Commentary

Bring on a New Year's revolution that will clean up world sport

Acting Fifa president Issa Hayatou recently changed the rules at the Confederation of African Football to allow him to extend his tenure as president beyond three decades.
Acting Fifa president Issa Hayatou recently changed the rules at the Confederation of African Football to allow him to extend his tenure as president beyond three decades.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The first three months of this year will be crucial for IAAF president Sebastian Coe, who faces a growing avalanche of allegations against the world athletics governing body.
The first three months of this year will be crucial for IAAF president Sebastian Coe, who faces a growing avalanche of allegations against the world athletics governing body.PHOTO: REUTERS

Far from shaking off a hangover on New Year's Day, the dank fug that enveloped world sport in 2015 as it lurched from crisis to crisis like a drunken reveller looks set to only intensify in the coming months.

For those looking through a glass half full, the past year was one where light was finally shone on dark corners and the stench that had emanated from the black granite boardroom in Fifa's opulent US$300 million (S$423 million) headquarters for decades began to clear.

It was the year when the scale of the alleged corruption at the world athletics governing body was brought to public attention in such a violent and jaw-dropping manner that it is becoming increasingly clear that the sport is faced with an existential crisis.

And yet, for all that, while the turn of the year is traditionally associated with a desire to look forward with optimism, the actions of those supposedly leading the clean-up from the inside have so far done little to inspire confidence.

The mighty have fallen at football's world governing body. But the question is - what next?

Reform road maps, transparency pledges and vows of good governance have been endlessly promised in recent years sometimes by the very people now under arrest or cast from the game in disgrace... The most detailed governance overhaul in the world will amount to no more than putting lipstick on a pig if it does not go hand in hand with a wholesale reform of the culture, personnel and practices.

Those behind the reform proposals that will be voted on next month at the same extraordinary congress that will elect (president) Sepp Blatter's successor are privately vigorously arguing they will set the tone for a new Fifa.

They argue the emphasis should be on the new structural blueprint they will lay out rather than the misdemeanours of the personalities currently passing through Brooklyn courtrooms.

There are two problems here. One is the fatigued notion that we have heard it all before. Reform road maps, transparency pledges and vows of good governance have been endlessly promised in recent years, sometimes by the very people now under arrest or cast from the game in disgrace.

The second is that the most detailed governance overhaul in the world will amount to no more than putting lipstick on a pig if it does not go hand in hand with a wholesale reform of the culture, personnel and practices at the top of world football.

On top of that, it is hard to take the promises entirely seriously when they come from the mouth of Issa Hayatou - the Cameroonian acting Fifa president who is a veteran of the bad old days. He recently changed the rules at the Confederation of African Football to allow him to extend his tenure as president to more than three decades.

Likewise, the five candidates for the next Fifa presidency do not exactly inspire confidence.

Sheikh Salman Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, the Bahraini Asian Football Confederation president who is the favourite, recently claimed the US arrests were nothing to do with Fifa but purely an issue for the confederations. Nothing he has said or done thus far inspires confidence his Fifa would be anything other than more of the same with a few licks of paint.

As such, it is impossible not to be convinced by those who continue to argue with impeccable logic but seemingly little chance of success that the only sensible course of action is to shut the whole place down and press ahead with an external reform process.

Running a sport as globally successful and powerful as football should not be complex, but the internecine internal politics and global power struggles make it so.

The situation in athletics is arguably even more grim. Even the worst that Jack Warner could dream up did not affect the integrity of football itself, as the central accusation that senior IAAF officials - including the president, his son and the head of the anti-doping unit - suppressed positive drug tests of Russian athletes does.

Athletics is a sport on life support. (IAAF president) Sebastian Coe, the British sporting icon, faces a crucial first three months of 2016. The nuances of his message have no chance of getting out while he struggles beneath the growing avalanche of allegations, proven and as yet unproven, submerging his sport.

For Coe, it will get worse before it stands any hope of getting better, and the jury remains out on whether he is able to sufficiently extricate himself from his complicity in the mess to properly tackle it.

There are also serious structural issues. The World Anti-Doping Agency itself must prove it is fit for purpose - tough regulator rather than purveyor of fluffy educational programmes and PR. And the International Olympic Committee must prove it is not horribly conflicted and compromised itself.

As IAAF inspection teams set off for Russia early this month before a decision in March about whether to let them compete in (the) Rio (Olympics), it will be harder than ever to suspend disbelief.

Every two years, broadcasters and sponsors pay billions in the belief that viewers around the world will temporarily disengage from the murkiness surrounding those who govern and sell world sport to gorge on the power of the sporting spectacle and channel the purity of stories of individual heroism from which they draw their power. In Rio, that may prove tougher than ever.

Yet, if there is one aspect of all this that must provide some hope it is that some of those who have arrogantly profited as they have hollowed out global sport over the past three decades have finally, belatedly been brought to book in 2015.

That alone is reason to raise a glass to the US Department of Justice, the attorney-general Loretta Lynch, the Russian whistleblowers Yulia and Vitaliy Stepanov, the investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt and all those others who got us here.

But the champagne should stay very much on ice until it becomes clear whether the grim catalogue of revelations in 2015 really offers hope of a full stop to a story of four decades of sporting corruption and contagion - or merely signals a pause.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2016, with the headline 'Bring on a New Year's revolution that will clean up world sport'. Print Edition | Subscribe