Omertà in sports

Josephine Serrallach

Josephine Serrallach TINZ Director

by Josephine Serrallach

TINZ Director

Is Omertà present in the changing rooms of New Zealand sports clubs and Olympic teams?

Omertà is a “code of honour” that places importance on silence, non-cooperation with authorities, and non-interference in the illegal actions of others. This code, often associated with the mafia, is an extreme form of loyalty and solidarity in the face of authority.

In sport, “Omertà” exists to some degree in all locker rooms as players feel strong loyalty to their mates and to their team. It is a serious problem connected to team spirit and “sporting mates” culture.

In this atmosphere, the tension for an individual player is that breaking silence affects the team's reputation and is likely to adversely affect team performance. It requires athletes to denounce or accuse their mates in public and the courts, and to endure retribution from their teammates.

A recent debate organised by the Office of the European Parliament concluded that illegal betting is going on in the changing rooms of football clubs and is a danger even greater than doping.

In Europe, there is evidence that every day there are five or six sporting events where the results are arranged. The betting mafias behind these illegal activities mostly operate from countries outside Europe. For example, Malta, a country where the second biggest business after tourism is betting, is thwarting the approval of an international agreement promoted by the European Union to counteract corruption in sport.

A key question is whether Omertà is present in the changing rooms of New Zealand sports clubs and in the Olympic national teams. Of even greater importance is the question of what happens to whistle-blowers after they courageously uncover match-fixing or doping practices. The laws of many countries, including New Zealand, offer some legal protection to whistle-blowers, but laws cannot prevent or protect them from the repudiation of their team mates. This is a matter of education and culture change.

According to Michael Woodside, Policy Manager of Sport New Zealand, “there is no evidence as far as we are aware of Omertà occurring within New Zealand sporting system. One of the key protections against Omertà is effective education of athletes, coaches and officials.”

Anti-doping education is led by Drug Free Sport NZ (click here for more details). Sport NZ has an education module on anti-match-fixing on their website. Individual National Sport Organisations also have their own educational programmes.

On the verge of the Olympic Games, world focus is on systematic state-sponsored doping. Currently making headlines and garnering media attention is the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) controversial decision to not ban Russian athletes from the Rio Olympics, instead leaving the final call to individual sports federations. The New Zealand Olympic Committee has supported the IOC’s decision against the call from Drug Free Sport New Zealand to back the core principles of New Zealand sport.

Although systematic state-sponsored doping is of serious concern, it should not divert attention away from the threat of Omertà in our sports clubs, which is a long-term world-wide problem and only a strong focus on education can preserve the sporting culture of our country.

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