Sat. Jul 11th, 2020

The virus in sports

8 min read

The recently published McLaren report on corruption in weightlifting may seem to be an isolated issue surrounding the International Weightlifting Federation and its former president Tamas Ajan. But it is far from it. Corruption and authoritarian rule are the bane in many local and international sports organisations.

The full findings of the Mc Laren Report can be read here. But the gist of the matter is as follows.

The independent report found that Tamás Ajan took more than $600,000 (£472,000/€530,000) in cash to successive IWF electoral congresses, and spent much of it on bribes to buy votes. It also revealed that after Ajan won the 2017 election in Bangkok, Thailand, member federation delegates queued in a hotel corridor to be paid between from $5,000 to $30,000 (£23,620/€26,570) in bribes by Major General Intarat Yodbangtoey, the IWF’s first vice-president and Ajan’s second in command.

It would be wise for the Malaysia Weightlifting Federation (MWF), who are currently serving suspension for multiple doping offences, to clear the air on whether they were complicit in the matter.

Members were also lavished with trips on private cruise ships and stays in five-star hotels prior to the election.

Ajan has since been replaced by America Ursula Garza Papandrea, as the IWF Acting President but Intarat is still in the executive board together with the rest of the board.

The McLaren Report confirmed that Ajan was complicit in not only buying votes for himself, but also for other positions of influence on the Executive Board. The positions of these office bearers are now in question and they are likely to be ousted.

It was Papandrea who appointed The McLaren Independent Investigation Team to investigate the allegations of corruption in IWF. A total of USD10.4 million has been found to be unaccounted for from the IWF accounts.

The report stated that the only person with exclusive control of the IWF bank accounts, collection and handling of cash membership fees and member doping fines, and the ability to withdraw cash from the IWF bank accounts was Ajan alone.

The McLaren team revealed how Ajan twice defeated Italian Antonio Urso, in 2013 and 2017, by bribing delegates. His victory in the last election in 2017 earned Ajan a fifth term as President, before he was forced to resign after being accused of corruption in a German documentary.

Former Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) secretary Dato Sieh Kok Chi said that vote buying can only be carried out by the rich and the powerful who wish to extent their control over their organisations indefinitely.

“The only way to stop this, as recommended by McLaren is to have a maximum two term or 8 years tenure on the elected leaders,  a weighted system of voting, based on the ethical standards and performance of the members. The tenure limit is most important, because the longer a person holds a post, the longer he wishes to stay by any means, fair or foul. In addition whatever allowances, payments and perks received must be made public,” said Kok Chi.

The IWF is not the only international sports federation to have been implicated in corruption of some sort, and not necessarily bribery for position alone. The list includes the revelation in the past of corruption in FIFA, IAAF (now World Athletics), FIVB and the IABF among others.

Even the Olympics is not exempted from this scourge. In 1998, revelations concerning the bidding process for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics led to investigations and a series of disclosures about bid-related malfeasance at other Olympic games. Officials from the Salt Lake bid committee were indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, fraud and racketeering. But nothing seems to have been learnt from these episodes.

It recently came to light that Japanese Haruyuki Takahashi became a high-flying bagman, armed with $8.2 million from the Tokyo 2020 bid committee to help secure IOC votes. Haruyuki, the former executive at the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu has denied wrongdoing, although he admitted that he lobbied voting IOC members like Lamine Diack, the former head of the IAAF who has been under house arrest in France since 2015 on corruption charges.

It happens even in lesser known organisations. The founding member and Treasurer of the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF), quit the organisation in 2018 after being completely kept in dark of the federation’s accounts by its president. The federation’s statement of accounts were prepared by a third party and approved at its general body without a iota of input or oversight by the treasurer.

Rumours were also rife that during last year’s Badminton Association of Asia (BAC) elections, bribes were offered and given to delegates by certain officials. It is also reliably learnt that one of the candidates and his team are now trying to get the election results nullified by the Registrar of Societies in Malaysia, not because of any perceived bribery but for technical reasons.

Bribery for position in national sports associations may not necessarily mean the exchange of money, it can be in the form of overseas trips or influential positions in the organisation itself.

One national association saw it fit to being a large entourage of members overseas in the guise of supporting the national team last year, just before the association’s elections were held.

In Malaysia, there are also many state level organisations that are headed by the same officials for as long as three decades. As these are the same officials, who are also responsible in electing national level office-bearers, nothing much changes. The same regime continues to wield the power at the national level as well.

Countries like India and Kenya already have legislation limiting terms of office bearers for sports officials, something that the Sports Ministry here have proposed in the past. but has not gained traction.

Membership rules of national sports associations, with only state level affiliation, makes it all the easier for manipulation of elections by unscrupulous officials to hold onto power.

A retiring office-bearer almost always “recommends” and “elevates” his protégé to take over and the rest of the president’s men will follow suit with their votes. With unchecked powers, some sports leaders have total control of their organisation and create a culture of fear.

Proper development and promotion of the sport takes backseat to the continuous maneuvering by these officials to remain in power. Surrounded by yes men, the sports leader pushes through his own agenda, sometimes conceited, with impunity.

With virtually no oversight, players are dropped for demanding their rights, officials are sidelined for questioning wrongs, coaches are reassigned for “interfering” into selections. Money is spent on pet projects and “allowances” to office bearers. Creative accounting is done to hide sums spent on so called allowances, study trips and meetings.

Key positions are given to people, who are unqualified, but for the mere requisite of being the president’s man. Coaching committee headed by someone who does not have an inkling of what coaching is about. Technical committee headed by someone who does not have basic understanding of the game rules.

The Sports Development Act, while empowering the Sports Minister and the Sports Commissioner with sweeping powers has very little provisions to assist in the actual eradication of corruption, autocratic leadership and abuse of power in sports organisations.

How can we expect a quick resolution to these when the Sports Ministry itself has been unable to keep their own house in order in the past? The 1998 Commonwealth Games accounts were never really closed, the siphoning of RM100 million by a senior officer in the sports ministry just a few years ago seems to be completely forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind!

In 2018, the then deputy Youth and Sports minister Steven Sim said the ministry was at number 8 out of 25 ministries in which corruption was a big problem, citing weaknesses in the procurement and payment processes.

In January this year, the ministry wanted to have the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) station their officer in the minister’s office.

For the common person it may look like rats repairing pumpkin considering the problems within the power-to-be themselves.

For Malaysian sports to truly break the barrier and take the next step, a complete overhaul of the system is needed. A study by an independent body, like the McLaren report, must be commissioned to identify what ails Malaysian sports.

It may not be the Covid-19, but this virus is spreading down to national and local levels. It must be stopped before it destroys sports in the country.

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July 2020