The real problem in track and field might not be the endemic corruption, but defeatism, the feeling that everybody’s in on it—administrators, coaches, athletes, watchdogs. The feeling that the problem is just too big to solve. There’s a nagging sense that telling the Russian federation it’s not okay to dope, and entreating USA Track & Field president Stephanie Hightower not to spend all the organization’s dough on her pals is just not going work. And if you have to explain to the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, the good Lord Seb Coe, that journalists revealing corruption is not the problem—that corruption is the problem—well, it doesn’t seem worth it to chew through the leather straps.
Everybody agrees it’s going to take some honest, qualified, energetic people at the top, but where are these honest, qualified, energetic people? Ten-thousand-meter bummer—it seems like no one cares enough or has the energy to find these leaders. At depressing times like this, track and field could take a play from some folks who really know widespread corruption and hopelessness: the Nepalese!
Nepal is ranked 126th out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception 2014 Index. Accountability Lab, an NGO that works to build accountability in governments worldwide, says this about Nepalese public servants:
Rather than rendering the services people seek and being honest and accountable, most citizens in Nepal believe bureaucracy is more interested in making money and self-gain.
As we go along, things will make a lot more sense if you replace “Nepal” with “track and field.” Corruption in Nepal is structural, with the government leading the way and citizens following their example. Nepalese people were disheartened and resigned; it seemed like there were no honest public servants in the whole country.
Based on the enormous popularity of reality shows and social media in Nepal, the young idealists at Accountability Lab decided that the way to find, celebrate, and encourage honesty in government workers was the same way one identified singing and dancing talent. So You Think You Can Do Your Job?! That’s right boys and girls, Integrity Idol is a real reality show in Kathmandu:
Integrity Idol is a nationwide campaign run by citizens in search for honest government officials. It aims to generate debate around the idea of integrity and demonstrate the importance of honesty, personal responsibility and accountability as well as inspire a new generation to be more effective public servants. The Integrity Idol team travels extensively across the country, hosting public forums, and generating a national discourse on the need for public officials with integrity. The campaign involves a variety of different media, including a TV show on national channels, SMS outreach, and social media. Nominations come from citizens across the country and Integrity Idol encourages self-nominations too. An awards ceremony is held after finalists are selected and throughout the process citizens are encouraged to vote for their Integrity Idol.
You cannot make this stuff up. The original 2013 show was so popular that Integrity Idol has spread to other icons of corruption, Liberia and Pakistan. In January 2014 Nepal named its first Integrity Idol winner, though there was no monetary prize (to avoid the possibility of corruption).
The champion, Gyan Mani Nepal, chosen from over 300 nominees, really took names and kicked ass. Here’s what he faced:
Since January 2013, I have served as the District Education Officer in Panchthar, a district in the far eastern side of Nepal, an area very much affected by Nepal’s civil war. When I arrived, I soon learned that teachers’ rates of absenteeism were unacceptable. Teachers did not come to class, or when they did, they would not stay in the classroom for the full time. Out of 220 school days, schools were open just for 79 days. Students used to pass their days at school just playing in the schoolyard.
Teachers’ drunkenness at school was a widespread problem too, as well as their active recruitment of students for political activities. I also found that books and supplies were largely unavailable... I found 10th grade students who could not do addition and subtraction, and 6th graders who couldn’t even recognize the letters.
In such a scenario, I didn’t know where to begin to improve the situation.
Wow, teachers showing up drunk and shaking down their students—these guys could give IAAF a run for their money. Gyan didn’t waste time suffering fools. Instead, he got to work (emphasis mine):
I started with District Education Office itself first. I made the government budget transparent through bulletins, and media, and any other possible means.
I started punishing absent teachers and those who used to get drunk in school, and took administrative action against teachers in violation of employment or conduct rules. I created an environment that was set to reward or punish teachers based on their performance.
I personally visited almost every single school in the district, often in disguise. I directly entered into the classrooms, chatted with students, and took videos.
I prepared a log book, or a daily timesheet system, through which students themselves could monitor which teachers came to their class, at which time, and how long they taught the class. I made an arrangement for school principles [sic] to review and approve that log book and send it to my office. I then established a reward and punishment system to honor achievers and punish teachers who neglect their duties.
Telling you, Gyan is my hero. He got results, too:
I am proud to say that this campaign has brought remarkable changes in the schools of Panchthar district since 2013.
After I initiated this campaign, 100 teachers who previously used to get drunk in school, resigned from their posts. About two hundred teachers have received disciplinary warnings. Teacher attendance in the district is now over 90%.
I joined the civil service to make a difference in the community. It’s important for me to show results. Most importantly to me, there have been improvements in student achievement. I believe that the pass rate in the district will rise from 14% to over 60% within this year and I am most hopeful that my campaign will lead the literacy rate to rise to 100% by this year.
It is important to note that Integrity Idol didn’t attempt to solve corruption in Nepal. Instead, the fantastically popular show engaged jaded citizens, unearthed 300 honest public servant candidates, publicized their good work, crowned an honest hero, and inspired others to incorporate Gyan’s kick-ass methods. It made honesty as fun, interesting, and newsworthy as corruption.
Track and field is also suffering from hopelessness and universal suspicion. It sounds crazy but, using the Integrity Idol model, what if we stopped focusing on cheats, liars, and basement level ethics, and instead focused on smart, honest, hardworking people in the sport?
As silly as it sounds, Integrity Idol Track & Field could re-engage fans and, by highlighting bright spots, restore some faith in the sport. Broad, sloppy talk about banishing corruption sounds hollow, untenable, and frankly, boring. A bunch of smart, innovative candidates in an integrity throw-down? I’d watch that.
photo credit: Getty