Friday, August 19, 2016

Slammer Samba

“How much did they charge you bro??”
—Tweet from an angry Michael Conlan to President Vladimir Putin, after the Irish boxer lost his bout with Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin on Tuesday in a controversial judges’ decision
In the weeks leading up to the sporting world’s most highly anticipated quadrennial event, the Rio Olympics gave every indication of being a looming disaster. With such low expectations, it was probably all but impossible that Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa would not exceed expectations and all the hoopla about the Zika virus would mostly be forgotten. What we really did not see coming, though, was the way Brazilian law enforcement would turn out to be such a well-oiled crime-solving machine.

The cops very quickly got to the bottom of the scam by American swimmers to try to get out of a minor drunken vandalism spree. What was really impressive, though, was how the Brazilians nailed one of the most powerful figures in European sport and tossed him in jail. On Wednesday Brazilian police arrested Pat Hickey, president of the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI). He is also a member of the International Olympic Committee and head of European Olympic Committees. According to the OCI, he has “temporarily” stepped down from all Olympic functions “until this matter is fully resolved.”

What was he arrested for? Scalping, say the police. A couple of weeks earlier another Irishman, Kevin Mallon, was arrested at a Rio hotel while selling OCI-registered Olympics tickets to a group of around 20 people. Police seized 781 tickets and said they were being sold at prices of up to 7,200 euro (more than $8,000). Mallon’s company, THG, is not an authorized seller for Irish tickets, but the authorized company, PRO10, said that Mallon was “distributing” the tickets as a favor. After Mallon’s arrest, the Irish government’s sports minister, Shane Ross, met with Pat Hickey to suggest that the OCI’s investigation into the matter include an independent outsider. That suggestion was haughtily batted away by Hickey, who insisted that the OCI was more than content to investigate itself with no interference. Things changed when the police arrived at Hickey’s hotel in the middle of the night and eventually found him in his son’s room after his wife had said she did not know where he was.

If he is charged and convicted, Hickey could face a punishment as severe as seven years in jail. Brazilians, in apparent contrast to the Irish, take the crime of ticket touting very seriously.

I have never been much of a sports fan, but there has always been something inspiring about the Olympics. Most of the athletes are quite young and are amateurs in the true sense of the word, i.e. they compete for the love of the sport. Who cannot be moved by the triumphs of Jamaica’s Usain Bolt or the U.S.’s Simone Biles? Ireland has taken justifiable price in the winning of two water-borne silver medals: Annalise Murphy for Laser Radial Sailing and the thoroughly captivating Cork brothers Gary and Paul O’Donovan for men’s lightweight double sculls rowing.

The is, however, always a dark side. This year it was the near-total-banning of Russia because of systematic “state-dictated” doping. In the end 278 Russian athletes (out of 398) were cleared to compete.

The dark side for Ireland—apart from the ticket scandal—was in boxing. One middleweight boxer was disqualified for failing a drugs test. Previous gold medal winner Katie Taylor lost her bout in a controversial decision. And Ulsterman Michael Conlan lost his bantamweight quarterfinal bout in a decision so clearly wrong that the International Boxing Association subsequently pulled some of the referees and judges. Despite “winning” against Conlan, the Russian Vladimir Nikitin was so badly battered that he could not take part in the semifinal round. He still took home a bronze medal anyway.

When looking at all of this, it is easy to become cynical—especially when it comes to the greed of some of the Olympic officials. It just goes to show that there is always temptation when people secure in their positions get to handle lots of other people’s money.

Still, fair play to the Brazilians. They really have a thing for corruption these days. Not only did they nail the ticket touts, but the last I checked 352 out of the 594 members of Brazil’s Congress are currently being investigated or facing corruption charges. Moreover, two ministers in Acting President Michel Temer’s cabinet were recently forced to resign for obstructing Operation Car Wash, an investigation into money laundering, kickbacks and bribery involving the state-controlled oil company Petrobras. The investigation has also ensnared former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Meanwhile his successor, Dilma Rousseff, is facing an impeachment trial over manipulating government accounts.

It almost—I said almost—makes the current U.S. political scene look halfway normal by comparison.

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