By STEPHEN WILSON
Doping coverups. Illegal payoffs. Money laundering. Extortion. Vote buying. Missing millions.
The dark side of Olympic sports is back in the spotlight these days with lurid accounts of impropriety at the heart of track and field and weightlifting -- a stark reminder of how corruption can haunt elite sport and the Olympic movement.
The postponement of the Tokyo Games because of the coronavirus pandemic is already posing massive logistical, financial and health challenges for the Olympic world. Now Olympic officials must also face up to the public airing of alleged widespread malfeasance at the highest levels of certain sports federations.
Just turn to the Paris courtroom where former IAAF President Lamine Diack, his son and four others are on trial for involvement in illicit payments related to Russian doping cases.
Leaf through the hefty investigative report by Richard McLaren that details a deep-rooted culture of fraud at the International Weightlifting Federation under the long-term reign of its former president, Tamas Ajan.
And don’t forget the long history of scandal at the International Boxing Association (AIBA), which remains suspended from Olympic involvement by the IOC over issues of finance, governance, judging and refereeing.
Altogether, the tales of rampant cheating, deceit and misconduct -- while specific to a few federations – can tarnish the reputation, image and credibility of world sport and the Olympic Movement in the minds of the public at large.
Corruption is "not a systemic issue in sport,’’ said Dick Pound, the IOC’s long-serving member. "It’s the people. It’s about people with total control at the highest level. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’’
"The vast majority in international sports are there for the right reasons,’’ he added. "But one bad apple in a federation can poison the whole federation and the whole sport. Sport in general has got to be a lot more concerned about its governance."
A reminder of the ugly developments in recent days:
Diack, the former president of the IAAF, finally appeared in a Paris courtroom on Monday for his trial on charges of corruption, money laundering and breach of trust, five years after evidence of the scandal was first uncovered and turned over to French authorities.
The court is hearing allegations that top athletes were extorted out of millions of dollars to hush up suspected doping cases so they could compete in the 2012 London Olympics and other competitions.
Diack, 87, was president of the IAAF from 1999-2015. He’s accused of having solicited 3.45 million euros ($US 4 million) from athletes suspected of doping who paid to have their names cleared so they could continue competing. The scheme reportedly involved about two dozen Russian athletes.
Diack was a member of the IOC from 1999 to 2013. He resigned as an honorary IOC member in 2015 following his arrest in France.
Also on trial is former IAAF anti-doping chief Gabriel Dolle, who is accused of accepting 190,000 euros ($216,000) in illicit payments. On the first day of the trial, he said Diack asked him to soft-pedal suspected Russian doping cases in order to avoid scandals that would scare off sponsors.
Also charged is Diack’s son, Papa Massata Diack, a former marketing consultant for the IAAF who remains in Senegal and has refused extradition requests to France, and former legal adviser Habib Cisse, who was questioned at the trial on Wednesday.
Two Russians are being tried in absentia - former IAAF treasurer Vallentin Balakhnichev and long-distance running coach Alexei Melnikov.
The case also has tentacles stretching wider afield, including allegations of illegal funds directed to election campaigns in Senegal and, more importantly for the IOC, accusations that Diack and his son were tied to corruption related to the successful bids of Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo for the 2016 and 2020 Games, respectively.
‘’It is a shame it has taken so long for this case to go to trial,’’ said Pound, who chaired a WADA commission into the scandal that turned over its findings to French authorities. "There has been a complete lack of international cooperation by governments in Russia, Singapore and Senegal."
McLaren, the Canadian law professor, released a 122-page report last week into corruption at the IWF. His investigation, triggered by a documentary aired by German broadcaster ARD in January, painted the picture of a federation steeped in misconduct and led by a president accountable to no one.
McLaren found that 40 positive doping tests were hushed up – including athletes who won medals at major championships - and cited "systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF.’’
Ajan, 81, stepped down in April after 20 years as IWF president. He was a full IOC member from 2000 to 2010 and resigned his honorary membership in March.
McLaren said Ajan was an "autocratic leader’’ who received cash payments in the form of doping fines from national federations or sponsors. The report found that $10.4 million in federation funds was missing and unaccounted for, and that elections were rigged by vote-buying.
Ajan denied the allegations in McLaren’s report.
The McLaren report again puts weightlifting’s Olympic status up for discussion. This is a sport that has produced more than 50 positive tests in reanalysis of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
The IOC last year confirmed weightlifting’s place in the 2024 Paris Games based on an agreement for the International Testing Authority to run the sport’s anti-doping program.
IOC President Thomas Bach, in a teleconference with reporters after an IOC executive board meeting Wednesday, said he was "deeply concerned’’ by McLaren’s findings and the scope of the alleged activities.
He expressed confidence in the IWF’s new leadership to reform the federation, but added: "We reserve the right for very far-reaching measures, including but not limited to the question of weightlifting being on the program of the Olympic Games.’’
For Pound, who first suggested that weightlifting be removed from the Olympics in 1988, the McLaren report has only reinforced his view that the sport should be kicked out until it has cleaned up its act.
"It’s impossible to do nothing in the face of a report that is so damning,’’ he said. "What more do you have to do in order to have consequences?"
Pound dismisses the argument that dropping the sport would unfairly punish innocent athletes.
"Athletes were also involved," he said. "It’s unfortunate, but that’s the price you pay."
Stephen Wilson is the former long-time Olympic correspondent and European Sports Editor for The Associated Press and former President of the Olympic Journalists Association. Contact him at email@example.com
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