Bounce of the ball

Bounce of the ball

The underbelly of sport: Dirty Games

Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann

Exposés about corruption in sport are not new, but they have become more frequent. There was never a golden age of pure sport, but there is now a growing public realisation that many of sport’s core ideals – such as fairness, integrity, character and respect – are too often real in name only.

Benjamin Best’s multi-award-winning film, Dirty Games, is a tour de force of much that is shameful about high-performance sport. It is a compilation of stories about arrogance, exploitation, avarice, manipulation and criminality.

Dirty Games was recently launched in Australia at the German Film Festival, and it is now available on demand for local consumers. The documentary is a critical accompaniment to the work of another German reporter/filmmaker, Hajo Seppelt, who revealed state-sponsored doping in Russia.

Inhumanity

Dirty Games begins with a harrowing account of Nepalese labourers being exploited in Qatar. Upon arrival, they realised the employment “contracts” they had signed were not worth the paper they were written on.

The construction of World Cup venues was surely an opportunity for the Qataris, entrusted by FIFA, to provide safe and rewarding work conditions and a legacy of goodwill. Instead, as the film shows, many Nepalese labourers returned home with major injuries or, even worse, in a casket.

This is the height of indecency. Both Qatar and the global corporations they have employed to build infrastructure are immensely wealthy and thus have the capacity to be socially responsible managers. Instead they exhibit flagrant disregard for human life.

Dirty Games also takes us to Rio de Janeiro, where an Olympic Park was slated for a Western part of the city occupied by the poor. The local residents did not wish to move, as they had no genuine options elsewhere. Police were called into move them on, which they did forcibly.

Instead of the Olympic Games being a mechanism by which to engage with disadvantaged people, such as by including them in this park project, they were displaced out of sight and mind. The poor and the weak had no currency in Rio’s rendition of the Olympic spirit.

It is an astonishing irony, therefore, that this city has just admitted it is “broke” in the wake of state expenditures on the World Cup and the Olympics.

Audacity

Dirty Games takes particular aim at football’s world governing body, FIFA. It draws on Richard Blumenthal, speaking at a US Senate subcommittee hearing into FBI charges against FIFA.

After reviewing the evidence, he concluded FIFA is “a mafia-style crime syndicate” that is more “blatant, overt and arrogant in its corruption” than the mafia itself.

Countries who seek to dine at the FIFA table, and thus to host the World Cup, come bearing gifts to those who either directly or indirectly influence the outcome of bidding sorties. The stakes are high and the ethical standards too often low.

Those with high principles, such as Australia’s Bonita Mersiades, who was part of Football Federation Australia’s (FFA) World Cup bid, risked being removed from the negotiating table. Mersiades had the temerity to ask questions about where and why large sums of money were being directed offshore – in one case to the private bank account of the now-disgraced Caribbean FIFA executive, Jack Warner. The FFA showed Mersiades the door.

Perversity

Dirty Games exposes two particularly vexing examples of deception in American sport. In an extraordinary admission, former American boxing promoter, Charles Farrell, admitted to fixing “hundreds” of fights.

He outlines the linguistic “code” underpinning the arrangement of outcomes: Farrell insists the big winners from such deals are almost always the losers of the fight. Only elite boxers have the optimum combination of athletic capability and financial incentive in order to fight to win.

On a personal level, Farrell candidly admits that he made enough from fixing one fight to “send his son through college”. He took particular pride in that. Farrell lives in Boston, is now an accomplished pianist, and appears to have suffered no consequences from his admissions, or his long-time association with organised crime groups.

For many viewers, a real eye opener is likely to be compromised integrity of the adjudication of NBA games. Match officials are disallowed from gambling on NBA matches, but according to former top-flight referee Tim Donaghy, the practice is rife.

Yet the big surprise, at least to me, was Donaghy’s insistence that the NBA leadership was putting pressure on referees to make different calls on star players than for regular players, and that the league had inferred to referees that their preference was for certain teams to advance (typically from big cities) rather than others (typically from smaller cities).

According to Donaghy, the NBA is so determined to maximise its financial position that it sought to influence opportunity for star athletes and outcome for major clubs.

Donaghy’s career as a referee ended abruptly when he was arrested by the FBI: through a wiretap of an organised-crime syndicate, authorities learned of Donaghy’s criminality. He served 15 months in jail, during which time he wrote a memoir, Personal Foul. The NBA conducted an internal investigation of gambling among referees, finding that is was rife, but apparently not on NBA games. Thus no foul play. Donaghy was therefore a “bad apple” rather than typical.

Dirty Games provides a provocative compilation of stories that will repulse sport traditionalists, enrage sport whistleblowers, and hopefully provide a spur to more investigative reporting like this.

The most dignified and helpful response from sport organisations who are serious about integrity and credibility is to engage with independent critics like Benjamin Best.