klishina, the only Russian track and field athlete given dispensation to compete at the Rio Olympics, has been banned by the IAAF

Owen Gibson in Rio de Janeiro

13, Aug, 2016 @7:31 PM

Article image
Usada chief Travis Tygart urges IOC to ban Russia from Winter Olympics
The civil war in anti-doping over whether Russia should be allowed to compete in the Winter Olympics has intensified as the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency said that anything less than a total ban would be a ‘get out of jail free card’

Exclusive by Sean Ingle

23, Sep, 2017 @9:02 PM

Article image
Sebastian Coe must put money where his mouth is to justify Pound support
Sebastian Coe faces a touch challenge to overcome lingering questions, despite the backing of Wada’s founding president Dick Pound, as he embarks on his roadmap to reform at IAAF

Owen Gibson

16, Jan, 2016 @10:00 PM

Article image
Sport’s Qatar-funded crusaders find Westminster and leave fans behind
The International Centre for Sports Security is on its journey towards credibility so why not turn to Richard Keys?

Marina Hyde

27, Jan, 2016 @11:42 AM

Article image
Greg Rutherford calls IOC decision over Russia team for Rio ‘spineless’
Greg Rutherford has led the condemnation of the IOC’s decision not to issue a blanket ban on the Russian team for Rio, calling it ‘a spineless attempt to appear as the nice guy to both sides’

Exclusive by Sean Ingle

24, Jul, 2016 @6:51 PM

Article image
What next for the main players in the Russia doping scandal?
Sebastian Coe is on the front foot after pushing through Russia suspension but the IAAF is not out of the woods with several former staff under investigation

Sean Ingle

13, Nov, 2015 @11:15 PM

Article image
Sebastian Coe ready to surge past Sergey Bubka in the race of his life | Owen Gibson
The IAAF presidential election could not come at a more important moment amid relentless doping allegations and an organisational malaise that has brought it to its lowest point since Ben Johnson crossed the line in Seoul

Owen Gibson

15, Aug, 2015 @8:00 PM