They say all's fair in love and war. For many, sport is both. When it comes to bidding for major sporting events though, given the recent FIFA investigation into the World Cup bidding, the line between fair play and bribery has blurred.
Russia, Qatar and England have all faced accusations of wrongdoing in their bids to host upcoming tournaments but insufficient evidence has yet to be found to call for a revote. Ahead of a committee ruling in March, UEFA has asked for the full Fifa ethics report to be published and European organisations including the FA have threatened to boycott future events. I've been involved in similar bidding processes myself and can confirm it lives up to the 'wild west' description it has earned.
Bidding for sporting events works like an auction. Sporting bodies such as Fifa, which own the rights to the event, are the auctioneers. Their intentions are to help promote and develop the sport and represent the interests of their participants. They are funded by grants, memberships and hosting fees, which are paid by those winning the auction.
To win a bid means meeting or exceeding, any criteria set out by the governing body then ensuring you have enough votes from the group awarding the rights. Just like politicians lobbying us for an election victory, those with a right to vote are lobbied more heavily using whatever means necessary.
Lobbying aside, in trying to create the best bid in the first place the line between fair play and corruption can blur. One country could create a fantastic bid that exceeds expectations but if another matches it with some shiny extras, such as additional investment in facilities or sports development, they are likely to win.
The gifting of watches to individuals, whilst polite or customary in some cultures would clearly be construed as bribery in most. The line between fair play and bribery is, in my view, in the quality of the paperwork. If a bidder offers something that's been asked for, then it's fair. If they give something unasked for that wasn't forbidden, such as more facilities or investment, this could be construed either as bribery or simply offering more. For doing this, Qatar was accused of effectively trying to 'buy' the World Cup.
As a bidder, if you discover your competitors are bending the rules, you are left with limited options. You couldn't complain because, as the recent FIFA investigation suggests, you'd not get very far. If you do nothing you know you're going to lose but if you play the game you risk getting caught out yourself. The rewards, including potentially billions of pounds, may be considered worth crossing that fine line into bribery.
To solve this problem for future bidding processes, greater transparency as suggested by UEFA will help but bidders will always do whatever they can for competitive advantage and unless they know who they're dealing with, they will never know the real rules they're playing by.
If governing bodies chose a different continent for each event first, they could invite interested parties from those territories and work with them to encourage genuine development and progression. This could mean the World Cup, or similar mega events, jumping on a more strict rotating cycle between continents every four years.
Organisations may say global sporting events should be open for anyone to bid for yet many, like England, might stand a better chance of winning if they were just bidding against other European countries.
Without this dramatic change of approach I fear bribery or competitive outbidding will remain the status quo and fairness shall remain a long way off.