Another day, another scandal – thank goodness there’s still some who believe sport can ever be cleaned up
New documentary ‘Dirty Games’ outlines the human cost of some of the shameful sports stories of recent years
Japan seemingly made some dodgy payments during the bidding process for the 2020 Olympics. Russia’s team at the 2014 Winter Olympics might have been doped to the gills. Michel Platini, who epitomised the ‘beautiful game’ as a player, finally resigns as Uefa president after failing to overturn his ban for a suspect US$2 million payment.
Those were just the main dirty-sport headlines over the past few days. Let’s type ‘corruption’ into our sports wires search box: ‘Canadian takes over scandal-plagued Concacaf’; ‘Doping: Kenya Olympic threat after Wada ruling’; ‘Swiss court clears extradition of ex-Nicaragua soccer boss Rocha to US’, etc, etc. Our wire stories are only archived for four or five days before being purged, by the way.
Almost every day brings fresh evidence of the dirty, dirty world of sport. It’s easy to become jaded: as a sports journalist (the editor has just broken down in a paroxysm of laughter for some reason), I confess I read the Guardian’s exclusive about Japan and the New York Times’ exclusive about Sochi – both excellent, important pieces of reporting – more out of a sense of duty than anything else. Actually, come to think of it, I’ve still only skimmed the NYT piece.
Assuming that most everyone involved at the top, top levels of sport – the ‘three comma club’ as coined by an obnoxious billionaire in HBO comedy Silicon Valley – is at the very least turning a blind eye to some form of corruption, if not actively guzzling at the trough like a starving sow, is a terribly cynical attitude that has never let me down.
The three commas club (contains bad language)
It’s why I reacted to ‘Dirty Games’, a new documentary from German journalist Benjamin Best, with something of a shrug rather than the appalled horror it may elicit in some viewers. Best, who has worked extensively on sport corruption stories for German TV and radio, spent nearly two years putting together his film, which has been picking up awards on the festival circuit and is released in cinemas in Germany, Austria and Switzerland this month (it is mostly in English; Best is working on worldwide distribution).
It’s a well-shot, occasionally powerful piece that looks at recent and not-so-recent sports disgraces: the death of migrant workers in Qatar; the (most recent) Fifa World Cup bidding scandal; fixed fights in boxing; the forced eviction of Rio residents ahead of the World Cup and Olympics; the bribing of NBA referees; match-fixing in Turkey.
Dirty Games trailer
The film is at its best when showing the actual human cost of these stories we read, then immediately forget: it opens with a plane landing in Nepal from Qatar, which we soon discover contains yet another dead migrant worker returning home in a cheap plywood coffin. The Rio segment is similarly moving.
“I had two ideas,” Best told me in an email. “First, I wanted to show that corruption, manipulation and exploitation are major parts of professional sports in its entirety. Second, I also wanted to show examples of people and supporters who are taking a stand against corruption in sports. Not only being negative, but also showing that a lot of people have a deep passion for sports and are willing to fight and protect their ideas of fair games.”
Best funded the film himself and his team filmed in 17 cities worldwide. It has won seven awards so far and is certainly worth seeking out in the coming months on iTunes, Netflix or wherever Best manages to place it.
I wondered if its positive reception in the festivals was in part due to those viewers being perhaps blissfully unaware of the extent of corruption in sport: for the specialist audience (jaded, cynical sports hacks), some of the segments add little new to familiar stories.
“My experiences ... are that not everybody is following corruption in sports on a daily basis,” Best replies. “So yes, there are a lot of people to whom these stories are new. And in my opinion: new or not, the stories are definitely worth being told. I want to show that there is a movement trying to fight against the corrupt sport system. In my mind professional sports has moved away from its base: the people. It’s an out-of-control money-making machine ... People who watch this film hopefully will ask themselves: Is this worth it? ... If this happens then I achieved a lot with this film.”
That’s the kind of passion and optimism we probably need a lot more of in the world, and not just in sport. Meanwhile, I skim the wires with my cynical eye once again, see Fifa president Gianni Infantino declaring: “We will show to the world we are serious with the reforms,”and scoff heartily at the notion football – and sport in general – will ever be cleaned up.