With more FIFA arrests, sport turns corners for 2016

  • Saturday, December 5, 2015 7:20pm
  • Opinion

PARIS (AP) — Another day, another reason to think that professional sports no longer deserve the adoration of their fans.

With police in Switzerland hauling away yet more soccer officials suspected of taking bribes and prosecutors in France investigating track and field administrators alleged to have hushed up doping, fans would be right to think they’ve been mugged. Much of 2015 has felt like a long, concerted effort by inept or crooked leaders at FIFA and other governing bodies of much-loved sports to alienate the world completely.

But hang in there, world. Don’t give up on sports just yet.

As bad as 2015 was on multiple levels for trust in sports leaders, it was also the year that important corners were turned on their roads to redemption. The end of Sepp Blatter’s 17-year reign at FIFA. The naming and shaming by U.S. and Swiss investigators of officials accused of abusing their powers in soccer for personal gain. The election of former two-time Olympic champion Sebastian Coe to lead a clean-up of track and field, a centerpiece of the Olympic Games being wrecked by widespread doping. And indications from the cost-cutting by 2020 host Tokyo that International Olympic Committee leaders really have read and understood the writing on the wall that the Olympics must be scaled back to survive in the decades ahead.

The Swiss and U.S. federal probes of corruption in soccer and the investigation by justice authorities in France of suspected bribery, blackmail and doping cover-ups in track and field all show that public authorities no longer buy the argument that sports can be trusted to clean up themselves. Greater government scrutiny and regulation of the multi-billion dollar industry was long overdue and will help win back trust. Governing bodies, notably FIFA, had years to sweep out corrupt officials and reform themselves but proved incapable of doing so with sufficient vim.

Police waving arrest warrants, however, helped sting them into action.

FIFA executives who weren’t detained in the pre-dawn raids at the luxury Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich approved important changes later Thursday to the organization’s operations.

The decapitation of football in 2015, with Blatter under criminal investigation in Switzerland and both him and his expected successor Michel Platini suspended from FIFA, clears the way for a new leader at its Zurich HQ, although not necessarily for a new face. Four of the five candidates, all men, in the Feb. 26 presidential election are football insiders.

Because the U.S. and Swiss corruption probes will stretch at least into 2016, Blatter’s replacement will likely have to deal with more uncomfortable revelations of wrongdoing within football. Still, FIFA’s reputation can hardly sink much lower than in 2015. Can it?

Launching the investigation that unmasked systematic and widespread doping and cover-ups in Russia proved that the World Anti-Doping Agency, founded in 1999, is more relevant and needed than ever.

Its investigators are promising more explosive findings early in 2016. Their work marked a watershed for sports, showing that doping isn’t restricted to individual athletes like Lance Armstrong or Marion Jones. It can also involve broad conspiracies of coaches, athletes and allegedly corrupt administrators conniving together, with the knowledge or even active support of officials in government, to hide doping.

That knowledge will and should produce mounting calls in 2016 for WADA to get more money and an even bigger policing role.

SAMBA PARTY: Despite its foul seas that Olympians will swim in and sail on, Rio de Janeiro will remind the world at the Olympic Games in August that athletes can still inspire.

Celebrating their fundamental power to bring smiles to faces will be especially important after sports came under direct assault from the Islamic State group in 2015, with suicide bombers exploding outside France’s national stadium in the gun and bomb Paris attacks that killed 130 people on Nov. 13.

The Pentagon says it is spending about $4 billion per year on airstrikes against IS targets in Syria and Iraq.

Coincidentally, $4 billion is also roughly what Los Angeles’ organizing committee plans to spend if it wins the race to host the 2024 Olympics that Hamburg has now dropped out of. One can argue about their respective merits. But say this much for sports: No matter how bad their leaders, they will always be more constructive than bombs.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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