Law enforcement has finally caught up with the public concerning the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. And given that it is the United States taking action, this investigation is not going to go away until vengeance is sated. FIFA might not exist as we know it by the time the US Department of Justice is through with them. Whatever emerges from this latest scandal is unlikely to feel revelatory, given the standards for graft FIFA have already set for themselves. They are, in short, quite irredeemable in their current state. And yet, I still cannot bring myself to view them as the most objectionable sporting administrators on the planet. That dubious accolade deserves to belong to the International Olympic Committee. FIFA admittedly have probably overtaken the IOC in the bribery stakes. Since the scandals associated with the 2002 Winter Olympics, the IOC’s outrages have tended to be perpetrated in plain sight, their lofty demands cravenly acceded to by vain politicians seeking reflected glory.
To digress slightly, this writer recently attended an academic discussion in august surroundings, in an atmosphere redolent of highly intellectual thought and purpose. The matter at hand was the politics around the Eurovision Song Contest. At one stage the visiting academic invoked the phrase ‘banal nationalism’, and drew comparison with the Olympic Games, which drew a visceral response from me in my leather chair. I was so outraged I almost spilt my wine I was nursing in my hand. And when the conversation was opened to the floor, I couldn’t resist embarking on what I admit was an ill-considered rant. Being aware of my audience couldn’t prevent me from ploughing into terrain that was likely to offend some sensibilities. For I do not believe the benign exuberance of the Eurovision is mirrored in the Olympic Games. The Olympics is a vehicle for far greater levels of national chauvinism, and it reeks of Stalinist conformity.
Before engaging in any Olympics bashing, I should have realised the British view of the Olympics nowadays is not an especially critical one. The nation will be basking in the warm glow of their successful staging of the summer games for some time to come. In considering this, however, it is interesting to note how the narrative around London 2012 transformed so quickly. In the weeks leading up to the games, there was much grumbling about the privileges the IOC were demanding for themselves. We had reports of vastly inflated budgets, limousines processing along the designated ‘Zil lanes’, missile launchers atop apartment blocks, botched security provisions which necessitated the assistance of the army, and many more outrages besides. 65 medals for the host nation later, 29 of them gold, and all was apparently forgiven and forgotten.
There are a few key differences between Olympics and the World Cup as sporting festivals. While both have become project management bonanzas, the World Cup does not have an inherent white elephant problem, though it has in recent stagings in Brazil and South Africa had white elephants imposed upon it. The Olympic Games, by contrast, require flashy arenas that usually serve little or no purpose when the fortnight’s circus comes to a finish. I recall walking around the Olympic park in Athens in 2007, and feeling a sense of acute melancholy only three years after it staged the games. I can’t imagine how I would feel returning there now. That slippery word legacy that is always invoked to sell a bid almost invariably turns out to be a sham.
The pointlessness of expensive venues brings into sharp relief the dubiousness of so many of the sports played in them. They serve as one reminder that the modern Olympics movement was founded by a toff, whose influence is still visible in the priority given to so many minority pastimes that are only accessible to the well off. In fact, there is an embarrassment of events which are elevated to mythic Olympic status. We are essentially invited to regard the winners of the sprint kayaking, the freestyle aerials, and the team dressage as being champions on a par with Jesse Owens, an utter perversion of true sporting merit. A friend once told me that an Olympic medal for Torvill and Dean was worth as much as a prize in the Castletown Feis, and over time I’ve increasingly come to believe he was right. I have previously compiled a list of sports I would eliminate from the summer and winter Olympics, amounting to probably about 75% of them, but I will save that for another post.
FIFA doesn’t have to impose such confidence tricks on us. There is nothing confected about the passions of the events they oversee, for FIFA presides over the great world game. It is fashionable around Olympics time to sneer at footballers for their supposed degeneracy and to contrast them with Olympian “heroes”, a line of attack that is usually informed by copious helpings of class snobbery. While aware that Uzbekistan probably doesn’t have the most permissive laws surrounding alcohol consumption, at such moments I like to introduce the Bar in Downtown Tashkent Test. I can confidently tell you the denizens of this establishment won’t be able to tell you who got a bronze medal in the skeleton at Vancouver 2010, but they will know who Wayne Rooney is.
Another Olympic canard is the contention that athletic competition promotes greater understanding between cultures and so engenders greater friendliness between nations. The Olympics are in fact specifically designed as a mode of expression for squalid nationalism, which is reason enough to find the whole thing detestable. Moreover, what justification is there to provide a medals table other than to offer an excuse for triumphalism for the countries at the top of it?
With FIFA, their depravity mostly comes down to money. It is not intended as a defence, but they are ordinary decent criminals compared to the overlords of the IOC, with their creepy Orwellian concept of the “Olympic family”. I originally thought that was merely a wishy-washy reference to all of humanity, but in fact it only applies to “IOC members, representatives of National Olympic Committee (NOCs), International Federations (IFs), the Organising Committees of the Olympic Games (OCOGS), athletes, coaches, media, sponsors and other stakeholders”. So the term is really just an upmarket way of declaring they are Mafiosi. Their extravagance will, with any luck, eventually backfire on them. The IOC has had a difficult time trying to encourage bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics. If they don’t want their marquee showpieces to become the province of dictators who don’t baulk at their ridiculous demands, they will eventually have to acquire some dignity and humility, qualities which hitherto they have never evinced.
The same applies to FIFA, but they will have to do it the hard way. Sepp Blatter may just have had another coronation, but it seems unimaginable that FIFA can operate with the same impunity as before, with American officialdom now breathing down their necks. When something can’t go on any longer, it stops. The cocktail of US legal pressure, disgruntled European football associations, nervous sponsors and an emboldened media will eventually cause a disruption in the way football is run. How and when that happens will be the interesting part.