It’s not exactly news that there is almost certainly some amount of corruption in the two most global of sports organizations, FIFA and the IOC. FIFA runs soccer at the international level and is involved in a number of criminal cases stemming from bribery scandals related to the awarding of World Cup sites. The International Olympic Committee suffers from a similar malady, much to the chagrin of the United States, which despite having the best sports facilities on the planet, last hosted a World Cup in 1994, a Summer Games in 1996 and the Winter Games in 2002. In the meantime, Brazil has been awarded both the Summer Games and the World Cup for 2016 and 2014 respectively. Qatar, with no soccer stadiums and a climate more suited to competitive sidewalk egg-frying, will host the World Cup in 2022. Russia has secured the Winter Games for 2014 in a city that barely existed and the World Cup for 2018 where the games will be far flung with a questionable infrastructure in place. It’s fairly well-documented that these awards were bought, not earned. So I’ll move on from those issues and dwell instead on something more troubling, even if it’s pure speculation.
If an organization is so corrupt that it will jeopardize its very existence to maintain that culture, how are we to assume that the bribes couldn’t be used to affect the results of the competition itself? Just think about it. The entire Russian Olympic contingent is currently banned from competing in Rio due to widespread PED use. That’s called cheating. That’s called trying to gain a competitive advantage. This from a country where bribery, extortion, and corruption is an institutionalized art form. Of course, given the health and security concerns in Brazil, they may have pulled off the coup of the young century by not having to show up. Think about soccer, where the referee has immense power and discretion during the course of a match. In just the past month, there have been gross inconsistencies in matches. The U.S. was called for a hand ball in the box against Colombia, resulting in a penalty shot, essentially ending the American’s chances. Yet earlier this week, an almost identical play by Portugal was ignored by the referee in the UEFA final against France that would have surely settled the match. Instead, Portugal, after a flurry of yellow flags against France, scored in extra time to win their first major tournament title. Call me cynical, but because the culture of the United States doesn’t embrace greasing of palms, we generally get the short end of the stick when it comes to international organizations, especially in the last ten years or so.
It seems like ancient history now, but back in the 1970’s it was generally considered fact that the judging and officiating in the Olympic games was grossly in favor of then Eastern Block nations, primarily controlled by the USSR, or Soviet Union. In the 1972 Summer Olympics, the men’s basketball final was such a travesty that the officials literally gave the game to the Soviet team, resulting in the U.S. runner-ups refusing to accept their silver medals. In gymnastics, diving and figure skating, three of the more prominent events that determine their champions through judging, the U.S. continually received lower scores for what appeared to be comparable performances. So some forty years later, why should we think the competitions aren’t still suffering from similar indiscretions? Haven’t we learned anything from cycling, track and field, and even the steroid era in Major League Baseball?
Another aspect of all of this that I don’t understand is that we now have major league sports leagues beginning to embrace the idea that creating a closer relationship with legalized gambling will somehow result in little or no impact on the results on the field or court. I still maintain, although there is a lot of difference of opinion on the matter, that daily fantasy operations are gambling. Many proponents of the companies define them as a game of skill. Really? Is anyone putting a fantasy team together catching a ball, scoring a basket or draining a putt? Are they putting the game plan together that allows their player to get mismatches against the other team’s defense? I have played fantasy sports for almost thirty years, and I can’t even begin to make the case that it’s a game of skill. At best, it’s educated luck. In the case of baseball and other sports that require daily attention, it’s usually just a case of having the time to pay attention. And if a group of NFL officials put a team together with $1,000,000 payout on the line, it’s more than plausible that they have enough influence over the course of their games to influence the outcome enough to impact their fantasy team’s performance.
The business of sports is huge on a global basis, and that popularity is due in most part because fans believe that the results of the competitions are not tainted by corruption. However, when the ruling organizations themselves are rife with scandal, isn’t it reasonable to at least be concerned that there is a trickle down effect? I wholeheartedly think we should, and we’re being naive and irresponsible to think otherwise.