Boiling frogs…and why the administration of international sport is not going to get any better. Leigh Robinson

It’s been a bad few months for the administration of international sport. What with corruption, fraud, drugs and conflicts of interest the ‘value’ of sport in recent months has been pretty much in creating media profits and building journalist profiles. The activities of FIFA and the IAAF are a journalist’s delight with new allegations and stories emerging each day. However, it would be naive to think that these organisations are simply a couple of bad apples in what is otherwise a well-administered industry. I suspect that there are a number of sports that are running around, trying to put their house in order, thankful that the spotlight has not fallen on them…yet!

Without doubt the administration of international sport is diabolical and needs to be transformed. However, any attempts to do are ultimately doomed to failure, for a number of reasons:

  1. The IOC, the organisation at the top of the international sport food chain is not the best role model for improving sport administration. There have been indications that this is improving under the stewardship of Thomas Bach, who recently published his allowances of 225,000 euro, which he receives as a volunteer for the Olympic Movement. However, the speed with which Bach said that Russia would be welcome at Rio 2016, undermines the extent of the changes that WADA has requested and demonstrates a lack of commitment to the processes and procedures of cleaning up a corrupt sporting system. With this stance he has thrown into doubt his credibility as a game changer in the administration of international sport. He is also the head of an organisation where the appointment of members is not transparent and is certainly not representative. We also have no idea at all about how Games hosts are chosen as this is the responsibility of a primarily unelected membership who holds a secret ballot. Yes, things are better since the Salt Lake City scandal, but not much and not at all in terms of accountability.
  2. Sport is self-regulating. Other industries will find this extraordinary, but there are few legal obligations imposed on sport. Violence on the field is punished by the referee and/or by a discipline committee – even instances of what would be a criminal offence in any other environment. Impropriety within sport administration has been ignored, dealt with quietly, or come under the scrutiny of ethics commissions, which are predominantly made up of those also in international sport administration. The charges have been bought against FIFA officials by U.S. Federal prosecutors have come about because of years of work, despite significant evidence of wrongdoing that was ignored by those within the sport. If this hadn’t happened, those of us outside of these organisations would have been unaware of the extent of the corruption. Even now, despite all of the evidence against him, Platini could stand for election as President of FIFA if the Court of Arbitration for Sport accepts his appeal against his 90 day ban from football, something that will seem incomprehensible to those in other professions.
  3. But let’s get to the real problem and the boiling of frogs! It may be an urban myth, but apparently when you put frogs into water and turn the heat up slowly, they don’t realise what is happening and can be boiled to death. Please note that I’ve never tested this! This is exactly the problem with international sport administration and poses the greatest challenge to overcoming the corruption that is endemic in international sport administration. I’m going to be generous and say that very few corrupt people enter sport administration – it’s the structure of sport administration that corrupts some.

Think about this: a father (and is usually fathers) becomes President of his child’s sport club and as a consequence he gets to attend the General Assembly of his national federation (NF). There will be some reward for this, usually a meal and his expenses, but sometimes accommodation and a sponsor gift bag will be part of the package. Everyone else gets this, so why wouldn’t he? He then becomes part of the executive of the NF, he is a popular chap after all and eventually moving on to become Secretary General or President, which results in paid trips to the General Assembly of the international federation.  He will also be part of the delegation for any major games affecting his sport. These trips will be paid for, often with 5 star accommodation, certainly involve free activities, events and gift packages and in the case of major games, will come with ‘all access’ accreditations and the right to VIP hospitality. Everyone else gets this, so why wouldn’t he? Next time he decides to take his partner, because the room is being paid for anyway and if she has a VIP accreditation she can accompany him to the key events….and it seems to be the norm to bring your partner. In this role, he also gets to vote on who should be on the executive of his international federation and if one of the candidates will make grants available to develop his sport in his country and he will get to administer it, he would be remiss, letting his country down, if he did not to support that candidate. And before you know it, he’s ‘boiled’ –by an incremental process of corrupting ‘reward’ activities inherent within international sport administration that, because everyone else who are in that ‘inner circle’ is getting them, doesn’t require questioning.

There have been calls for the next FIFA President to be someone from outside the sport – even outside sport. This is pointless; changing the top of sport is far too late because people are ‘boiled’ by then. We need to stop the corrupting processes at the very bottom of sport and stop the increasing of rewards associated with holding positions in sport administration. Quite frankly, however, this will be impossible, because it’s those who receive the rewards that would have to do away with the rewards – and why would turkeys vote for Christmas?

So, depressingly, international sport administration is not going to get better anytime soon. Nothing will change until we turn off the heat and give the frog a chance. Until there is a fundamental change in the way sport is structured, the temperature will continue to rise, ever so slowly….