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Tokyo 2020 facing allegations – but is clean world sport an impossible dream?

French authorities investigating. EPA

Say it ain’t so, Tokyo. Those were my thoughts when I saw the Guardian’s allegations over the Japanese capital’s winning bid for the 2020 Olympic Games: French police are reportedly investigating an alleged €1.3 million (£1m) payment to an account linked to the son of a disgraced former world athletics supremo who was a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) during the bidding process. The IOC has declined to comment, though Japan has insisted its bid was clean.

It is of course the latest in a very long line of stories questioning the ways in which cities and nations bid for prestigious events, even if the IOC has been relatively trouble free in recent years. After the Salt Lake City Olympics bribery scandal of the late 1990s, it made some significant changes to stop the worst abuses in a system that certainly needed fixing. Plenty of other international sporting organisations have been keeping journalists much more busy since then, not least FIFA and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

The Guardian is not particularly gunning for the IOC over the story. As its journalist Sean Ingle wrote:

It would be churlish to not acknowledge the IOC’s attempts to improve its voting procedures in recent years. They have tried. What the Guardian’s story shows, however, is that it is hard to completely protect such a lucrative and prized event as Olympics from corruption.

Yet it is hardly a revelation that elite sport often revolves entirely around money. Fictional sports agent Jerry Maguire knew this, I know it, and you know it. Once the rewards become bigger, the kudos shinier and the accreditation badges even larger, corruption is always likely to kick in. We’ve been seeing the results for a long, long time. Sociologists John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson wrote about bribery and corruption in FIFA some two decades ago. Their work showed how the power structures and hubris surrounding key figures in football reshaped the world game. Around the same time, author and investigative journalist Andrew Jennings made similar observations with his important work on the Olympic Games.

Why Tokyo matters

If this is often the reality, it matters all the more to sports fans that Tokyo not be tainted by allegations of foul play. It is less than a year since Japan became the Leicester City of international rugby when it defeated South Africa on a truly memorable afternoon in Brighton during the Rugby Word Cup. It remains arguably the very best rugby story of all time, and the perfect prelude to the nation moving to the centre of the international sporting world. A year before the Olympics, it is to become the first nation to host rugby’s premier event outside of the foundation unions.

Japan celebrates the downing of the Springboks. EPA

It is also another major negative very close to the Rio Olympics – as if Brazil did not have enough problems of its own right now.

It is important to stress that we are only talking about allegations at this stage and that nobody has been charged with any wrongdoing. The alleged payment was to an account linked to Papa Massata Diack, whose father Lamine was the former president of the IAAF. Diack Sr is under investigation over bribery allegations in relation to the Russian doping scandal, while Diack Jr is facing other allegations relating to voting for the 2020 games that do not involve Tokyo.

Whatever the outcome, there is clearly still much work to be done in the ongoing quest to clean up sport. I would argue that those fighting the good fight can only ever achieve so much anyway. Why should sport be any different to other areas of big business or politics where similar tales emerge regularly?

The images of Jamie Vardy and friends having a party as Leicester City picked up the English Premier League trophy should also remind us that sport can be a wonderful thing. Nowhere is this more apparent at the moment than in the sunny surrounds of the ESPN Wide World of Sports and Walt Disney Resort in Florida in the form of the Invictus Games, Prince Harry’s Paralympics-style multiple sports event for armed services personnel and veterans.

Arise King Jamie. Nick Potts/PA

As fans we need such images and stories. Far too much that is written about sport these days focuses on the bad things. It would be more of a story to find that a large event did not have a whiff of the smelly stuff surrounding it. That’s not meant to excuse everything that has been going on, but just a reminder about the wonderful action on the track, the courts and the fields of play.

Or if that’s too glib for you, it is also important to remember that there are still over four years to go until Tokyo 2020. There is the small matter of Rio 2016, the Zika virus, water quality at the sailing venue, the jaw-dropping political backdrop and various other challenges for the IOC to navigate first.

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