Playing by the rules, but who makes and breaks them?

Updated Monday, 7th November 2011
Sport might appear to be all about fair play, but it is also all about winning and losing; and some of the rewards for success are rich indeed.

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To some extent sport makes its own rules, although decision making is increasingly subject to public appraisal and the sponsors of sport and its regulatory bodies must abide by the rules of the wider society. Sport has its own governing bodies that regulate the bodies that take part. Sport is fun and entertainment, but it is also highly competitive and profitable.

Although sport is big business, and constituted by media, sponsorship and commercial networks as well as its practitioners, at all levels, it is also a particular social world, which seems to operate outside the parameters of convention in an uneasy relationship between promoting competition and elite outcomes, at the same time as widening participation and creating greater equality and cohesion. Sport is fun and entertainment, but it is also highly competitive and profitable (for some).

Sport is not outside debates about corruption and unfair, even illegal practices, although what is categorised as corruption in sport often centres on revelations of drug abuse and performance enhancement by individual athletes. Doping and match fixing affect the results of sporting events, which undermine the basic principles of sport, and implicate participants, organising bodies and promoters. Ideals of fair play and amateurism underpinned the Olympic movement; the modern Games were based on a movement with stated ideals, some of which seem less relevant today, like the amateur ideal and requirement that athletes be amateurs and not professionals.

Marc Hodler [image from Wikimedia] Ideas about democratic participation and fair play remain a powerful part of Olympic rhetoric and governance, although what counts as social exclusion or social inclusion in sport varies according to time and place. These ideals not only seem incompatible with corruption, they also serve to conceal it; rather like white-collar crime. It’s not what convention leads us to expect, whatever the current furore about bankers and politicians, so it passes unnoticed. The Games have a long history of corruption, especially in relation to the bidding processes that precede success in being the host city. As Andrew Jennings has demonstrated, corrupt practices have been rife within the IOC (International Olympic Committee), and came to a head with the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, when Marc Hodler, an IOC member, broke ranks and revealed that agents had been bribed to vote for cities bidding for the right to host the Games. This blew the lid on systematic malpractice within the IOC, and an internal enquiry found clear evidence that up to 20 of the 110 IOC members had been bribed to vote for Salt Lake. It didn’t stop in 2002, though, and there continue to be claims of corruption in the bidding process in the lead-up to 2012.


The 2012 website may be counting off the days, but news stories also show some of the tensions and difficulties that beset the staging of any such mega sporting event and, indeed, sport in general. Like all sporting activities, the Games involve both winning and losing, success and failure, equalities and inequalities. The Olympic democratic ideals, global reach and wide range of sports and participation mean that the Games lend themselves more powerfully to such a politics of inclusion than most other sports, especially those which are dominated by commercial concerns.

Corruption in the Games, as across sport, can be seen as the outcome of a failure of governance as Sunder Katwala has argued. This failure can be seen in part as dependent upon the inequalities that permeate the organisation of sport, and not the more corporeal inequalities or differences in skill and competence that are displayed on the field. Corruption in sport may be primarily economic and financial but it is also social and cultural and draws on social inequalities that are not entirely dependent on athletic competence.

What is described as corruption is also indicative of the networks of hegemonic masculinity which still dominate the governance of sport. Although the IOC largely cleaned up its act after Salt Lake City and it is the IOC which is calling for investigations into corruption in football’s governing body FIFA, the two organisations do share personnel. Some of these issues were explored in the BBC Panorama programme and about the voting for the hosting of the 2018 Men’s World Cup. The debates are on going; Issa Hayatou a member of both the IOC and of FIFA was appointed by FIFA to run the 2012 football competition even though he was being investigated for corruption by the IOC.

If some of the lessons learned from critiques of white-collar crime mean drawing attention to the privileges of class, gender and ethnicity that can be obscured by ever growing bureaucratic regulatory bodies, then this concept has some purchase in understanding the slow pace of change in the governance of sport

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Further reading

'Embodied Sporting Practices: Regulating and Regulatory Bodies'
Kath Woodward, Palgrave Macmillan

'Dishonored Games: Corruption, Money and Greed at the Olympics'
Viv Simpson and Andrew Jennings, SPI Books (US)


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