The sporting world often produces scandals that rival even its greatest moments. From the long list of offences levelled against FIFA bosses to reports of the world’s most successful athletes shamed for cheating. In Nigeria, the effects of the rot in the sporting system are exacerbated, creating a situation where it is nearly impossible for athletes to succeed. Somewhat tragically, the analysis will show how a discussion of global corruption is not complete without Nigeria as the case study.
In an unaccountable Nigeria, sporting bodies drain the lifeblood of the very sports they are mandated to preserve. Instead of scouting and nurturing young talents, the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN), much prefer to pay premiums to aging, B-list, foreign athletes to compete for Nigeria. At the same time, many Nigerian athletes are coaxed into a system of age-cheating that pervades Nigerian sport, the effects of which are catastrophic. By pressuring athletes to misrepresent, usually by reducing their age – what is known as 'football age' – authorities can bank on success at junior levels, where overage athletes can put their superior strength and size to full use. The athletes achieve fleeting successes while garnering prize money and minor accolades for the authorities. For the authorities, this means that they do not need to invest in proper training as talented athletes pitched against younger competitors will perform relatively well. Thus, perverse incentives lie at the heart of this matter. Unfortunately, the athletes then miss out on undertaking rigorous training at the most crucial phases of their careers as they transition from junior to senior levels. Consequently, few succeed as senior international athletes and Nigeria ends up with no medal at the Olympic games. Ever wondered why our youth sports teams perform a lot better than their senior counterparts? Unaccountability and perverse incentives.
The Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) has also been the subject of controversy over the years. In World Cup years, their budgets reach figures close to ₦2 billion. However, the tournament performance of the team is often jeopardised by pay disputes. After the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Nigeria's woeful performance was compounded by serious charges of corruption leveled against senior NFF figures, culminating in the drastic decision to ban the team. These examples, and the actions of leading sports administrators like Amos Adamu serve to highlight how Nigeria's struggle with corruption is even more acute in sport, creating the need for reform and transparency in Nigeria and across the globe.
This leads to the broader question of why sporting administration is so corrupt. To state the obvious, sport is big. FIFA TV estimates that more than one billion people viewed a part of the last World Cup final in Brazil. Similarly, over 900 million people tuned in to watch the London 2012 opening ceremony. With this number of eyeballs, one can begin to imagine the huge advertising and sponsorship opportunities that exist in the global sporting industry. According to the Guardian, London 2012 was funded by about £1billion worth of sponsorship. McKinsey, the consultancy, points out that the last FIFA World Cup made about £900 million in sponsorship revenues. Thus, it is clear that the interest in sport mints cash from corporate coffers and ticket sales, and we do not need any lectures on the links between money and corruption.
Consider boxing, one of the world’s more notorious sports. The recent Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight generated well over $500million in global revenues. Usually, institutions that generate such vast sums like major corporations and governments are held to high standards by their shareholders, voters, and regulators in the public interest. Bizzarely, the public's interest in sport has never been matched by the level of scrutiny needed to protect those who create the value: players and fans. We do not leave children alone in playgrounds with unlimited amounts of sweets and then ask why they have not done their homework. This lack of accountability, coupled with the money in sport, creates ideal conditions for corruption. In the words of former boxing champion Evander Holyfield: ‘boxing chooses who boxing wants to win.’
Holyfield’s ‘boxing’ could be used figuratively to refer to the elites that control the affairs of our major sports: FIFA, IAAF (global athletics), AFN (Nigerian athletics), NFF (Nigerian football), and so on. While some of these bodies control larger budgets than most companies and even some small countries, they are effectively self-governing cliques who can fix matches and collect bribes for tournament hosting rights, because they remain unelected, unregulated and unaccountable.
It is difficult to see why ordinary football fans do not have a say in the upcoming FIFA presidential elections. FIFA’s president should not just answer to equally unaccountable national federations, but millions of football fans around the world. Such an accountability structure hands over real power to fans, who form a huge part of how football's value is created. In Nigeria, the tenures of sports administrators must be linked more closely to financial transparency and performance. A transparency model will be more difficult to build in a country like Nigeria, but is absolutely necessary to make sport what it should be: pride, inspiration and entertainment.