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Illustration by Security Management

Playing Clean

“I love the Olympics, because they enable people from all over the world to come together and…accuse each other of cheating,” comic writer Dave Barry once said. But cheating in sports is no laughing matter; sports corruption is on the rise, and some organizations are stepping up their efforts to fight it.

Collectively, sports are a huge global enterprise that engage billions of people and generate annual revenues of more than $145 billion, according to Global Corruption Report: Sport, a recent report by Transparency International (TI). 

But many sports organizations operate in an outdated and nontransparent fashion, making them rife for corruption. Moreover, results manipulation, or the “fixing” of some contests for illicit gambling winnings, continues. 

“While corruption in sport is not new, the recent pervasiveness of poor governance and corruption scandals threatens to undermine all the joy that sport brings and the good that it can do,” TI’s Gareth Sweeney writes in the report. “The pace of building integrity in sport has been too slow, and now it must be rapidly accelerated.”

TI describes the Global Corruption Report: Sport as the most comprehensive analysis of sports corruption to date. The study includes more than 60 contributions from experts in the fields of corruption and sport, including representatives from sports agencies, governments, and multilateral institutions, as well as from athletes, academics, and anticorruption activists. The report analyzes corruption risks in sports, with a focus on sports governance, sports business, sporting events planning, and game and match fixing. 

The report argues that the well publicized U.S. indictments of nine officials from the Federation Internationale de Football (FIFA) on racketeering and money-laundering charges in 2015 changed the sports landscape overnight, because it brought a system of “deep-rooted corruption” into public view. 

And “corruption is not limited to football. Cricket, cycling, badminton, ice hockey, handball, athletics and other sports, including U.S. collegiate sports, suffer similar credibility gaps,” Sweeney writes in the report. 

The reasons for corruption in different sports are often broadly similar, the report finds. Historically, sports are organized on the principle of autonomy, so sports organizations are often afforded nonprofit or nongovernmental organization (NGO) status in most countries. This status, however, often allows them to operate without any effective external oversight. 

In addition, the corporate structures of many sports are archaic, with the administration overseen by ex-athletes with little experience in management. Many international sports organizations (ISOs) have little motivation to change; in fact, nations like Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates give them favorable legal status and lucrative tax breaks to attract and keep them in country.

To tackle this problem, the report lays out a slew of recommended actions, grouped in five categories: governance, transparency, participation, major events, and match fixing. 

For example, the 11 recommendations in the governance section include ensuring that ISO representatives are elected through an open vote by members; establishing an internal governance committee that has a mandate to review past and present activities; and creating an independent ethics commission that has effective oversight procedures. 

Although the dozens of recommendations vary widely, there are a few underlying common strategies. One is an emphasis on participation—pushing for a wide range of stakeholders, from sponsors to fan clubs to the athletes themselves, to become involved in anticorruption activities. 

For example, in the match-fixing category, the report recommends that sporting associations be required to offer preventative training courses to athletes, coaches, referees, officials, and parents on detecting match-fixing practices. 

Another approach is to make connections between the sports community and the wider movement against corruption. This latter strategy drives TI’s Corruption in Sport Initiative, in which the organization advocates partnerships with experts and attempts to raise awareness of new research, analysis, and opportunities for dialogue. The initiative’s focus areas will include strengthening the integrity of the bidding and awarding process of major sporting events.

And for those involved in the fight against corruption, more resources have recently become available. Several months ago, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) released a new resource guide designed to help law enforcement and sports organizations detect and investigate incidents of match fixing, and combat the criminal groups involved in those incidents. The guide is also aimed at raising awareness among policymakers about the threat of sports corruption.   

The new guide provides information on approaches and techniques for effective investigations into sports corruption cases. It also provides guidance on how law enforcement agencies and sports organizations, and other relevant stakeholders, can work together to detect corrupt activities across different jurisdictions, and disrupt the international organized crime syndicates that are actively involved in sports.

Other topics covered in the guide include sources of information, intelligence, allegations and evidence in sports corruption cases; interviewing techniques and evidence issues; how to apply existing legal instruments such as the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC); and guidance on the relationship between investigators and prosecutors in sports corruption cases. 

“The investigative skills of both law enforcement agencies and sports organizations around the world, which are needed to identify and apprehend those responsible, are relatively underdeveloped,” John Brandolino, UNODC’s director for treaty affairs, said when the guide was launched earlier this year.

ICSS officials hope to work with UNODC to develop a series of workshops and training courses on these issues. ​ ​