Holding a torch up to dark corners of sport

TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT: Sports coverage, as suggested by the dismissive way the sports desk has often been derided as the “toy department” by some colleagues, has not always been given respect. ANDREW JENNINGS, thorn in the side of the IOC and FIFA for nearly 20 years, explains why he thinks that is deserved, and offers his view on how the internet is transforming investigative reporting

Over the decades, I’ve covered many types of stories in all possible media, even a bit of timorous war-reporting – but these days I specialise in aspects of sports news reporting – and always the deeper, background story.

You’re not going to get the true story unless you go digging. Research is everything. If you don’t research back to raw material, back to the foundations, you never understand the truth of today’s story – and what the public needs to know. A key part of research is to build up your own archive of documents, documents and more documents, interview notes and secret sources. So you are always building on past, reliable information

The standard of reporting in the UK on major global sports institutions like the IOC and FIFA is abysmal. We are shamed by the journalism in mainland Europe, especially Germany and more recently, Switzerland.

In this country too many sports news reporters appear desperate not to offend the people in power. Why? Because these same people are their sources – leaking information about themselves.

So we have the majority of these reporters losing contact with the real world and reporting primarily to please their contacts, not their readers. I don’t think they even realise.

Where would you look for top-class investigations into corruption in sport in the last 20 years? Probably only three places: ITV’s World In Action, the BBC’s Panorama and Channel 4’s Despatches. Not sports programmes – general current affairs shows that could see stories that completely evaded the sports hacks.

There was a Golden Age in print – in the 1970s. At the Sunday Times Sports Editor John Lovesey employed reporters like Brian Glanville and Keith Botsford who could write joyously about the performance of sport and then go digging into match-fixing and the dodgy characters then coming on the scene with the rising tide of money to seize control of international sport.

Among the redtops, the charge was led by the Sunday People, investigating sports corruption and corruption in the Flying Squad.

INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING HAS BEEN in retreat in print for the last three decades. That’s bad for the health of any society. Why has this happened? Conducting effective investigations takes time and money. It means giving reporters time to think, think some more, and research, to track down potential sources and the documents they may have hoarded. You cannot impose an arbitrary deadline on an investigation.

Too many media groups are cutting staff and budgets, giving reporters too many assignments, relying on recycling press releases and clips from speeches. Speeches that are often contrived by the spindoctors to deflect and divert reporters from the real story.

Lazy bosses blame the internet for circulation losses. But they are not using the internet intelligently. Too often they are recycling the same crap, quickie stories, some low-level porn pictures – and tons of unadventurous wire-service copy.

So how should we do this job? Who should we be investigating? I’ve got a simple test. When I look at a big company, a government, a public organisation, I examine the face they offer to the public. Then I dig and I dig until I find out what they do in private, who are these people, taking decisions that can affect us all?

If there’s a gap between that public façade and the private reality – then that’s the starting gun for an investigator.

The French sociologist and activist Pierre Bourdieu wrote:
“Among the tasks of a politics of morality is to work incessantly toward unveiling hidden differences between official theory and actual progress – between the limelight and the backrooms of political life.”

That’s what we do. Look for the hidden differences.

But few reporters search out these differences. Here’s a case study: Let’s look at the confused and inept reporting of the story du jour – the Olympic torch relay. If we dig deep behind the moral posing of the IOC, can we find a hidden difference between their public claims that they are an organisation driven by morality and the political history of their most powerful ever president?

Since that dire day in the summer of 1980 when the IOC anointed Juan Antonio Samaranch as their Maximum Leader, the Olympics and their embarrassingly juvenile torch relay have been an accident waiting to happen.

In the late 1980s I began sifting through President Samaranch’s background. Here’s something you won’t find in the IOC’s official histories or the happy-clappy reporting from the sports news correspondents. It’s hidden difference.

I found a picture from 1954 (left) of Samaranch in fascist uniform and Blueshirt marching with jackbooted comrades through his home town of Barcelona, the winter night illuminated by burning brands, as copyrighted in 1936 in Nazi Germany by Herr Goebbels.

Samaranch is second from left, the sharp-faced young man, impeccably turned out.

The cleansing flames of the torch relay and the regalia were to remind the oppressed people of Spain in that time that fascists didn’t take prisoners. Opponents were lucky to face a firing squad. Less lucky ones were strapped to a chair and their windpipes and necks crushed in the metal collar of the garrotte. There would have been a lot of writhing.

It’s forerunner of the recent sight of blue-uniformed thugs and their torch of peace and harmony on the streets of London and Paris. Was it this mystical involvement with flaming torches in the fascist years that later drew Samaranch to the Olympic Movement, as they call it? He’d nowhere else to go after General Franco’s Nazi-style Moviemento shrivelled and died after his death in 1975.

I’ve no idea what this Olympic “Movement” is? Has anybody?

A German professor, noting the number of refugees from unsavoury regimes who popped up as IOC members in the Samaranch years, wondered “has the Olympic laundry washed Samaranch’s Blue shirt white?” In colour maybe, but not in spirit.

Samaranch became IOC President days before the Moscow Games in 1980 – and when the career fascist embraced the Stalinists, positive drug tests were not going to be declared – even though elite sport was already awash with steroids and amphetamines.

So let’s have no more claptrap about the athletes who spurned the boycott and bravely competed in Moscow. The event itself is forever tainted, lacks credibility.

The comrades who threw away the positives – I have written about this in more detail in a book – wanted a good image for their ideology. Samaranch, planning to auction the event to commerce, also wanted a clean product.

AS A MAN WITH little interest in sport he could see, coldly, that doping brought world records and that attracted more TV coverage. Sponsors would then pay a fortune to wrap their logos around his Games. At the first fully commercialised Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984, the drug testing lab was closed in the last days of the Games and around nine positive tests were not disclosed. They might have scared off the moneybags.

If there was a Nuremburg for sports crimes, then Samaranch would top the “Most Wanted” list. For 20 years he gave the dopers a clear run, giving the chemists time to create the unassailable lead they now hold and turning elite sport into mendacious drugs festivals.

When I published a book in 1992 revealing his fascist background and institutionalised corruption at the IOC, he was quickly into denial. The book went into 15 languages and only the French edition didn’t carry the pictures of him in fascist uniform kow-towing to the murderous General Franco (who you can see looking at Samaranch as he takes his solemn fascist oath in the picture right).

Has the IOC improved since the departure of Samaranch? In April, the New York Times reported the comments of Ms Gunilla Lindberg, from Sweden, an IOC vice-president and Samaranch appointee, about the troubled torch relay. “We will never give in to violence,” she said. Did she mean the Chinese riot police who shot up Lhasa?

Sadly, not. Gunilla has learned the robotic Beijing news-speak off by heart. “These are not the friendly demonstrators for a free Tibet,” she mono-toned, “but professional demonstrators, the ones who show up at G-8 conferences to be seen and fight.”

But how did the Games and all their clap-trap about morality end up in a country that locks up critics?

“It is very easy with hindsight to criticise the decision,” whinged IOC President Jacques Rogge. “It’s easy to say now that this was not a wise and sound decision.”

No Jacques. It was just as easy to say that 25 years ago. Rogge’s predecessor, Senor Samaranch tiptoed to Beijing months after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and urged Party leaders to bid to stage the Olympics of 2000. He had plans to help Beijing clean up its image.

IN 1991, THE IOC HELD its annual convention in Birmingham and Samaranch presented the IOC’s highest honour, an Olympic Order, to Beijing mayor and bid leader Chen Xitong. The citation praised him as “an ardent defender of sport for youth”, overlooking the fact that two years earlier Mayor Chen Xitong had signed the order calling in the army to gun down thousands of young people.

The same Olympic honour went to Zhang Baifa, the deputy mayor, who shared the IOC’s view of history. “The so-called Tiananmen Square incident is something of the past and the Chinese people have almost forgotten about it,” he schmoozed his new IOC pals.

It wasn’t enough to convince sceptics and the image of the lone student defying the tanks four years earlier had to be supplanted. In the spring of 1993, months before the vote, Samaranch arranged a photo-opportunity. Grinning and relaxed in a homely woollie pullover he set off on a cycle ride around the notorious square, accompanied by Chen Xitong.

Sydney won by two votes but Samaranch redoubled his efforts and finally delivered to Beijing in July 2001, days before he retired. Guarantees weren’t required by the IOC because the city’s then deputy mayor Liu Jingmin promised, “If Beijing is allowed to host the Games, it will help the development of human rights.” And the IOC never even asked for that in writing.

If, as reporters, you have done sufficient research to know these things and you know that Samaranch appointed a significant proportion of current IOC members, I think it becomes a lot easier to report intelligently about the IOC and the problems of their sports event.

WE ALL HAVE DIFFERENT views of teaching investigative journalism. Some say the advice is simple: employ rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability. I can only tell you what has worked me.

There’s another lesson here about the silly reporters who are too frightened – or too lazy – to be critical of the bosses – whether in sports, politics or business. These reporters fear losing access. All that access to the rich and powerful gets you is press releases – garbage to fill the space between the adverts in the paper.

Inadequate reporters have got away with this for decades – but their day is nearly over. The internet means that the public can now cherrypick. They can find the good reporting and ignore the inadequate. I think this is going to open up a wonderful new future for investigative reporters and the sack for the reporters who are not inspired to dig for truths.

Once you have got documents you have to use some fairly soon, sit on others, maybe for years until their time comes. Some of your harvest may be of interest to the cops, or the tax authorities. Some editors and reporters think it wrong to co-operate with the authorities. I understand that, but I do – as long as I am confident about the integrity of the people I talk to.

This way you can build good contacts with honest detectives and investigating magistrates and other state employees. Give them documents they need and they’ll return the favour. You will be a million miles ahead of the press release gang. But remember, these processes can take years.

But the more you publish, the more sources will open up to you. And you’ll get new stories in other areas of investigation.

I have a really ugly and unsophisticated website. Its virtue is that it signals that I am in the opposition camp to all corrupt sports administrators. Every week or ten days I get an email from an honest official, somewhere, who wants to tell me a story. Then they send documents and I’m off again.

Twenty years ago I called it my magnet theory of journalism. The more tough stories you publish – the more big scoops will be offered to you.

Of course you will soon be cold-shouldered by the FIFA media operation. When the International Federation of Journalists asked then FIFA press chief Markus Siegler why I was banned, Siegler explained:
“FIFA is under no compulsion to enter into discussions with or answer journalists who scathingly oppose FIFA and severely violate the basic principles of proper journalism to produce sensational and biased reports. There are limits to which all journalists must adhere.
“In FIFA’s opinion ‘Press Freedom’ is not absolute.”

Mr Siegler recently departed FIFA and has been hired by the English FA to advise on their bid for 2018.

But the internet offers us the most exciting development we’ve ever had in investigating reporting since the big media groups with their other business interests got their stranglehold on freedom of speech and publication.

Never forget that the people out there want the stories we do. And now we are free to tell them. The internet gives us space. We can not only write the story – we can upload the evidence, the confidential documents we have acquired so all the world can read what is being said in private. Add in some video clips and audio and you have true multi-media exposes.

And it doesn’t cost very much. No more expensive printing presses, no costly distribution to retailers. But will the public find us buried in the Web? I think they will. I already get a satisfactory response to my cheap little web site because it contains exclusive content.

The next generation of search engines are going to make it even easier for people to find us. And when they do, word of our existence is swiftly passed on through word of mouth, bloggers, chatrooms – and what hasn’t yet been discovered.

Yes but . . . how is it going to be paid for? Who is going to pay us? I don’t know but somebody is going to figure it out. And where we lead, the established media will have to follow. If they won’t, we can watch them join the dinosaurs and cease to exist.

Herr Blatter’s current meaningless slogan is something like “Taking Football to the World”. Here’s a mantra for you, to chant under your breath on the bad days when sources aren’t delivering. Remember the late, great British journalist Louis Heren who instructed young reporters: “Find out why the lying bastards are lying to us.”

This is an edited version of a speech given by Andrew Jennings (pictured right) at the opening of the Chelsea School of Journalism at the University of Brighton in April. The co-author of Lords of the Rings in 1992 and, more recently, Foul!, an investigation into the workings of FIFA, Jennings has worked for World in Action and Panorama as well as the Sunday Times Insight team and won numerous awards internationally, most recently the 2006-2007 Fans’ Football Writer of the Year as awarded by the Football Supporters Foundation.

Jennings’ website is

To read previous articles in our series TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT, including McIlvanney on Best, Arlott on Laker and Newcombe on Wimbledon, click here

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