Contradictheory: Olympics, doping and institutional corruption


  • Living
  • Sunday, 04 Mar 2018

I recently watched an excellent documentary called Icarus that was nominated for Best Documentary in this year’s Oscars. It’s about the state-sanctioned doping and corruption scandal in Russia and how the system seems to overwhelm the individual. It seems that for years, the Russians have found success on the sporting field not through the spirit of sportsmanship but by judicious doping programmes designed by the government to avoid detection.

One of the things I found interesting in the documentary is the contrast between the personal stories of the documentarian and the head of the Russian anti-doping lab, and the larger, more impersonal acts of the Russian government and anti-doping agencies in general.

On a personal level, you understand the motives of why individuals try to cheat at sports. It’s a simple case of doing whatever it takes to win. (Or, in the case of the documentarian, whatever it takes to get the story.)

But when you scale it up to the higher levels, the motives change focus. It seems puzzling how a government or an institution could let a thing like this happen, and continue for so long. Therefore, the assumption is to say, everybody must have been complicit, and corruption is rife.

However, when you zoom back down again to the micro level, you would find that many athletes in Russia doped simply because no questions were asked, or “everybody else does it”.

The thing is, I don’t think organisations by themselves commit conspiracy. People forget that conspiracies (like most of government) are broken down to acts of individuals. What allows corruption and deceit to flourish is the lack of integrity in an organisation.

Take, for example, taxis that used to overcharge. The law is clear, the taxi fares have been set, and all taxis have to stick to them. So why can some taxi drivers insist that they get a higher rate?

Because at one point in time, whatever organisation it was that was responsible for making sure drivers toed the line didn’t do its work properly. So taxi drivers knew that the chances of them being punished were slim. And thus it emboldened them to flout the rules.

It needed a force from the outside, an alternative, to change things: Grab and Uber. The decision of what to charge the passenger is taken completely out of the hands of the driver. If you pay by credit card, the driver doesn’t even handle cash. And – perhaps most importantly – the companies take very seriously the ratings passengers give the drivers.

Now taxi drivers complain that these ride-sharing services are taking work away, but their complaints fall on deaf ears because who wants to go back to the old system when you didn’t know how much you were going to pay, but you were sure it would be more than it should be.

Now, you can look at price gouging by taxi drivers as a form of corruption. What’s interesting is that the way to fix the problem wasn’t to improve the honesty of existing taxi drivers but to instead implement another framework – a different kind of institution, if you like – that would stop drivers from being able to cheat.

So when the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) expressed surprise last week that Malaysia has slipped down seven places in the latest Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI), I say the problem may not be in the individuals they are trying to catch but in the institutions that permit the corruption to happen.

The MACC reported that last year, it had improved in terms of enforcement and arrests. Yet, this was clearly wasn’t enough.

Like state-sponsored steroid takers, like errant taxi drives, this is not a problem that you can solve by just stopping individuals. One must look at institutional change to make a difference.

Unfortunately, the institution they are looking to change is Transparency International, by replacing it with something else – according to MACC, there are plans to create a more effective special corruption index.

There are several obvious reasons why this may not be a good idea. One thing that allegedly helped the Russians become successful is because their own national anti-doping agency was part of the fraud. The very body that was meant to stop doping was a key player in helping them.

At the end of it all, the World Anti-Doping Agency had to take very stern steps. They stripped affected athletes of medals, they stopped 111 athletes from taking part in the Rio Olympics, and they practically banned Russia from the Winter Olympics.

For a while, it looked as if justice was going to be done. However, Russia’s Olympic committee has been reinstalled earlier this week, which means that Russia has been fighting back not by changing its institution but by trying to use influence and politics.

This is the sad story I suppose. That despite the best efforts of individuals, if institutions don’t change, you can get caught up in the deluge. I’m sure that there are frustrated sportsmen who don’t want to dope and don’t dope who are frustrated that they are being punished for what others are doing.

It’s still a while to the big event, and it will be interesting to see which wins at the end of the day in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo: Will it be political grandstanding that masks the flaws underneath? Or will the institution at the end affect real, genuine change?


In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at star2@thestar.com.my.


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