8 Questions on Corruption in Sport

Recently I was asked to give an interview in which I was asked for my opinions on corruption in sport. Here are my answers to the questions posed.

1. Sport is huge business these days, how is money driving corruption?

I think a recent paper I read said as a global enterprise sport is worth $150 billion annually so it is definitely big business – more important though is the fact that it is big business for many, which in turn creates many drivers for corruption.

So it isn’t just the athlete seeking financial reward, it is coaches, agents, clubs, sponsors, major corporations, sporting bodies etc. In cases it even stretches to governments. And of course the rewards can be vast for all involved.

When you put this altogether you can see how corruption might become a viable option – an athlete for example could have agents, other team members, sponsors, coaches, clubs all putting on the pressure to perform. This is hard to ignore, particularly when many of those exerting pressure may be able to end your career at the drop of a hat. Likewise if you are part of a bid vying to host a major world sports tournament – the financial rewards for the winning bid are huge, with potentially massive knock on effects for many other stakeholders. This creates a web of invested stakeholders all putting pressure on those overseeing the bid.

2. From FIFA to the Russian Athletics Federation, sport governing bodies have a lot to answer for – what is it about how these institutions are run that make them prone to corruption?

That’s a really interesting question. I think there are a few things really – first and foremost they are often closed shops and wield a lot of power. Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini for example were known as the most powerful men in world football. When you are effectively in charge of a system it is both easier and more acceptable to bend the rules – and there is also a sense of “we are in charge so we can push the boundaries”. It is also difficult for external forces to come in and identify issues and seek change.

Another issue is an absence of the kinds of standard systems that we would expect to see in highly regulated systems – vetting systems regarding who gets onto these committees, for example. Regulatory mechanisms, rules of governance, proper financial auditing systems etc. Often these systems may not be in place, or if they are, they have no teeth.

I wonder as well if another factor is that there is often an old boys culture – so people from the sport, who know the system intimately, and know what has gone on in the past and indeed what they can and cannot get away with.

In safety science there is this idea of decrementalism whereby unsafe behaviours gradually become accepted over time as safe and normal. Essentially small movements away from the norm add up over time to a point where the gap between what was and is now acceptable is actually very large. I think the same happens in sport – corrupt behaviors gradually become accepted over time. If you’ve been part of a system for a long time then you become part of this – your behavior gradually moves away to a point that it is way beyond what used to be normal. In cycling the individual cyclist taking caffeine or amphetamines shifted to sophisticated doping programs involving new substances such as EPO and practices such as blood transfusions. In World Cup bids it probably started with small gifts and gradually blew out to huge sums of money.

3. Betting has become massive in recent years – how much of the corruption can we blame on this?

We saw yesterday with tennis the impact that betting can have on corruption in sport. So for things like match fixing betting and the financial returns are the primary driver.

A big issue of course now is the fact that you can bet on anything – a single point in a game, for example. So players don’t have to throw a whole match – they can just throw a point or game here or there and it is extremely difficult to detect.

The big issue with betting is the sums of money changing hands – this often means that the gambling syndicates can dish out huge incentives.

4. These incidents of corruption are rarely isolated, even the doping athlete will have a coach and medical staff that know about it – what drives these teams to behave so unethically?

And they will probably have an agent that knows about it, a sponsor that knows about, and in extreme cases governing bodies that know about it.

As I said part of the complexity of issues such as doping is that there is great big complex web of factors driving it. The financial rewards associated with winning are huge, so agents, team mates, coaches, medical staff, club management, sponsors can all be driving it – and in extreme cases governing bodies might be too. Often the system can be in such a state that it is really meaningless to focus on the athlete in order to understand why something like doping happens – of more interest if we want to eradicate the problem is all of the other people and organisations involved. The system itself needs to be the unit of analysis – who is in it and what behaviours/factors are interacting with one another to enable doping.

5. Corruption has always existed in sport but why do you think we are seeing so much of it at the moment?

I think perhaps the Lance Armstrong saga may have been a watershed moment. Sure corruption has always gone on but that was something that was so big, so deep rooted, so high profile and made such big waves. But it got out in the end. Things could no longer go on as they were – great sporting performances now raise eyebrows more than they ever did – perhaps people are less willing to accept superhuman feats – and in fact they are more interested than ever in what is actually going on – they want to see how corruption is pushed by factors outside of the athlete.

6. How do think the sporting public view these corruption scandals?

I think there are a few views really – there are those who are tired of it and there are those who just accept it and probably feel all sports are blighted by it. There are those that are saddened by it too – sad that all may not be as it seems when there are great sporting achievements. The joy and magic of sport has been taken away a bit for them. Then of course there are those who think it is acceptable – they see little difference between performance enhancing drugs and performance enhancing equipment.

I think if there is one good thing that comes out of the Lance Armstrong affair and the recent FIFA, Athletics and Essendon scandals it is that they have shown the public that there is clearly more to it than just corrupt athletes – these are systems that are broken and there are vast networks of people and organisations involved in things like doping. We cant just blame the athletes anymore – there is far more too it.

I remember when I was a kid being so hacked off at Ben Johnson in the 1988 Olympics – how could he do that? At the time I had no idea that other people were involved. Similarly I think as the dust settles around Lance Armstrong more and more people are understanding that it was a corrupt system and not just a corrupt cyclist.

7. In the case of FIFA, the focus has been on removing corrupt officials – is that really going to solve the issue in the long term?

Absolutely not in my opinion – to fix systems you have to fix systems and not just broken parts. It will have an impact in the short term no doubt, but the same incentives and pressures will inevitably lead to new forms of corruption. If you keep many of the existing controls then the system will adapt and find a new way. Fundamental change is what is required – this is tough – both to work out what that change should be and then to implement the change – but it is the only way unfortunately.

8. Where do we start in terms of trying to fix these issues?

There are two aspects of sports systems to focus on I think – the controls around corruption and the actual purpose of the sporting contest.

I think primarily corruption in sport is a problem of control and feedback – so the controls in place for corruption need to be looked at, along with the feedback mechanisms which tell those in the system all about corrupt activities. What controls are working for example, what have the opposite effect and are exploited, and what are simply weak controls? Also what information flows around the system – how can we improve this to detect corruption better? Not just corruption at the athlete level, but how can we detect when a team is corrupt, when an organisation is, or when a governing body is engaging in inappropriate behaviour?

I think certainly there is a lot of fundamental change required around controls – this relates to the regulatory mechanisms, rules of governance, financial auditing systems – the list is a long one.

Another side to the argument I think is that the inherent values of sport may have been lost in places – business and marketing has taken over. Perhaps then the very nature of sporting systems and contests needs to be examined. What is the purpose of sporting contests? How should financial incentives work? How should the hosts of major world tournaments be decided? How should sport be run? Certainly scrutiny should be placed on the big business aspect of sport. Are the financial incentives appropriate and, more to the point, are the financial rewards distributed appropriately? Are they fed into sports at grassroots level, for example?

Professor Paul Salmon, psalmon@usc.edu.au

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