News Decoder

I can vividly remember the day, more than a quarter of a century ago now, when I felt my job as sports reporter had transformed into fiction writer.

U.S. agents carry boxes of evidence from the headquarters of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, on May 27, 2015, in Miami Beach, Florida. The raid was part of an international investigation into alleged corruption. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) U.S. agents carry boxes of evidence from the headquarters of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, on May 27, 2015, in Miami Beach, Florida. The raid was part of an international investigation into alleged corruption. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)


I can vividly remember the day, more than a quarter of a century ago now, when I felt my job as sports reporter had transformed into fiction writer.

I had just witnessed one of the most astonishing performances of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Glamorous American sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, known widely as “Flo-Jo”, smashed the women’s 200 meters world record in the semi-finals and yet again in the final in the same afternoon, running so far ahead of the world class field in each race she appeared to be the only athlete taking part.

My reaction, and that of just about all my press colleagues in the media tribune, was one of disbelief. We just sat there shaking our heads in disgust, convinced, despite a lack of concrete evidence, that Flo-Jo was a cheat and that her victories were artificially earned with performance-enhancing drugs.

But, unlike her male counterpart, Canadian Ben Johnson, in the men’s sprints, she passed her post-race dope test. Flo-Jo’s camp had made it clear litigation could follow any suggestion her performances had been illegally enhanced.

My colleagues and I had little choice but to sit down and write the story of her achievement, even if very few of us truly believed it.

Flo-Jo was 28 years old at the South Korea Olympics. She had been a leading sprinter without showing any sign of greatness before the 1988 season in which she not only won three Olympic gold medals but lowered both the 100 and 200 meters world records by such a margin that no one has ever been able to come close since.

She retired at the height of her fame shortly afterwards, never failed a dope test and died, apparently of natural causes, in her sleep at the age of 38.

Q: What has this got to do with the current FIFA scandal?

The shenanigans in Zurich this week, which has seen the arrest of several leading FIFA officials on corruption charges, are another symptom of a plague infecting professional sport.

Drug-taking to improve performance, match-fixing, bribery and cheating on the field of play have become all too frequent over the past 20 to 30 years as the growing mountain of cash coming into professional sports has proved an irresistible temptation to dishonest athletes, coaches and officials, the supposed custodians of the games they represent.

Q: Why does FIFA have so much money and where does it all come from?

FIFA’s 32-nation World Cup Finals, staged every four years, is the biggest money-spinner for an event in a single sport.

Last year’s finals in Brazil produced revenue for FIFA of $4.8 billion, half of that in the sale of television rights to different parts of the world and much of the rest from sponsorship and ticket sales. Large audiences for matches enable television companies to charge huge sums for advertising pre- and post-match and during halftime.

Multinational companies such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Visa Inc. are prepared to pay heavily for branding to associate their name with FIFA and the World Cup. Sportswear giants like Adidas can add massively to sales of footwear, clothing and sports equipment from being an official FIFA partner.

Q: Scandals have surrounded FIFA for years. Why has nothing been done till now?

Stories of kickbacks to officials and bribes for TV rights and sponsor contracts for various soccer tournaments have been around for many years, as have allegations of buying votes for the awarding of World Cup finals and even for the election of FIFA President Sepp Blatter himself.

Most of the allegations have been difficult to prove conclusively.

The difference this time is that the FBI … has entered the fray.

FIFA, like most international sports bodies, bases itself in Switzerland where, as has been the case with international banks, it has felt itself able to operate without great public scrutiny. It is also largely beyond the reach of national law enforcement agencies.

The difference this time is that the FBI, which has far-reaching international powers, has entered the fray after investigating bribery and money-laundering involving the U.S. dollar.

It has asked for and received cooperation from the Swiss police to seek extradition to the U.S. of potential offenders, hence the dawn arrests of a number of officials at the Zurich hotel used by FIFA this week.

In the wake of that, the Swiss police have also launched their own criminal investigation into the controversial decision by FIFA’s executive committee to award the 2018 World Cup finals to Russia and the 2022 event to Qatar.

Q: How can Sepp Blatter survive all this as president?

So far, Blatter has not been directly implicated in the FBI investigation. The 79-year-old Swiss has been president since 1998 and is seeking his fifth four-year term as head of FIFA at this year’s Congress in Zurich on Friday.

Despite the problems, most people expect him to win against his only rival, Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein of Jordan.

Blatter commands great loyalty from African delegates after taking the World Cup to South Africa in 2010, the first time one of the world’s biggest sports events had been staged on the continent.

He also receives wholesale backing from most of the world’s smaller soccer nations, which benefit from his and FIFA’s policy of granting the same annual payment to each of the 209 national federations, regardless of size.

This year the payment amounts to just over $1 million, a huge sum to small countries such as Guam and the Cayman Islands but a fairly meaningless amount to the big football powers like Brazil and Germany.

Sport, like the arts, is a uniquely human activity that expands the spirit of mankind.

The votes of each of the 209 delegates from these national federations count equally at the Congress.

Blatter has always seen himself as above accusations of wrongdoing and impervious to suggestions he should share responsibility for corrupt behavior by others within his organisation, so it would be out of character for him to stand down voluntarily.

Q: This is pretty much a repeat of what happened with the Olympics, isn’t it?

Not exactly. The Salt Lake City scandal of 1998, which started when Swiss lawyer and International Olympic Committee member Marc Hodler acted as whistleblower to reveal that bribes had been paid to IOC members to win the right to stage the 2002 Winter Olympics, resulted in a big shake-up.

Several IOC members were expelled and reforms were made, including a ban on members visiting candidate cities, to prevent a recurrence. The IOC is nowadays seen as a much more honest and transparent organisation than hitherto.

FIFA acted very differently when its own whistle-blower, its then general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen, another Swiss lawyer, made public allegations of financial mismanagement within FIFA in 2002. Zen-Ruffinen was effectively ostracized and drummed out of the organisation.

Q: In the end, it’s only sport. Does it really matter?

Absolutely. Sport, like the arts, is a uniquely human activity that expands the spirit of mankind. It encourages children to dream and allows the economically disadvantaged to aspire to glory and greatness.

At its best it brings people of different races and backgrounds together in a common pursuit. It inspires healthy living, heroic acts and quests which stretch the limits of personal endeavor.

Unlike the arts, where the suspension of disbelief is required when you read a novel, watch a film or see a play, sport can only survive if participants and spectators can believe totally in the integrity of competition.

Which is why cheating, drug-taking, match fixing, bribery and corruption have to be stamped out wherever and whenever they appear.

(Want to read more News Decoder stories on sports competitions, click here!)


Former global sports editor at Reuters, Paul Radford has covered 17 Olympic Games, seven World Cups and numerous world championships in more than 20 sports. He was sports editor for 12 years at the end of a career that included assignments in Germany and Paris. Currently a consultant to the International Olympic Committee, he has served on the IOC’s press commission for 15 years and was editor-in-chief of the official Olympic News service at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

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