FIFA, the IOC, and Sport for Development: Is the flock being led by wolves in sheep's clothing?

When Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month I came across a couple of articles that briefly mentioned the possibility of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) receiving the award. At the Winter Olympics in Vancouver this past February, some IOC members also stated that the IOC should campaign for the prize.

I am working in sport for development. On some level I believe sport can have a positive impact on individuals and communities, so I should support the IOC. I don’t want to generalize, but I believe most people in sport for development would welcome the IOC winning the prize (if you have read my blog before you might notice that I usually preface a generalization by stating that I don’t want to generalize. It is how I plan my escape if I am ever confronted with facts). I attended the Olympics in Beijing and I was in Vancouver for the build up to the Winter Olympics there. I am a fan. I think they are entertaining events and I will probably attend more in the future. Preceding the Olympics in Vancouver the IOC was granted observer status by the United Nations. Observers have the right to speak at UN General Assembly meetings, participate in some voting, but not vote on anything substantive. Again, this is something that you think I would support. It was supported within sport for development. A comment from a reader of the article I have linked to makes the connections between the IOC and sport for development:

“The observer status for the IOC at the General Assembly is not only a great result for the Olympic family, but is a special occasion to express the potential of sport for peace and development. I hope next step could be to support the idea of Nobel Price for Peace for the IOC.”

At the time of the UN announcement and more recently with the Nobel Peace Prize articles I found myself having some nagging thoughts. Is the IOC in a position to represent sport for development? It is impossible to deny that the IOC is a profit-making entity. It is an organization that some may identify as being self-serving, corrupt, and complicit in violations of human rights. Some may point to the Olympic Movement and claim that the ideals enshrined in this movement are Nobel noble and worth supporting. I agree with that, but the question still remains as to whether the IOC is the appropriate flag bearer for these ideals? The IOC seems to try. In addition to numerous partnerships with the UN it has also undertaken its own initiatives. Last year it launched its Sports for Hope Project. This involves building sport-for-all facilities in developing countries. It appears similar to a programme it started in the late 80s called the Olympafrica Programme, which seems to have faded away. Are these partnerships and programmes representative of the ideals that the IOC claims to value? During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the IOC and the Vancouver Organizing Committee decided to the banish Right to Play from the athletes' village. RTP is an organization that was borne from the Olympics. It evolved from an entity called Olympic Aid that was formed during the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer and is dedicated to providing children in some very difficult situations with opportunities to play. In previous Olympics they were allowed to establish a presence in the village to promote their work. General Motors, Kodak, and Royal Bank of Canada were official sponsors of the Olympics in Vancouver; Mitsubishi, Scotiabank, and Canon sponsor RTP. As a result of this sponsorship conflict, RTP was excluded from the Olympic village. IOC is guided by profit and it will make decisions based on finances and not on ideals.

Until this point I have only talked about the IOC, but I could have replaced that acronym for another and it would be pretty much the same. A couple of weeks ago two FIFA executives were caught offering to sell their votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. It is not the first time this has happened, it will not be the last time, and it is not even that bad compared to other FIFA dealings. I would recommend checking out a book by Andrew Jennings called FOUL! the Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging, and Ticket Scandals, or his website, or the website for Play the Game.

Since João Havelange campaigned and won the presidency of FIFA in 1974, and then continuing through Sepp Blatter’s reign, there has been a significant amount of investment in football development in developing countries. I say investment in football development, but what I mean is that FIFA gives money to national football associations with the stated purpose being to develop the game, but then does little in the way of monitoring or holding the associations accountable. From a political stand point it would not make sense for FIFA to hold the national associations accountable. The presidency of FIFA is decided on a one-country-one- vote system. If Sepp Blatter gives large sums of money to the national associations of poorer countries with few or no strings attached then it is likely that those countries will want to keep him in power.

Money has been distributed through the Financial Assistance Programme and the GOAL Programme. Lesotho is part of both of these programmes and has received over $500,000 for projects over the past 5 years according to the FIFA website. According to a newspaper article earlier this year in Lesotho, LEFA (Lesotho National Football Association) is receiving $250,000 per quarter - $1 million a year. From the FIFA documents, 6% of funding should go towards youth football and 12% towards technical development including female football. Well, there are no youth football structures in Mafeteng - I can’t comment on other districts - and the leaders within women’s football have called on FIFA to cease funding female football because the funds don’t reach them.

This has been going on for some time, but now FIFA is also becoming involved in the sport for development scene. The distinction is that sports development aims to develop the sport itself. Sport for development aims to use sport to accomplish any number of social objectives. A few years ago FIFA initiated its Football for Hope and Win in Africa for Africa campaigns. Both involve using the power of football to address various social or development issues. Part of the Football for Hope programme involves another project called 20 centres for 2010. One of the centres will be built here in Lesotho through an organization called Kick 4 Life.

Similar to my posts on Poverty Porn and donating equipment, there are positives and negatives that could be identified with the involvement of the IOC and FIFA. Being involved with both would be a huge boost for funding, exposure, and publicity. In addition, having large well known organizations supporting your cause can lend legitimacy and credibility to what you are doing, particularly for a relatively new field of work. On the other hand when I see FIFA or the IOC claiming to represent or champion for the field of sport for development I cringe. Many sport for development organizations seek to provide opportunities to those who lack opportunities. Kick 4 Life targets orphaned and vulnerable children – particularly street children. FIFA and the IOC, through their actions, have proven that they do not care about marginalized individuals, or people who lack opportunities. Previous Olympic Games and the World Cup in South Africa brought with them complaints of displaced peoples, suppression of rights, and crack downs on already marginalized groups: street vendors, the homeless, street children, minority groups.

FIFA and the IOC care about making money. They are basically corporations, albeit corrupt, nepotistic corporations without systems of transparency or accountability. The centres and funding that they are providing for sport for development organizations should be seen as a form of corporate social responsibility and nothing more. If you are running a healthy living campaign maybe you decide to accept some funding from McDonalds. That’s fine. I wouldn’t judge that decision – maybe I would a little bit actually. You put a little Golden Arches logo on the bottom corner of your posters, no harm done –actually maybe there is a little harm done. However, if McDonalds uses the opportunity to portray their organization as a beacon for the healthy lifestyles movement then I think things would need to be reassessed. If healthy living organizations submit to McDonalds' self-selected position as a contributer to their movement then there is a risk that the movement itself will lose credibility. The same is true for sport for development. If we can consider sport for development a sector, or a field of work, or a movement, then to have FIFA and the IOC set themselves up as pillars within this sector is dangerous for the credibility of sport for development.

October 30, 2010

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