George Hallam

Early figures indicate that 1.5 billion people tuned in to watch the final of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar while the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 was watched by more than three billion people worldwide. Sport has the ability to command a great deal of attention and the ability to bring people together.

So for those in positions of authority - be that federations, leagues or governing bodies - not only is sport a unique opportunity to be used as a platform for good but it is also their responsibility to make sure that it is. Scandals erode public trust in sporting bodies and weaken the ability of sport to educate and be an ethical exemplar.

Good governance is at the heart of sporting integrity but as we have seen from multiple scandals in the past 20 years - ranging from the controversial to the catastrophic - failing to have robust governance structures can result in reputational damage, boycotts, and threats of expulsion.

Tournament bidding will continue to be a weakness in the integrity of sport if governance structures continue to fail. The FIFA World Cup in Qatar, which concluded last month, was marred by controversy from the very start after it was awarded the tournament in 2010.

In 2020 five former officials of the Organising Committee were accused of accepting bribes in exchange for votes for Qatar. Although all accused continue to deny the allegations associated with the tournament bidding process, the implicated former FIFA Executive Committee member Mohammed Bin Hammam had also earlier been embroiled in a cash-for-votes scandal in the 2011 FIFA Presidential elections.

Media and broadcasting rights have been responsible for creating some of the richest sporting leagues and tournaments, and nowhere is this more apparent than with the FIFA World Cup.

In 2020, US investigators charged two former 21st Century Fox executives with wire fraud and money laundering, indicting more than 40 individuals and two corporations, related to the bidding process for the broadcasting rights of several major tournaments including the World Cup. 

The pair were accused of bribing South American officials to secure the rights, thereby depriving "FIFA, the confederations and their constituent organisations of the full value of those rights."

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was marred by controversy from the start, over the initial decision to award the tournament to the country ©Getty Images
The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was marred by controversy from the start, over the initial decision to award the tournament to the country ©Getty Images

Sponsorship and merchandising can be another weak spot for corruption and malpractice in sport. Tokyo 2020 Olympics Organising Committee member Haruyuki Takahashi was indicted on four occasions on charges of accepting bribes from companies who became tournament sponsors.

He had previously been indicted for receiving bribes from clothing retailer Aoki Holdings, publishing company Kadokawa Corporation and toy manufacturer Sun Arrow, all worth millions of Japanese Yen.

The centrepiece of Qatar’s World Cup, Lusail Stadium, was built by the China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC). Before its work in Doha, the CRCC reportedly constructed facilities that have since been used for the mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang - although there is no indication that the CRCC was ever aware of their alleged purpose. 

As infrastructure is fundamental to where sport is performed and the success of tournaments, due diligence into how that infrastructure is being built along with associated supply chains remains to be a fundamental responsibility of governing bodies.

The glory and riches at stake in sporting competition unfortunately can incentivise a less honest path to success but poor governance can exacerbate cheating through encouragement, cover ups, or cultivating cultures where there is zero accountability. 

Tamás Aján, the former head of the International Weightlifting Federation, was charged by the International Testing Agency with covering up doping violations for athletes in order for them to participate in high-level competitions. 

Forty positive drug tests were allegedly covered up in the incident including for two athletes who won World Championship gold and silver medals. As a result of scandals in the organisation, weightlifting competition has been blocked from the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics.

Reports of Larry Nassar’s abuse of countless young girls were routinely ignored by USA Gymnastics officials. The former team doctor of the United States women's gymnastics team, now a convicted child rapist, was able to behave in the way he did for so long without being held to account. Simone Biles blamed the "entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse."

Former United States women's gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was able to get away with multiple cases of abuse due to governance failures by USA Gymnastics ©Getty Images
Former United States women's gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was able to get away with multiple cases of abuse due to governance failures by USA Gymnastics ©Getty Images

In 2018, the Council of Europe called for a "major overhaul of sports governance structures and practices" and suggested that holding individuals criminally accountable could be one way to provide the "necessary reforms."

As an organisation which undertakes due diligence and in-depth intelligence into sporting institutions, InsightX recommends performing eligibility checks on candidates as the starting point for ensuring good governance within an organisation.

An exemplary ethical track record should be a core attribute to be investigated in any eligibility check. Those who have a negative history, however long ago, run the risk of creating vulnerabilities in governing bodies.

Investigating an individual’s record in business and corporate directorships can reveal hidden interests or connections, as well as financial irregularities which may carry an added layer of risk.

Has the individual accrued any litigation or regulatory anomalies, including any sanctions which could jeopardise an organisation’s integrity or cast doubt on their suitability for the role?

Could they be identified as a politically exposed person which may make them more susceptible to be involved with bribery or corruption? Is their prominence or influence - political exposure - actually a vulnerability for federations?

To conclude - federations, leagues and governing bodies all have the right to govern autonomously but they must mature their transparency and accountability mechanisms in order to grow trust and govern effectively. 

Good governance matters not because organisations should want to avoid scandals, reputational damage or sanctions, but because governance should be good for the sake of being ethical. Ensuring that the guardians of sporting integrity uphold the highest standards themselves is one way to do this, while simultaneously safeguarding organisations’ independence.