In 1998, the year that Sepp Blatter took the helm at FIFA, the world soccer governing body, the International Olympic Committee became ensnared in its worst ethics crisis ever. As with FIFA, there were allegations of bribery, influence-peddling and corruption among IOC members and the shadowy “agents” who helped cities bidding for the Olympics.
Salt Lake City’s successful bid for the 2002 Winter Games was the focus of investigations by the Justice Department, Congress and Utah prosecutors, and corporate sponsors concerned about tainted Olympic rings threatened to pull out.
In the early days of that scandal, an IOC spokesman told me that the group “can’t control” all its members, who were spread throughout the world and visited bidding cities on their own.
“We never had proof,” said Fekrou Kidane, who had also been the IOC’s director of international cooperation, in response to repeated news reports during the previous decade of illicit gifts. “We only had rumors.”
The Salt Lake City scandal eventually forced the IOC to pay attention, because Salt Lake Olympics officials documented their payments to the children of IOC members, who received free rent and tuition. One document was leaked to a local television reporter and senior IOC member Marc Hodler, who wrote the group’s ethics rules, then ignited the firestorm of international news stories, widespread criticism and criminal and congressional investigations by openly condemning his colleagues for violating the ethics rules and essentially engaging in bribery.
“They can’t do that!” he exclaimed to me, exasperated, in his first interview about the controversy. Salt Lake City organizers were buying IOC votes, he said.
More revelations followed of cash payments to IOC members, along with lucrative real estate deals, paid vacations, trips to the Super Bowl, free medical care and lavish gifts.
The allegations now leveled by federal prosecutors against FIFA officials and agents are much greater in scale in terms of cash payments and criminal charges. But FIFA’s reaction echoes the IOC’s initial response to its own scandal.
“I cannot monitor everyone all of the time,” Blatter said on his way to re-election as FIFA chief. “If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it.”
But, as with the IOC scandal, there is a long record of reporting about alleged influence-peddling and bribery at FIFA. Investigative reporter Andrew Jennings has made a career of exposing corruption in sport, including the IOC and FIFA, and has produced stories and BBC documentaries for years. And Jennings wasn’t alone in giving FIFA a clear road map to the behavior Blatter said he was unable to monitor.
One major difference between the FIFA and IOC reactions is FIFA’s statements welcoming “the actions and investigations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities” and pledging “to root out any misconduct,” as Blatter said in a statement posted on FIFA’s website.
IOC officials were initially defensive and dismissed the behavior of its members by blaming the enticements offered by Salt Lake Olympics officials. But the swift and sweeping criticism, the prospect of losing corporate sponsors, and the congressional and Justice Department scrutiny forced the group to act, and significant reforms followed.
Two enduring images illustrate how painful that process became.
After speaking with NPR in December 1998, Hodler traveled to an IOC meeting at the group’s headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. There, as an opening news conference was about to begin, reporters mobbed Hodler in a corner and completely ignored a clearly unhappy Juan Antonio Samaranch, the imperious IOC president at the time who was as powerful in his multibillion-dollar Olympic world as Blatter became in the multibillion-dollar soccer world.
A year later, Samaranch, who preferred to be referred to as “His Excellency,” was denied access to the hidden VIP entrance at a congressional hearing room in Washington. He was forced to empty his pockets at the metal detector at the public entrance.
Samaranch was never implicated and Blatter has not been charged. Federal prosecutors say their investigation continues. At least one major FIFA sponsor, Visa, called on FIFA to “make changes now.”
Should FIFA fail to do so, Visa said in a statement, “we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship.”
The pressure’s on.