“The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.” — Olympic creed

When Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894, he saw sports as a universal language that could bring together people from all over the world. He wanted the Olympic Games to be a platform from which to teach the values of fair play.

In more recent times, however, as allegations of government corruption, staggering economic costs, and mass displacements of poor residents continue to arise, it can seem like the Games are anything but fair to the people who live in the shadows of the Olympic Village.

Corruption around the Olympics and other major international sporting events like the World Cup isn’t new, but what is new is growing international scrutiny of host countries. Much of this attention began in 1998 when it was revealed that International Olympic Committee members accepted bribes from the Salt Lake City bid committee in exchange for hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics. Rumblings of widespread corruption have continued, notably with the arrests of nine high-ranking FIFA officials and five sports marketing executives in May. Allegations of their corruption span two decades and involve more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks for media rights.

During the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, allegations of corruption and bribery between government officials and construction companies, as well as human rights violations, seemed to get more press than any athletic feats. The $50 billion event was rife with construction delays and accusations of embezzlement, and the future use of many facilities remains unclear. Russia also suffered from a reinforcement of negative stereotypes in the media, as well as protests surrounding harsh anti-gay legislation.

At the same time, Brazil spent more than $11.5 billion in preparation for the 2014 World Cup. The country faced allegations of price gouging, mismanagement, and close relationships between politicians and construction companies, leading more than a million Brazilians to take to the streets and protest corruption and government cuts to social programs.

The brightness of the spotlight is undeniable. The whole world is watching.

It’s no wonder many increasingly question the benefits of hosting. The desire to elevate a host’s standing in a global economy is undeniable, but one can’t help but wonder if countries do more long-term damage than good — financially, politically, and socially — when they sign on to host a major international event.

But Brazil and Russia make for interesting case studies as they each prepare for a second run on the world’s stage. Russia will host the next World Cup in 2018, but the anti-corruption movement hasn’t taken root there, leaving less confidence in credible domestic reforms. As Brazil prepares for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, however, government responses to corruption and resulting legal reforms are receiving attention for their efforts to change course.

This space between two of the world’s biggest sporting events is a golden opportunity for an anti-corruption law expert and law professor like Andrew Spalding. In a yearlong class, he worked with eight students to study corruption and bribery around major sporting events worldwide and make recommendations for how Brazil might restore credibility in its federal government.

“The brightness of the spotlight is undeniable,” Spalding says. “The whole world is watching. A country lines up at the starting line, and we see what they have.”

Corruption and bribery around major sporting events can take numerous forms — doping, ticket scalping, and corruption within governing bodies won’t even be covered here. For the purposes of his class, Spalding chose a rather simple definition: the abuse of public office for private gain.

Even this narrow focus covers a broad swath of corrupt behaviors. Spalding’s class looked at bribery in the procurement process and cozy relationships between Brazilian corporations and government officials. They evaluated enforcement strategies to see whether legislation has any weight beyond the paper on which it’s written. Slum clearing for construction projects raised human rights questions about police use of excessive force and compensation for those evicted. They also considered whether the International Olympic Committee’s demands of host cities reduce or exacerbate corruption.

Spalding’s idea was to spend the fall semester researching Brazilian and Olympic history. The spring semester would be an in-depth study, including a trip to Brazil, with each student producing a report on his or her area of focus with recommendations for counteracting corruption. Spalding would then spend six months compiling the student reports into a comprehensive recommendation.

At least, that was the plan.

Soon after the class started, the Southwestern Journal of International Comparative Law approached Spalding about contributing to an issue devoted to anti-money laundering and the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Spalding counter-offered, suggesting that he and his students write a paper on anti-corruption laws in the window between the World Cup and the Olympics.

That’s when the starting gun went off and Spalding’s leisurely study was dropped for a mad dash to the publishing finish. For the paper, Spalding and his students looked at Brazil’s triumphs in recent anti-corruption reforms and its remaining challenges. They also posed a number of research questions that the class would continue to explore throughout the year: What lessons did Brazil learn from the World Cup? Do the country’s recent statutes and enforcement actions signal a new era of combatting corruption in Brazil? How will Rio de Janeiro compare to other recent Olympic host cities like Beijing and Sochi? Can the Olympic Games live up to its own ideals of fair competition and international cooperation?

The paper caught the eye of Leonardo Machado, a partner at Machado Meyer law firm in Brazil. Machado is the head of the compliance and corporate integrity department, which promotes anti-corruption efforts in the government and public sectors. He was looking for lawyers and experts in other countries who could share their experiences working in the anti-corruption space and might have recommendations for Brazil. 

“We need to have mechanisms that allow us to get the job done — the construction and the improvements,” Machado says. “And at the same time, make sure the businesses are doing things the right way.”

Machado offered his firm’s help with the class’s trip to Brazil, which included stops in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and the Olympic Park in Barra. Machado Meyer assisted with everything from conference room space to coordinating meetings with federal prosecutors and the anti-corruption NGO Ethos, which is working to make World Cup and Olympic projects more transparent. These meetings, as well as interactions with corporate lawyers, civil society organizations, academics, government enforcement officials, and Olympic governance organizations, created a complex look at the potential issues of corruption in Brazil, implementation of new procurement laws, and the intricacies of Brazilian federalism.

Construction of mega-facilities raises questions of corrupt behavior between contractors and government agencies.

That federalist mindset is at the heart of many debates about how to address corruption in Brazil. The democratic government is only 30 years old, and after generations of living under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, there’s a cultural aversion to centralized government. In response, Brazil has adopted a federalist approach that places primary legal power in the hands of states and municipalities, which can override even federal laws in some instances.

And that’s assuming that lawyers and judges even understand the law to begin with. Lawyers and academics have spent decades trying to interpret the young constitution and its implications for legal policies — and they’re not always in agreement.

“We were surprised by the lack of certainty or lack of clarity among sophisticated lawyers on what these new laws said and what they were going to do in practice, how they were going to be enforced,” Spalding says. “There was a very distinct sense that this is a very young democracy whose institutions are still taking shape and the players are acting in good faith, but we were witnessing the creation [of the government and laws].”

These tensions are common to many new governments. It takes time for laws to take shape. Then enforcement policies have to be enacted and agencies put into place. The United States went through similar growing pains, albeit without the pressures and rapid changes of the modern global economy.

“The U.S. had a lot of time to grow to where we are today, but Brazil is just in this very accelerated atmosphere,” says Carter Nichols, L’16, a student in the class. “It took a very long time to happen in the U.S., from the time our constitution was formed until the federal income tax system was passed in 1913, or any of the major anti-corruption laws that are pretty recent in U.S. history.”

It’s one thing to sit in a conference room and debate the history of legislation and its evolution. It’s quite another to see what a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project looks like. That’s why some of the students spent part of their week in Brazil walking the grounds of Olympic Park construction in Barra.

Construction of mega-facilities, like those required for the Olympics and the World Cup, raises questions of corrupt behavior between contractors and government agencies. It can also force issues surrounding the clearing of slums, or favelas as they’re known in Brazil. These slum-clearing projects result in forced evictions of poor families. They are supposed to be compensated, but it’s not always a clear process.

“A quarter of the people in Brazil live in favelas,” says Albert Flores, L’16, another student in the class. “The Olympics and the World Cup are an opportunity for Rio de Janeiro to clean those up. That’s a great thing in theory, but unfortunately there are plenty of incidences where police abuse their authority and the families being evicted aren’t getting paid enough money.”

There are also concerns that the large-scale construction projects exacerbate economic divides among citizens by taking public funds for much-needed services like water, education, electricity, and public transportation from poorer neighborhoods. In 2013, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets in opposition to a 9-cent increase in bus fares. The protests quickly grew even larger and expanded to complaints about political corruption, high taxes, and poor-quality social services.

It may seem that Brazil’s progress is halting at best, but Spalding is quick to point out that there’s plenty of good happening, and that change is coming quickly and effectively. Protests put pressure on the government to take swift action and, while time will tell the effectiveness of these new laws, the act of passing them is a huge leap in the right direction.

The class’s interviews in Brazil also revealed, time and time again, that not only are the laws changing, but the culture is changing.

“People who were historically accepting of corruption are now starting to recognize it as harmful and a thing that the law can and should address,” Spalding says. “There was this tremendous sense, during our interviews, of Brazil being at a historic turning point and we were there to witness it. And not just to witness it, but to report on it.”

Enforcement policies in Brazil are changing dramatically, he continues, “and that’s a story we have to tell.”

Armed with a clearer understanding of Brazil’s challenges and successes, Spalding and his students aim to help Brazil do just that. Following their trip to Brazil, each of the students submitted a 10-page report documenting one area of Brazil’s anti-corruption initiatives and recommendations for how they might continue to expand those efforts.

Many recommended more clarity in what laws actually mean and transparency in enforcement — both processes and outcomes — while still respecting the culture of local and regional autonomy valued by so many Brazilians.

“Especially with how accelerated the issues are in Brazil, with their involvement in these major international sporting events and in the global economy, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what laws are going to apply, and what the law means and who’s going to be able to enforce it. That’s a corruption risk,” Nichols says.

“My perception is that, without a solid enforcement regime — not necessarily one that’s centralized in the federal government, but one that is very clear and precise about who is going to be enforcing these laws, and what the procedures and penalties will be — without a uniform system that’s clearly dictated, there’s room for people to work outside the bounds of the law.”

The Olympics can be an occasion to take an honest look at governance and implement reforms.

Spalding is now spending the next few months compiling the results into a final, comprehensive report that he will share with Leonardo Machado and the Machado Meyer law firm, anti-corruption advocates and NGOs like Ethos and Transparency International, and others interested in anti-corruption reform in Brazil. Their hope is the findings will be used to introduce changes that will last well beyond the closing ceremonies.

With all this talk of Brazil’s work to instill dramatic institutional reforms, it’s clear there’s potential for a lot of good to come from hosting events like the World Cup and the Olympics. But as public costs race into the billions, and at the risk of government upheaval and exacerbating human rights issues, one still has to ask, is it even worth it?

For some countries, Spalding says, the answer may be no.

Consider Oslo, Norway, which entered a bid for the 2022 Olympics. It’s one of the least corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International, it has a favorable position in the global marketplace, and the government infrastructure is strong. That left only economic considerations, but Norway’s citizens didn’t support the use of public funds to cover the infrastructure costs. Oslo was forced to withdraw its bid.

But Spalding isn’t as quick to dismiss the potential for nations like Brazil. If a nation can use the platform to establish long-term, positive institutional reforms and improve its standing in a global marketplace, it makes the endeavor worthwhile, even at an economic cost.

In fact, Spalding argues that a push to let developing countries host could give more countries the chance to take advantage of the global platform and follow in Brazil’s footsteps. It’s those countries that have so much more to gain than gold medals and shiny new buildings.

Spalding also sees the current anti-corruption movement as a moment of historic significance in the history of the Olympics. He describes other times when social or political action far outweighed any competition on the fields. There was 1936 in Berlin, when Jesse Owens, an African-American track and field athlete, won four gold medals in the shadow of the Nazi regime. Or 1980 in Lake Placid when, as the Cold War was reawakening, the U.S. men’s hockey team defeated the six-time gold-winning Soviets.

Spalding believes this period of anti-corruption reform is yet another crucial moment, when the meaning of the Games will transcend the games. These debates are a chance to highlight, in yet another way, Coubertin’s Olympic founding belief in the power of sports to teach a global lesson in the values of fair play.

“The physical infrastructure is not the most important legacy of the Games,” Spalding says. “It’s the legal and cultural infrastructure. The Olympics can be an occasion to take an honest look at governance and implement reforms.”

“The legacy of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics for Brazil’s government, law enforcement, and anti-corruption enforcement is almost certainly going to be positive — not incrementally, but in a dramatic, historically important way.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Richmond Law.

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