Global crimefighters on edge at the Olympics

A picture taken in Moscow on October 6, 2013, shows Russia's President Vladimir Putin holding a torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay across Russia.

Athletes from around the world are pumping iron and psyching themselves up.

And so are the cops. Not just Russian security forces, on watch for terrorist threats in the restive region of Southern Russia, where the Sochi games kick off on Friday. But also, the international crime-fighters at Interpol, which has penned a $20 million agreement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to help with security, as well as crack down on dopers, match-fixers, and corrupt betting schemes.

Interpol, based in Lyon, France, functions as an information clearinghouse to assist national police forces around the world.

The IOC is backing the effort to guarantee the integrity of athletic competition (at both the Olympics and Youth Olympic Games) after doping scandals like the disqualifications and medal-strippings of star sprinters (Canadian) Ben Johnson after the 1988 Seoul Olympics and (American) Marion Jones after the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Professional sports such as cycling and baseball have also seen major scandals involving banned performance-enhancing substances in recent years.

Last year, the IOC set up a $10 million fund for research into new techniques to identify and detect banned substances. Developers of these drugs are often one step ahead of the World Anti-Doping Agency and other policing bodies for individual sports and from individual countries. The IOC is also setting up a working group to look at the economic legacy for host-cities of Olympic spending and infrastructure-building, amidst concern over Russia’s $50 billion pricetag for the games, and widespread allegations of corruption, waste and fraud by Russian companies and government agencies in the Olympic build-out.

Sports economist Andrew Zimblast at Smith College says the Olympic brand is valuable. So the Olympics’ reputation, as well as that of brands that associate themselves with the Olympics as sponsors, are vulnerable to scandals involving doping or match-fixing, as well as extravagance and over-spending.

“The Winter Olympics, with television and ticket sales and sponsorships and so on, typically generate around $3 billion,” says Zimblast. “To spend $20 million on Interpol to improve their image—it’s worth it.”

University of Oregon sports-marketing expert Paul Swangard agrees that $20 million is a small price to pay to convey the message that the IOC is dead-serious about ensuring the integrity of the athletics; that clean athletes can compete on an even playing field; that judges aren’t influenced or manipulated by bribes or for political reasons; and that matches aren’t fixed by organized crime syndicates.

“There has been concern about match-fixing in tennis, in soccer matches around the globe,” says Swangard. “And Interpol is in many of those markets.” Interpol is helping to implement a new IOC program called the Integrity Betting Intelligence System to detect irregularities.

Swangard says the Olympics have mostly avoided scandal in the past—doping disqualifications like those of Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, and revelations of widespread athlete-doping by the former East Germany notwithstanding. But he and Zimblast agree that poorly-paid athletes in underexposed sports offer a vulnerable target for bribery and gambling schemes.

When doping is exposed (and medals or championships overturned), however, the disrepute and opprobrium tends to stick to the accused athlete(s), rather than to the brands they endorse or even the sports they compete in, says John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence . In the case of the Olympics, that’s especially true, since evidence of doping is rarely detected and exposed until long after the games are over and the pomp and circumstance has faded to distant memory. In fact, the IOC is just now subjecting blood samples saved from the 2006 Turin Olympics to improved steroid detection testing, and medal disqualifications could still proceed if evidence of previously unidentified doping is found.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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