AK: Clarity needed on how aware sports sponsors are of their funds' use

Mati Alaver  at Harju County Court on Thursday.
Mati Alaver at Harju County Court on Thursday. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The recent withdrawal of sports sponsorship by businessman Toomas Annus following an ETV investigative show which purportedly linked him to a ski doping scandal has brought into question the extent to which financial supporters of sport are aware of how their money is spent, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera.Nädal" (AK) reported Sunday evening.

At the same time, lessons needed to be learned from the episode, the show found, and decisions need not be based solely on emotion.

Businessman and sports sponsor Heiti Hääl told AK that supporting youth sports comes primarily from a sense of mission; in top sports, the relationship is based on mutual trust and is done based on emotion, he said, adding that while it is not always clear what funds get used for., the sums issued and their recipients are usually clearly delineated.

Businessman: Sponsors not an auditor or watchdog

Hääl, who provides around half a million euros in support per annum, said: "For the majority of our money granted, we know how much it is and where it is going. However, what is being done with the money is certainly not clear. The sponsor is not a control body or an auditor who should monitor the use of the money."

Hääl was speaking in the aftermath of a major sports sponsor, Toomas Annus, owner of construction firm Merko, pulling out of sports sponsorship altogether, following a report by ETV investigative show "Pealtnägija" in late January which, Annus said, slandered him.

Annus said the report stated he knew that funds granted to Estonian cross-country skiers and ski teams was being used for illicit blood doping and growth hormone purchases. While "Pealtnägija" presenter Mihkel Kärmas denied such a charge had been leveled against Annus on the show, it was enough for the latter to withdraw entirely from sports sponsorship.

Annus had already stopped sponsoring skiing after a major international scandal broke in the wake of a police swoop on Estonian and other skiers at the world championships in Seefeld, Austria, two years ago.

Sports sponsorship supports sector

Sponsorship is as much about providing support for a sector as it is for advertising.

Businessman Erich Teigamägi, current president of the Estonian Athletics Association (EKJL), agreed with Heiti Hääl that agreements concluded between a sponsor and a federation, team or athlete usually set out the rights and obligations very precisely, with sponsors providing pastoral support in some cases – with this even sometimes superseding financial support if a sponsoring company is not doing well at that time.

Sponsors might also withdraw in the case of poor performance on the track or sportsfield, Teigamägi added.

Heiti Hääl said that withdrawal was justifiable when best practices were not being adhered to, leave alone if doping activities are suspected or known. If these do happen, legal action is possible, though not inevitable.

He also made a distinction between private sponsor money, which was a question for the latter's own conscience, and public support, in which case the public interest as a whole is key.

EOK Secretary General: Annus withdrawal mainly affects top athletes

Secretary General of the Estonian Olympic Committee (EOK) Siim Sulkes said that around €260 million is spent on sport in Estonia per year, meaning the loss of support from Annus and his company, Merko, does not make a huge dent overall, but instead affects top sports and athletes.

Sukles added that other sponsors now fear encountering unfounded accusations. He also said that the discussion has evolved since the ski doping scandal story first broke, with it being less clear who the martyr and who the perpetrator is, in all cases.

Communications expert Paul Rebane recently penned an opinion piece saying that the recent issues had damaged Estonian sport more than any other episodes hitherto.

Most scandals in independent Estonia's history have concerned politics and the economy, Rebane told AK, but at the same time the sports controversies exert a disproportionate effect and needed clearing up.

Rebane said: "These are very long-lasting issues and have great impact and are ongoing right now. I think there is a very clear task for the investigative press to investigate these things. Otherwise, it will remain a millstone around our necks for a very long time."

Media expert: Media itself provoked, but did not direct, Annus', other sports sponsors' reaction

University of Tartu media expert Tiit Henoste said that the media itself provoked the emotional reactions from businesspeople supporting sports – EOK head and property developer Urmas Sõõrumaa, for instance, came to Annus' defense.

Henoste said: "This ERR [piece derived from the "Pealtnägija" broadcast] was very influenced by the title and the construction of a passage with a clear indication that Annus knew what [funds used for sports doping] was all about. There was no doubt about that. And it is clear that it evokes an emotional reaction in a person … Secondly, it evokes an emotional reaction in people who care about sport and its funding."

Hennoste added that no one instructed Annus to react in this way, but he did in any case and put emotions over rationale. 

Henoste said: "This type of scandal draws people in and pulls them in. The issue of doping is a broader issue. It's like, as politicians say, the big picture. But the big picture doesn't invite us to discuss things, to get involved. In my opinion, with funding, the question was what to do to get people out of the doping circle in skiing - there was talk about that, but it disappeared as if in a completely black hole."

The culprit should still be searched for among the skiers – who in the case which came to light in Seefeld were supplied by a notorious German "doping doctor", Mark Schmidt, recently imprisoned by a Munich court, and facilitated by veteran ski coach Mati Alaver.

"It is justifiable to look for the culprit wherever they may be. In other words, Alaver and the skiers. At the same time, I do not think it is right to start looking for the culprit on the business side without very strong evidence," Henoste added, noting that this should be a watchword of investigative journalism.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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