Adidas and Sports Corruption

Even as the every-fourth-year World Cup football spectacular is set to kick off
in Brazil later this week, there has been a wave of increasing concern about the event’s scheduled host for 2022, the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. This has largely been prompted by the eminent British newspaper The Sunday Times, which has somehow gotten its hands on a treasure-trove of internal e-mails and documents relating to what appears to be the concerted effort spearheaded by the Qatari businessman (and former FIFA vice-president) Mohamed Bin Hammam to buy Qatar the 2022 World Cup outright via the judicious parcelling-out of up to $5 million.

Taking a page from the work of Edward Snowden and Glen Greenwald with the NSA documents, The Sunday Times is drawing out its revelations over a period of weeks, rather than dumping all of what it has learned on the public at once. Nonetheless, even what is has revealed so far has prompted some notable reactions. One of the latest was that of one of FIFA’s main World Cup sponsors, SONY, expressing its concern over the Qatar revelations. Then SONY was recently followed in that by the famous German sportswear firm Adidas. (That last link is to a Sunday Times piece – remarkable since usually they are inaccessible behind a paywall.)

But Adidas itself knows quite a bit about corruption in sports – as is apparent from the German business newspaper Handelsblatt with an article it republished from Die Zeit a little less than two weeks ago:

That tweet reads “Adidas: The inventor of modern sports corruption,” with a question mark. But it is not really a question; in the article itself that title appears without any question-mark, and writer Oliver Fritsch’s purpose within the seven pages over which the piece is divided is to show how that is the case. As he writes:

“For decades the company has influenced sports-politics decisions such as marketing contracts, tournament expenses and personnel. The company’s methods are controversial. And that just not as of yesterday.”

You can tell that Adidas is a big player at least in the German sporting goods market from the fact that it is the official supplier to both the German National Football Association (and therefore to the national team, which first goes into action in Brazil against Portugal next Monday) and to German football power-house Bayern München. And you can similarly tell that Horst Dassler, son of the company’s founder Adi Dassler, was some kind of evil genius from the fact that he gets his very own chapter in the exposé-book recently written by Thomas Kistner, Fifa Mafia (unfortunately available only in German).

Dassler’s first notable bid to gain attention for his company (founded in 1948) occured during the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympic Games, where he gave away many Adidas athletic shoes to participating athletes and saw many of them go on to win their events. But he soon came up with what he thought were even better methods to advance his interests. His motto was “He who has information can blackmail others, bend them to one’s will. Whoever does not cooperate, gets replaced.” This was reflected in the private spy operation Dassler set up for himself to start gathering dirt on prominent people, which others started to refer to as the “Gym-shoe CIA.” (Others played at that game as well, of course. Dassler became very friendly with East German officials, all the way up to Erick Honecker, and Adidas soon was the supplier to their football federation as well – but the Stasi kept its own eye on him.)

Horst Dassler died in 1987, but while he was alive, and well afterwards, Adidas punched way above its weight in the international sports world. FIFA presidents – all the way up to the current Sepp Blatter – owed their positions to his company’s influence; allegedly, so did presidents of the International Olympic Committee, including the present incumbent Thomas Bach. Meanwhile Adidas has kept its grip on the Bayern München contract (helped by its 10% purchase of the club in 2002) and on the contract for the German national team, even while grossly underpaying for the latter. Its American competitor Nike tried to make a bid for that German national team contract in 2006, but Adidas repelled it, consenting to help it grab the French national team contract instead.

The mention of competitor Nike is apt in another way, in that Adidas’ latest sin is its treatment of the third-world companies to which it out-sources the production of its goods – and in particular of their labor forces, for which it has mostly managed to beat back any minimum-wage legislation. Nike itself was long the target of such accusations of third-world abuse, but managed to improve its practices in that regard (or at least its image) to get them stopped; Adidas, it seems, has not even been brought to account. Make no mistake, it is a company that is just as centered upon profit-maximization as it ever was; in the words of one observer quoted here, “Adidas simply lacks the consciousness for any more than that.”

The Handelsblatt/Zeit article is thus a timely reminder in the light of Adidas piping up to condemn the goings-on around Qatar’s winning of the 2012 World Cup. (The lastest news in fact has four of FIFA’s top six sponsors now speaking up in reaction to the Qatar corruption reports.) With Adidas we hardly are dealing with an innocent, uninvolved observer; rather, it’s a concern with a lot of under-the-radar influence, most especially on Sepp Blatter himself. This public move regarding Qatar can therefore only be understood within that rather more complex context.

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