A gripping drama is unfolding in the sports world. Swiss prosecutors have teamed with the US Department of Justice to find and arrest a target list of fourteen suspects working for FIFA. The suspects are alleged to have gained from millions of dollars in bribes or engaged in money laundering to cover it up. Hollywood’s best scriptwriters would be challenged to do better.
Sports leaders, including the International Olympic Committee Executive Board and over eighty IOC delegates meeting in Switzerland to evaluate details of plans for future Olympic Games have had to take a time out from the fundamentals of sports promotion to adapt their game plans to the FIFA scandals. An important goal is to refocus attention on the many positive attributes of sports and a critical goal is maintaining the trust of sponsors who make most important international sports events possible. And today’s sports leaders are finding they need to make a good effort to strengthen the image of sports beyond FIFA’s realm.
FIFA, the international federation for soccer, as well as other sports federations mired in controversy, were not on the agenda for the Spring 2015 Executive Board Meeting of the International Olympic Committee at all. But these controversies dominated media inquiries in the press briefing that followed the first session on June 7. Few sports reports probe the details of FIFA’s relations with Olympic Organizations. Individual sports federations including FIFA establish the rules and games plans for actual sports competitions and work with the local organizing committees to execute the game plans and with Olympic communications staff to achieve a uniform image. Unlike almost all other sports played in the Olympics, FIFA has demanded a major limitation. That is for Men’s Olympic Soccer to be played primarily wby emerging talent aged 23 and under, with up to four slots for more mature players. This is one reason that the International Olympic Committee has limited leverage over FIFA; about ninety percent of IOC funding is redistributed to support training and sports events for athletes, but very few players in FIFA men’s soccer fall into this category. In addition, FIFA and the Olympics compete for sponsor attention, with common sponsors such as VISA and McDonald’s.
In this context, the response of International Olympic Committee spokesperson Mark Adams at the June 7 opening press conference was an understatement – “it is not the place of the IOC to make decisions for FIFA.” It is also not clear whether FIFA still has a manageable chain of command to act upon well intentioned coaching. Other sports leaders are at least making an effort. IOC President Thomas Bach, for example, has pointed out that the IOC had its own controversies with Salt Lake City bid irregularities and responded by separating itself from the delegates involved and recruiting new leadership quickly. That alone may not be grounds for optimism. FIFA’s rules do not lend themselves to quick decision making and if the number of arrest warrants continues to climb, FIFA committees may not be able to achieve quorums.
Another controversy addressed by the delegates at this week’s IOC Executive Board meeting provides an interesting contrast of what sports leaders can do when they do have more influence over decision making. On June 7, the Executive Board of the IOC joined the International Athletics Association (IAAF) and many other sports organizations in suspending its recognition and financial support for SportAccord, the umbrella organization for sports federations. While the IOC referred to the challenges at SportAccord tactfully as “serious internal problems” the current level of problems is more like civil war, with large numbers of member organizations and venue hosts declining to support the organization until it changes direction.
The implosion at SportAccord is more than inconvenient for much of the sports world. SportAccord has functioned as a subcontractor for project management of doping control and match fixing investigations. These are complex tasks that smaller sports like skeleton or curling do not usually have the expertise or budgets to manage on their own. So pooling resources for execution by SportAccord made financial sense. The current plan is for the $300,000 in annual funding that the IOC has channeled to SportAccord to be reallocated to international sports federations. For many, that will mean a lot more work for very little money, something many athletes have become very used to.