A Corruption-Free Olympics?

The Olympic Games represent a time and place for national pride, for celebrating achievement and extraordinary athletic ability, and for international unity. However, beyond the pomp and circumstance, the Olympics have a less glamorous underbelly. While American media has focused on the controversy of outsourcing production of the American Olympic team’s uniforms and the British press continues to decry Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s suggestion that London was unprepared to host the Games, Transparency International is calling attention to a different issue: corruption.

The preparation of a city to host the Olympics is a huge undertaking. It requires the mobilization of a vast amount of resources to ensure that local infrastructure is prepared to accommodate the millions of people who flock to the city. London has reportedly spent $15 billion on the 2012 Games. This presents a monumental opportunity for corruption in the procurement of government contracts and funds. The good news, though, is that the London Olympic organizing committee has been commended for their transparency and openness in awarding contracts for these infrastructure projects.

Despite London’s best efforts, there are several elements of the Games that are still vulnerable to corruption. Match fixing is a big problem and has been alleged in many of the events in past Olympics. In 2006, Sweden’s ice hockey team was accused of match fixing when they purposely avoided facing their toughest competition until the final match. Indeed, the team won the gold in those games after losing an earlier match to Slovakia. In a recent development, several doubles badminton players from the South Korean, Indonesian, and Chinese teams were disqualified from the 2012 Olympics after purposely losing preliminary matches to gain a better position in the round-robin style tournament.  After doping, corruption in the form of match fixing is the most pervasive form of cheating at the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee even established a monitoring unit to identify and reduce gambling and match fixing.

Obtaining tickets to particularly in-demand events is notoriously difficult and while many use corporate hospitality packages to get access to those coveted seats, this also poses a heightened opportunity for corruption. In order to be in compliance with the anticorruption measures specific to the Olympics, the companies offering these packages have to fulfill certain requirements. These include having a robust anti-corruption policy, conforming to the U.K.’s anti-bribery laws, providing a transparent list of invitees, and retaining counsel to confirm that any arrangements made abide by the standards.

Countries competing in the Olympics may bring many corrupt elements present in their home nation with them to the Games. Those in charge of the events and on the National Olympic Committees from their home countries have often been appointed; it is outside of the Olympic committee’s scope of authority to assess the impact of corruption on these appointments. The foreign dignitaries and Heads of State attending the Olympics are often personally corrupt in their practices within their own countries. However, the IOC did revoke the invitation of Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, from attending the Games, citing his harsh treatment of dissidents at home as the rationale; a step in the right direction.

Corporate sponsorships also provide an opportunity for corruption to seep into the Games. Out of the 53 official corporate sponsors, several have been investigated under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Law or have similar black marks on their records including: Dow Chemicals, BP, and GlaskoSmithKline.   These partners are not subject to scrutiny and their association with the Olympic Games gives them a whitewashed media image that overrides any negative press for corrupt practices.

These examples illustrate the dangerous position in which the London Games are placed, and serve as a note of caution to other large scale sporting events. The U.K. and the International Olympic Committee should be lauded for their overall reduction in the influence of corruption at the London Games, but the pervasiveness of the crime makes it difficult to imagine how that influence could be reduced to zero.

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