PARIS — For the past 12 months, scandals off the field of play eclipsed exploits on it. Beyond the usual cases of doping and cheating that are sadly common in modern sports, shocking corruption in soccer and athletics begged the question of whether the vast riches and accompanying greed generated by professional sport are rotting the entire multi-billion dollar industry to its core.
On the upside, the stink got so bad that 2015 also saw the forces of law and order sit up and take action, opening criminal investigations, making high-profile arrests and recovering tens of millions of ill-gotten dollars. That legal pressure sped change, notably at soccer governing body FIFA, forcing administrators to abandon some of their old-school, shoddy, back-room and amateur management practices and enact reforms that should make them behave more professionally.
“What we’re going through now, it’s like a tectonic shift,” says International Olympic Committee veteran Dick Pound. “Sports organizations are coming to realize — voluntarily or involuntarily — that they can no longer operate outside of the larger social and legal orders.”
“In the old days, sport was well outside of anything that governments had focused on,” Pound said in an Associated Press interview. “They were all private organizations and they were kind of run informally like clubs and so on, and have tried to pretend that they can do that even in 2015 — and they can’t.”
In short, this was a year that left a sour taste for sports fans but also offered some hope of a brighter future. It was bookended by “Deflategate,” which saw star NFL quarterback Tom Brady accused of throwing deliberately under-inflated (and theoretically easier to grip) footballs in January’s AFC title game on his way to winning the Super Bowl, and by the disgrace of Sepp Blatter, kicked out of soccer in December for unethical conduct, ending his 17 scandal-scarred years as president of FIFA.
His heir-in-waiting, France’s former midfield star Michel Platini, also was banned for a dubious $2 million payment that Blatter approved for the FIFA vice-president in 2011. Their appeals of the eight-year bans that decapitated the leadership of the world’s most popular sport, as well as ongoing criminal probes in Switzerland and the United States of soccer bribery and corruption, promise to cloud FIFA’s ambitions for a fresh start with the election of a new president in February.
In track and field, a cornerstone of the Olympic Games, a World Anti-Doping Agency-ordered investigation that Pound led concluded explosively in November that doping in Russia was not only widespread and deep-rooted but also likely tacitly sanctioned by President Vladimir Putin’s government.
A resulting blanket-ban from competition could see Russian track and field athletes miss the Rio de Janeiro Olympics unless the sporting powerhouse can convince the International Association of Athletics Federations that it has made real changes. In March, the IAAF’s ethics commission also started investigating alleged doping coverups in distance-running power Kenya, which topped the world championships medal table in August.
Those probes were just the beginning of a scandal that threatened to sink the IAAF in 2015, gravely undermining not only the federation but trust in the entire sport it oversees. In November, three months after stepping down as IAAF chief, Lamine Diack was taken into police custody in France, suspected of pocketing more than 1 million euros ($1.1 million) in an alleged scheme to blackmail athletes and hush up their doping cases.
Diack, who presided at the IAAF for nearly 16 years, is under formal investigation for corruption and money laundering. If proven by France’s investigating magistrates, the allegations could be even graver than soccer’s massive scandal. The U.S. Department of Justice’s sprawling soccer case alleges more than $200 million in bribes and kickbacks in the selling of media and marketing rights. Although grievous, the schemes seemingly didn’t affect the outcome of matches. The alleged wrongdoing at the IAAF, however, raised the possibility that on-track results were corrupted by off-track criminality, and that dopers may have robbed competitors of medals by paying the sport’s guardians to look the other way. Contacted repeatedly by the AP, Diack’s lawyer has refused to comment.
Tasked with cleaning up the mess is British former middle-distance running great Sebastian Coe, elected in August as Diack’s successor. But just months into his new job, the credibility of the chief organizer of the 2012 London Olympics suffered a blow when the BBC uncovered in November that Coe had spoken privately to an executive at Nike, his long-time personal sponsor, about hosting the 2021 world championships in Eugene. The Oregon city about 100 miles (160 kilometres) south of the sportswear giant’s headquarters outside Portland was subsequently and controversially awarded the competition without an open bidding process.
Coe denied that working for both the IAAF and Nike represented a conflict of interest and severed his ambassadorial role with the company. But the affair left doubts about Coe’s judgment and, more broadly, fed into a dominant theme of 2015, which was that sports administrators often appeared chronically out of touch with a shift in the public mood against their clubby ways and, in worst cases, their criminal habits.
“It simply won’t work in this day and age,” Pound said. “You have to be more transparent, which doesn’t mean that you run around buck naked, but people have got to understand how a decision was reached, and by whom, and for what reasons, and that sort of thing that never used to happen. There was a code of silence.”
“Sport has got to change …,” he added, “or it’s going to be changed.”