The UN sent shock waves around Lake Geneva this week with the first-ever analysis of corruption in sports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report concludes that more must be done to tackle criminal activities surrounding international sports organizations—almost 60 of which are based in Switzerland, with the “Olympic Capital” Lausanne (home to the International Olympic Committee) acting as a magnet.
UEFA is not far away, in Nyon, while many other sports federations are in the same region. However, the report makes it abundantly clear that the lake’s waters are far more transparent than the institutions which dot its shores. The UN document lays out plainly the staggering “scale, manifestation, and complexity of corruption and organized crime” currently targeting sports.
Nearly two hundred experts from around the world, active in governments, sports organizations, academia, the private sector, and other stakeholders, contributed to what is the first in-depth UN analysis of corruption in sports. The UNODC study is being published a few months before the Beijing Winter Olympics and in advance of the most controversial ever soccer World Cup, to be held in Qatar in 2022. Three years in the making, the report was mandated by a UN resolution adopted in 2019, by the Conference of the States Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption.
The report concludes that “there is widespread recognition of the negative economic and societal consequences of corruption in sport and in particular its impact on youth. […] To effectively address this problem, more work is required to understand the scale, scope, and manifestations of corruption in sports worldwide. The international community is acutely aware of the need to close this knowledge gap,” its authors state—and indeed, it is. It is to state the obvious that these words apply to three of the most powerful sports institutions in the world: the IOC, FIFA, and UEFA, all based in Switzerland and the broader International Geneva ecosystem. Over the years, with various degrees of success, they have all courted the UN, which has often obliged. Former UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon was at one point on the IOC Ethics Commission, while WHO warmly embraced FIFA at the outset of the pandemic. FIFA’s boss, Gianni Infantino, is one of the very many people that Dr Tedros refers to as “my brother.”
While the report admits that corruption in sports is not a new phenomenon, the past two decades have witnessed a substantial increase in criminal activities in the sector: “Globalization, a huge influx of money, the rapid growth of legal and illegal sports betting, and technological advances transforming the way sport is played and consumed are making it increasingly attractive to criminal networks seeking to exploit sport for illicit profit,” the report explains, estimating that $1.7 trillion are wagered on illicit betting markets each year.
The current legislative environment is also making criminal activity easier: “The role of organized crime groups in corruption in sport and the criminal infiltration of sports organizations has grown markedly as a result of the recent evolutions in sport.” The report continues, “Criminal groups are exploiting vulnerabilities linked to development-related changes and the weaknesses of legislative and regulatory frameworks that govern sports.”
The sports world itself is particularly opaque, and sports organizations show little or no willingness to address corruption from within. “Anti-corruption institutions in sport are in many ways still in their infancy,” the report says. Potential whistle-blowers are still discouraged from reporting corruption for fear of retaliation, and “investigative journalists often face intimidation, attempts to undermine their professional credibility, and threats to their lives,” the report’s authors insist.
The document makes for bleak reading: “Corruption within sports organizations has been exposed on a broad scale, not least with regard to the awarding of hosting rights of major sports events,” it claims. Clearly, rooting out corruption in sports will require a massive change in attitude, including from the fans.