"I think this raises a big concern that the decision to give Qatar the World Cup was based on money, not based on sporting interests."
-- British Parliament member Damian Collins, on a newspaper report alleging corruption in FIFA's World Cup bidding process
Really? Could it be? The governing body of a major athletic competition chose an event location based on unmarked bills, lots of them, and put them in a wheeled suitcase with one of those extendable steering handles, mmmmkay? They did so instead of selecting based on the best interests of athletes and the pure love of sport? You mean that a desert peninsula where the average summer high temperature is 106 degrees isn't the best place on Earth to hold a soccer match in which people run around pretty much nonstop on a patch of grass?
Say it ain't so.
Following a report in the U.K. Telegraph alleging that former FIFA official Jack Warner and his family were paid roughly $2 million from a firm that had close ties to Qatar's successful bid for the 2022 World Cup, members of British Parliament are calling upon soccer's worldwide governing body to investigate further, and even consider taking the tournament away from Qatar if the allegations prove true. One MP reportedly wants FIFA to reopen the bidding process; another went so far to as say that the newspaper's report was "surprising."
As in: never saw this coming?
No. Please. Here's a story: Once upon a time, there was a man named Rod Blagojevich. He was the governor of Illinois, and after Barack Obama was elected president, Blagojevich got to decide who would fill Obama's vacated Senate seat -- a power the governor called "f-king golden." Like a golden ticket. In exchange for an appointment, he allegedly wanted cash, a job, cash for his wife and a U.S. Cabinet post -- or, in lieu of the latter, an ambassadorship to Serbia.
Big ticket sports events are golden tickets. Plain and simple. As far as anybody knows, no one has ever asked for a diplomatic posting to Montenegro in exchange for an Olympic or World Cup bid city vote... as far as anybody knows. Because FIFA and International Olympic Committee members sure as heck have asked for other gimmie-gimmie-gimmie goodies. Herein, a short, ignominious and woefully incomplete history of sports event hosting
corruption ticket-cashing, proven and alleged:
- Sochi reportedly won the right to host this year's Winter Olympics with the help of a top Russian mafia boss/heroin kingpin who handed out "bags of cash" to secure votes;
- An IOC official allegedly attempted to sell his vote to London's bid for the 2012 Summer Games;
- A pay-for-play scandal involving the 2002 Salt Lake City games resulted in 10 IOC members being expelled or forced to resign and another 10 being sanctioned for soliciting and accepting bribes including paid college tuition for a delegate's daughter;
- Nagano reportedly lavished IOC members with millions of dollars in "illegitimate and excessive" hospitality perks, while the city's bid committee conveniently destroyed its expense books;
- Want to host a Super Bowl? The NFL asks that bid cities exempt its employees from paying "income, gross receipt, franchise, payroll, sales, use, admission, or occupancy taxes as a result of holding the Game at the site"; rebates on any taxes passed through to the league from local vendors; for all requested exemptions to cover site visits for up to a year before the game; and for free parking at all Super Bowl events.
Of course, all of the above prompts a question: Can anything be done? Some have suggested holding sports mega-events at permanent locations, including a Summer Games-hosting Olympics Island. No bidding, no golden tickets; no tickets, no cashing in. It's an elegant, appealing idea -- moreover, Olympic Island sounds like an amazing theme park/Cobra Command HQ cover story -- but doesn't have a prayer of being implemented. Remember: FIFA and IOC decision-makers would have to sign off a permanent home, and why would they ever do so when they're the exact people getting fat off the current moveable feast?
Here's a better solution -- bring the bribery out in the open. Make it official. Let us know who's getting cash, jewelry, new teeth, luxury vacations, two escorts and a bag o' blow from room service, college scholarships for their kids, obedience school scholarships for their dogs. Let us know the price. Put it all on the table, and then make a competition out of it.
A reality show, even.
Call it Big Time Bid. Survivor-meets-The Bachelor-meets-The Apprentice-meets... the Olympics! The World Cup! The Super Bowl! The Little League World Series! Every week, teams of bid city representatives have to complete specific bribery challenges, the better to woo uncertain sports bureaucrats.
The Slovakian delegate needs reservations at Rao's. And $500,000 in Best Buy gift cards. You have three hours to complete the job. Go!
At the end of each episode, one bid city gets cut. Winners get roses and the opportunity to throw more money out the window next week -- with the final champion taking event preparation responsibilities back to their home city, a big fat golden ticket all its own. Hello, local contractors! Step right up! Everyone wins. We get more entertainment, before the games even begin -- think of it this way: how much better would figure-skating be if you could watch the judge-bribing in real time, like seeing everyone's cards in TV poker? -- and the games themselves get greater accountability. When stuff goes inevitably wrong -- cost overruns, crummy construction, forcible relocation of poor people, all of the stuff that makes big sports events such heartwarming celebrations of our common humanity -- we'll now know who to blame. You got a condo on the French Riviera for your vote? Great. You fix this mess, and then we'll give you back the keys.
Echoing a a classic Saturday Night Live skit, Australian writer John Birmingham has suggested we simply let athletes dope. Testosterone, HGH, the Clear, Deer Antler extract enemas, whatever. Everything above board:
… let the Chinese pharmaceutical industry go head to head with the US and European multinationals. Would it make the spectacle of competition any less spectacular? It would be no more unfair than a team turning up with a radical new piece of equipment based on some quantum leap in materials science.
I for one find myself struggling to give much of a toss about any sport letting the dopers run free. And if there remains a large enough cohort of athletes who don't fancy becoming a human drug cabinet, well, they can compete in their own, amateur league...
If this sounds like a bad joke -- or if the parallel idea of Big Time Bid makes you squirm, keep in mind: Birmingham's modest proposal isn't that far removed from current reality. Sports already are full of doping. And corruption. Only we still watch. Happily. We always do. Are you going to turn off the Qatari World Cup? Do you still care about #Sochiproblems? Once the fun starts, probably not. And that's what makes the ticket golden.