FINA, the international swimming federation, has been rocked by fresh controversy just a few days before presidential elections in Budapest.
Husain Al Musallam, standing unopposed for the heir-apparent role of FINA “first Vice-President” in elections this week, has been caught up in a controversy surrounding an apparent demand for commissions potentially worth millions of dollars for sponsorship deals.
A tape recording of a meeting between Al Musallam and a Chinese marketing agent is highlighted in an exclusive report from The Times in London, Spiegel Online in Germany and SwimVortex today (reports by Martyn Ziegler, chief sports reporter for The Times, Jens Weinreich, the Olympic writer reporting for Spiegel Online, and Craig Lord, swimming correspondent for The Times and editor of SwimVortex).
The article in The Times reveals the contents of a recording obtained by the newspaper in which Al Musallam, the Kuwaiti director general of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), suggests to a prospective Chinese marketing agent that 10 per cent of any sponsorship deals arranged for the OCA and its key events, the Asian Games at the helm, should be separately channelled to him and associates by the marketing company as “a commission”.
It would be unusual practice in international sports organisations for such a commission to be paid separately to an employee of the organisation receiving the sponsorship.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) told The Times and Der Spiegel that it had noted the allegations and passed them to its chief ethics investigator.
It is not the first time this year that Al Musallam, who sits on the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity panel which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars to countries for sports development, has made headlines. In April, The Times revealed, he was effectively identified in a US Department of Justice indictment as a co-conspirator who allegedly paid bribes to a football official.
All these events are unfolding at a time when Kuwait is suspended by the IOC, FINA and more than 10 other international sports federations over alleged politcal interference in who should represent and run sport in Kuwait. While athletes from Kuwait in Hungary for the World Championships must compete under the FINA flag, it is business as usual for Al Musallam.
In response to questions from The Times, the OCA says it is aware of the tape but insists no requests for commissions were made by or paid to any OCA officials.
Al Musallam, known as ‘Captain’ due to his previous career as an airline pilot, is the right-hand man of Olympic powerbroker and OCA president Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, who in April resigned from his FIFA and football positions after also being identified as a co-conspirator, along with Al Musallam, in the US indictment.
The recording obtained by The Times has emerged from the FBI investigation into Al Musallam and Sheikh Ahmad. It covers a 20-minute meeting between Al Musallam with a Chinese agent, understood to be Ann Yuan Yue, who had previously secured lucrative marketing deals for the OCA. She had emailed Al Musallam in May 2012 proposing a new deal for a company to market the OCA in China and met him a month later at the Asian Beach Games in Haiyang, China, according to a source close to the investigation.
In the meeting, Al Musallam says the marketing company would have to generate sponsorship deals worth “40 to 50 million” dollars for the OCA or “it’s of no value”. He then turns the conversation to “commissions” and says that the OCA would receive 82% of the money from any deals, with the marketing company receiving an 8% cut and 10% going to “us”.
Yuan Yue initially suggests the company should keep back 16%, with it keeping 10% and 6% going to Al Musallam.
She says: “We may put like 16% … that’s 6% that goes through the company’s account back to you. We don’t need for it to go back to OCA…”
Al Musallam replies: “No, no, no, no, because I cannot do it… it goes back to OCA? I understand what you’re saying but if you have 8%…”. There follows an exchange in Arabic with another official before Al Musallam concludes:
“Ok … we go 10% for us and you get 8% for you … that’s 18% commission.”
Later on, Al-Musallam tells the Chinese agent that if she were “… to sign the contract with OCA as a marketing company, make [it] 19%, because this 1% is for the running costs, of course. That’s for more transparency.”
In the course of their conversation, Al Musallam urges the Chinese agent to register the private company being established to handle marketing contracts not in Beijing but Hong Kong. He also tells her to drop the word “Olympic” from the company name.
The latest controversy linked to Al Musallam has flared up ahead of FINA’s General Congress and other elections in Budapest on the eve of eight days of pool racing at the world swimming championships. The Kuwaiti is the sole candidate for the position of FINA’s first vice-president. This weekend will also see the presidential election between the incumbent Julio Maglione of Uruguay and his Italian challenger Paolo Barelli.
Maglione, the 81-year-old from Uruguay who came to the top seat in 2009 on a promise of restricting terms of office for furture presidents and imposing age limits on those wishing to serve, overturned his earlier decisions in order to stand for a third term as president. If he is re-elected this Saturday and serves the full term, Maglione would be almost six years beyond Olympic age-limit rules that the Uruguayan backed when he was eligible to be an IOC member.
If Maglione is unwell, cannot attend certain events or steps down from his role, Al Musallam would be the effective president of FINA. Al Musallam does not have the backing of the Kuwait Swimming Federation as he stands for FINA office this week.
He and Sheikh Ahmad have denied any wrongdoing in the football corruption investigation which has seen Richard Lai, a Guam football official, plead guilty to accepting payments of almost $1 million between 2009 and 2014.
The IOC’s ethics panel is still investigating the allegations but the sheikh remains an IOC member, the head of the Olympic Solidarity commission and president of the influential Association of National Olympic Committees.
He stepped down from his football roles pending inquiries but both the sheikh and Al Musallam continue in their roles in the Olympic realm, including swimming, the Kuwaiti’s two leading lights at the Asian Swimming Federation.
The OCA said in a statement:
“The OCA firmly denies that OCA officials requested commissions for OCA sponsorship deals and confirms that no commission or money was paid to OCA officials, directly or indirectly, for OCA sponsorship deals. All money for sponsorship deals went directly to the OCA.
“The OCA is fully aware of the tape in question and its content and believes that this tape is being used in a politically motivated campaign ahead of the upcoming Fina elections scheduled for 22 July 2017.”
It said its ethics committee had determined that there was no wrongdoing or violation of rules relating to the allegations made by Richard Lai against Sheikh Ahmad and Al Musallam.
FINA, too, said “no rules broken”, issuing a statement to The Times to say, as it did when Al Musallam was cited aa a co-conspoirator in the Lai indictment, that it would “monitor developments carefully”. It added: “However, it was determined there was no case to answer based on the information that is available to FINA at this time. Moreover, there was no breach of any FINA regulations.”
Those include bringing the sport “into disrepute”. That will now be a matter that Olympic ethics investigators may consider.
Yuan Yue, meanwhile, was unavailable for comment.
Spiegel Online, meanwhile, notes the history of Olympic scandals when it reports:
“The concept of ‘commissions” is traditionally used in the Olympic world when top officials are making money – such practices are best documented from the gigantic ISL bribery process, the FIFA criminal proceedings or the World Volleyball Federation FIVB.”
The leading German news outfit reports that Sheikh Ahmad, who withdrew his candidacy for the FIFA Council after the documents related to the Lai case were reported, has not returned to Switzerland since the end of April. Only last week, he did not show for the General Assembly of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).