No line has been repeated more often during the Fifa scandal than the instruction that football should follow the example of the International Olympic Committee. In 1998, the received wisdom goes, artful Mormons offered all kinds of bribes in cash and kind to committee members. An Olympic official revealed their plan to buy the right to host the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and the movement purged itself of corruption.
‘We also know that putting everything on the desk can be a painful experience,’ said the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, as he advised Fifa yesterday. ‘But it is absolutely necessary to do this as we have seen from our own history.’
According Bach, a Fifa mired in scandal, should learn from an Olympic movement that has cleaned itself up. In truth, the Olympians are slouching back towards the mire. They will land with a plop when the European Games opens in Baku, Azerbaijan on Friday.
I understand your confusion. To do deal with the location first. You ‘re right. Azerbaijan isn’t a European country – it lies between the Caspian and the Caucuses. But for the purposes of the European Olympic Committee it is within Europe’s borders. The “European Games” are equally arbitrary. Don’t feel ignorant if you have never heard of them. This is their first outing. Europe already has the biennial European Athletics championships. But – and here is the crucial point the ill-informed may have missed – the Olympics movement does not control the championships. It wanted European games of its own.
You can see that it is none too choosy about where the money comes from its decision to hold the first game in Azerbaijan. The country is best described a petro-financed mafia state. It is presided over by the Aliyev crime family, who combine viciousness and rapacity in equal measure.
Azerbaijan’s Papa Doc figure was the late Heydar Aliyev, a Brezhnevian party boss under communism, who seized control of the newly independent country after the fall of the Soviet Union. His son Ilham is now its sole proprietor. He looks less like a hired assassin than his father, and his glamorous wife wins applause from credulous members of global super rich by patronising the arts and charities.
Do not be deceived. As a diplomat for the US State Department observed , you should always think of the Corleones when looking at Aliyevs. Ilham Aliyev was “Michael on the outside, Sonny on the inside,” he reported to his superiors.
The committee to Protect Journalists has dubbed Azerbaijan the fifth most censored country in the world. The 2015 World Press Index ranks Azerbaijan 162nd out of 180 countries. Transparency International’s global corruption index has it at 126 out of 175 countries, while Human Rights Watch says the authorities deploy spurious charges of narcotics and weapons possession, hooliganism, incitement, and treason to imprison political activists critical of the government.
Aliyev has used the wealth stolen from his people to spend to billion on sports venues and infrastructure. He will pay all the athletes to attend, and they will take the money, and pretend that the games further the spirit of sport and international understanding. I do not expect to hear a peep of protest from the 6000 athletes, including 160 from Britain, the visiting dignitaries, or the 70 visiting members of the International Olympics Committee
I hope for better from journalists. The evidence will be all around them that the Olympic movement is holding its games in a modern Potemkin village. To prepare Baku for the festival of sport, the authorities put cladding over Soviet-era buildings. They intended to fool visitors into believing that they were at the heart of a prosperous capital. They forgot to check whether the cladding was flammable and 16 people including five children died when it caught light.
After they have examined the crime scene, perhaps reporters who aspire to be something more than fans with typewriters could look at the sponsors.
Among them is Socar, currently involved in a $45 billion pipeline project known as the Southern Corridor. The project’s Advisory Council includes Goldman Sachs chair and former European Commissioner Peter Sutherland, former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and inevitably Tony Blair, who also pocketed £90,000 to visit an Azerbaijani methanol factory owned by a close friend of President Aliyev and appear on state television. What with the jet lag, Blair forgot to talk about human rights
Socar employees do not take criticism well. They attacked the journalist Idrak Abbasov in 2013 because he was filming a forced demolition being carried out by the company’s employees.
The benefits to the regime of spending billions on games that will never make a profit are the same benefits autocracies receive everywhere from the gargantuan excesses of global sport. They win prestige abroad. More importantly, they convince their subject peoples that foreigners, who have no need to fear their secret policemen, willingly and freely applaud them and announce by their very presence that their governments are reputable. In China, Russia, Qatar and Azerbaijan, the contracts for sporting extravaganza are also a useful means of rewarding the regime supporters. And as the American academics Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung chillingly argued, international sport rewards the state security services too.
‘In the age of terrorism, security is on the minds of all governments that host mega-events, but authoritarian regimes use these security-related resources with “dual purpose” goals that are just as likely to be devoted to political repression.’
Don’t think that the Olympic movement doesn’t know what it is doing and who it is dealing with. It has consciously searched for foul governments to host its pageants. The EOC president, Patrick Hickey, first wooed Belarus, because as the wonderful Andrew Jennings, the reporter who broke the Fifa scandal, explained:
‘Hickey gets cozy with people many of us wouldn’t invite home to meet our loved ones. Seeking a wealthy patron in Europe to pay for a regional Olympics to mirror the Pan-American Games and not finding any takers among reputable leaders, Hickey turned to the president of the national Olympic committee of Belarus, whose day job is being Europe’s last dictator. Ignoring Belarus’s unenviable doping record, Hickey presented the thuggish Alexander Lukashenko with a plaque commending his ‘Outstanding Contribution to the Olympic Movement.’
When Lukashenko could not afford the games, Hickey went south to Azerbaijan instead.
Scrambling to try to prevent European sport giving the dictatorship everything it wanted, dissidents formed the Sport for Rights campaign to persuade an indifferent Europe to take a stand, or at least raise awkward questions. True to form, the regime responded in the only way it knew how. It arrested the campaign’s leader Rasul Jafarov, and gave him a six-and-a-half year sentence for “abuse of power” – even though the regime has all the power and Jafarov has none. True to form, European sport did not give a damn
The glitzy, grubby and gruesome spectacle of an Asian dictatorship holding the European games ought to have one small consolation. After Friday, no one should be able to say that the Olympic movement offers Fifa a pathway to reform. Athletics is as rotten as football, it is just better at hiding it.