5 November 2021

When does a gift become a bribe?

If an electoral candidate gave you a watch worth £30 ahead of an election in which you were due to vote, would you consider it a bribe? How about if the watch was worth £86, or £145? This week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) disagreed with World Athletics that such gifts constitute more than ‘nominal value’ designed to influence voting behaviour. As such, can a 2020 Decision that Ahmad Al Kamali violated the 2015 IAAF Code of Ethics stand?

In December last year, World Athletics found that Ahmad Al Kamali had given watches to delegates at the March 2015 Confederation Africaine d’Athletisme (CAA) Congress. Al Kamali is President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Athletics Federation. It was alleged that the watches were designed to persuade people to vote for him as an International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF – now ‘World Athletics’) Council member at the 2015 Beijing elections.

The ‘Improper Benefits’ rules in place under the 2015 IAAF Code of Ethics (click to open)…

In a 25 page Decision (PDF below), the World Athletics Ethics Board found that Al Kamali was guilty of breaching Article C5(21) of the IAAF Code of Ethics. This outlines that ‘Candidates shall in no case and under no pretext give presents or offer donations or gifts or grant advantages or benefits of whatever nature to or at the request of any party who will vote in, or who may otherwise influence, an election’.

It also found that as the watches were more than of ‘nominal value’, they breached Article D2(26) of its Code of Ethics prohibiting such ‘gifts’. What constitutes ‘nominal value’ was not defined in the IAAF Code of Ethics in force at the time (see right). 

Excerpt from World Athletics’ 2019 Rules on ‘Gifts’ (click to open)…

In summary, it would appear that because Al Kamali gave gifts of more than ‘nominal value’ to officials, he was found guilty of violating the 2015 IAAF Code of Ethics. In 2019, the Conflicts, Disclosures and Gifts Rules (click here to download) replaced this section of the Code of Ethics. It clearly defines that ‘gifts’ should not be accepted from people seeking election to World Athletics positions. And a watch or jewellery is considered a ‘gift’ (see right).

Al Kamali admitted buying the watches for delegates (click to open)…

Al Kamali admitted giving the watches to delegates at the 2015 CAA Congress (see right). And as explained above, there is no doubt that today, Al Kamali’s conduct would be prohibited whatever the value of the watches. 

World Athletics disputed his assertion that the watches were worth US$40 (£30). Its investigator found ‘the same or very similar’ watches for sale online at £145, marked down to £86. I challenge you, the reader, to find a watch manufactured by the Swiss company Continental for sale at less than £100.

World Athletics considered the value immaterial – they were an attempt at influence (click to open)…

In addition, World Athletics disputed a ‘Delivery Note’ claiming to be a receipt for the watches, noting that the documentary record behind this note was unsatisfactory. World Athletics also found Al Kamali to be an unsatisfactory witness and said that he was uncooperative. 

His sanction wasn’t severe. He was banned for six months (now served) and fined €5,000. The CAS hasn’t overturned the entire World Athletics Decision – it has just rescinded the €5,000 fine.

What is troubling is the CAS’s finding that the gifts were not ‘of more than nominal value’. How the CAS determined that the watches were of nominal value isn’t known. The full CAS Decision has yet to be published. 

How much is too much?

Al Kamali told World Athletics investigators that: ‘The corporate gift offered to delegate [sic] was in line with the applicable rules and regulations at that time and mostly in line with the UAE traditions and habits of my country and region. We don’t go anywhere without any gesture of any kind.’ It would appear that the CAS has accepted his version of events.

It may be accurate that such practices exist. But expensive watches also appear to be a common gift in sport. 

In 2015, FIFA told The Sports Integrity Initiative that its former President Sepp Blatter had returned a watch potentially valued at over €24,000 given to him by the Brazilian football confederation (CBF) ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. In 2019, French investigators alleged a ‘chronological link’ between Papa Massata Diack’s US$1.7 million purchase of luxury watches and IAAF competitions. In April last year, it was confirmed that the Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee spent US$46,500 on watches in a bid to secure votes to host the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.  

Such lavish spending on gifts isn’t acceptable in any industry, regardless of purpose. What is concerning is the CAS’s apparent watering down of an international federation’s attempt to sanction what it considered to be a bribe to influence an election. Such a Decision appears to send a message to sporting executives that such obvious attempts to influence people are acceptable, so long as you don’t spend too much.

So how much is considered a bribe? £30? £40? £100?

Seb Coe promised IAAF member federations an ‘Olympic Dividend’ of US$100,000 each (click to open)…

How about €100,000? In 2015, Sebastian Coe denied ever having promised the 214 IAAF member federations US$100,000 each should he take over from Lamine Diack – Papa Massata Diack’s father – as IAAF President. However, a 24 July 2015 press release – since deleted – issued through Coe’s Presidential campaign website did specifically promise this, as this Athletics Weekly article and the screenshot on the right corroborate.

Perhaps reading from Coe’s playbook, Gianni Infantino promised the 207 national associations present at the 2016 FIFA Presidential election that he would reinvest US$1.2 billion of FIFA’s $5 billion revenues on development. It is understood that this pledge won him the election.

Faced with such obvious – and entirely legitimate – attempts to influence voting behaviour, a focus on watches and gifts appears small beans. However, in dismissing World Athletics’ finding that the watches were of more than ‘nominal value’, has the CAS cleared a path for Al Kamali to appeal against World Athletics’ finding that he violated the 2015 IAAF Code of Ethics? 

After all, World Athletics’ Decision was based on the idea that because the watches were of more than ‘nominal value’, they were considered a ‘gift’ designed to influence his election to the IAAF Council. If the watches were of less than ‘nominal value’, as the CAS found, can they still be considered as a ‘gift’ designed to influence Al Kamali’s election to the IAAF Council? That is, presumably, something that the full CAS Decision will clarify…

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