International wrestling and international sports, in general, has long had a corruption problem. The number one complaint I heard after Olympic wrestling concluded last week was the appearance of UWW officials being on the take. It is a common refrain from sports fans and one that is often difficult to prove. Where does incompetence end and corruption begin?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and soccer’s governing body, FIFA, have both had their own corruption scandals to deal with in recent years. Judging scandals and paid officials have plagued many other sports through the years as well. United World Wrestling (UWW) now faces the question that many other governing bodies have been unable to answer, how do we stamp out corruption in our sport without alienating too many countries?
The individual fan probably doesn’t care about alienating corrupt countries. They have the luxury of viewing this as an issue of right and wrong. Many American wrestling fans, myself included, wanted Russia banned from the most recent Olympics after their doping scandal. I imagine many of those same fans would be happy to see countries like Uzbekistan, which was at the center of some of the most egregious officiating, banned from international competition, especially if some sort of proof comes out that the Uzbeks did something unseemly. That certainly seems only right.
Putting aside the issue of finding proof, Russia, and the former Soviet states present a difficult problem for UWW. Russia, of course, was one of the three countries, along with the United States and Iran, that drove the effort to get wrestling put back into the Olympics. That combined with their long history of wrestling dominance and wrestling’s place in their culture makes both Russia itself and that area of the world vital to the continued success of UWW as an entity. Losing the support of Russia would be difficult for UWW to survive which makes all of this such a delicate situation.
Compounding the problem is that those countries are perceived, rightly or not, as some of the most corrupt in the developed world. Transparency International releases a ranking of how corrupt each country’s public sector is perceived each year. In 2015, of 168 countries ranked, 10 former Soviet States ranked outside the top-100 “cleanest” countries. Russia was also outside the top-100. Uzbekistan was 153rd. For reference, the five perceived as the most corrupt were South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia.
The problem persists in wrestling specific matters as well. Russian Wrestling Federation Mikhail Mamiashvili has had close friendships and business dealings with known mob bosses. So extensive are the issues with Mamiashvili that the U.S. took the rare step of denying him entry to the country for last year’s freestyle world cup. Yet, he continues to be the head of one of the most powerful wrestling federations in the world.
It is no secret that many powerful people in the former Soviet states have ties to organized crime so it should not come as a surprise that powerful wrestling people do as well. However, it makes confronting the problem difficult. Removing individuals is hard enough, but finding replacements that don’t have similar issues is difficult. The answer many keep coming back to is banning entire countries until they can clean themselves up. This is an option, but it leads down a dark road.
Whatever you think of the current college football playoff system, it is far and away better than the days when multiple polls decided national champions and split titles were a constant threat. This is where we could be headed if UWW gets tough on corruption. Imagine the world where Russia and those with close ties to them, in the face of mounting pressure to get rid of Mamiashvili and clean up corruption, take their ball and go home.
For one thing, this would cripple UWW. A competing organization would crop up quickly to challenge UWW’s supremacy with countries forced to choose sides. The IOC, who has already shown they have no patience for wrestling, would almost certainly dismiss a sport whose governing body no longer included some of its best nations. There would be no more world championships that meant anything. All competitions would be duplicated with little to no overlap. International wrestling would suffer through a dystopian future with no end in sight.
Of course, this is a worst case scenario that is unlikely to ever come to fruition. However, it highlights how difficult it can be for a world governing body to punish members that the governing body draws support from. We saw it with the former head of FIFA Sepp Blatter. Even after it became clear that he was corrupt and must be ousted, it was difficult to remove him due to all the smaller nations who he had aided over the years. They weren’t willing to lose a boss that helped them personally, corruption or not.
In the end, United World Wrestling can only end corruption if its members support them doing so. Given the history of many powerful wrestling countries, it is a real question whether they will be willing to do that. That leaves wrestling in the awkward position of either supporting a facet of the sport that is almost certainly corrupt or not supporting the highest levels of the sport and watching the interest in wrestling continue to dwindle. Of course, I have what I consider to be the solution and I’m sure many others do as well. Whichever route wrestling chooses from here, it won’t be an easy road to traverse.