The Callum Murray Interview - Alberto Murray Neto
No longer a voice in the wilderness, Alberto Murray Neto's long and lonely campaign against corruption in Brazilian Olympic sport has finally been vindicated. Author
17th November 2017, 09:01

If you're not an Olympic journalist, you can be forgiven for not knowing who Alberto Murray Neto is.

He’s the Brazilian lawyer, former member of the COB, the Brazilian Olympic committee, and grandson of a well-known IOC member (now deceased), who, for at least the last 10 years, has been bombarding the world, through his blog and via the Olympic and other media, with reasons why Rio de Janeiro should not host the Olympics, and with allegations of corruption in Brazilian Olympic sport.

And it didn’t stop with last year’s games. Since April alone, for example, I’ve counted about 50 emails from him, often forwarding articles from the Brazilian press together with his own comments, many of them referring to ‘Corrupt Nuzman’ – as if that was his actual name.

Seems like he might have been right all along.

Last month Carlos Nuzman, the long-serving former president of the COB, and of the Rio 2016 organising committee, was formally charged with corruption by Brazilian prosecutors who allege that he and Sergio Cabral, the former governor of Rio state, “directly solicited” a payment of $2 million to help Rio win the right to stage the games.

As we now know, Rio came from behind to beat off rival bids from Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo to stage the games. Nuzman, who has denied running a criminal organisation, money laundering and violating currency laws, resigned (from prison) from his position at the COB a week before the charges were made.

He and Leonardo Gryner, Rio 2016’s former director general, are among six men to have been charged by Brazilian prosecutors in a probe into the scandal dubbed ‘Operation Unfair Play’ being conducted in conjunction with US and French police. The others are Lamine Diack, the former IOC member and former president of track and field's IAAF, his now-notorious son Papa Massata Diack, Cabral and Arthur Cesar de Menezes Soares Filho, a Brazilian businessman.

Meanwhile, analysis published by AP earlier this year, based on city, state and federal data, claimed that the overall costs of the games spiralled to $13.1 billion, a mix of public and private money. And the games were played out against the background of Brazil’s worst-ever economic crisis, seriously compromising the organisers’ ability to deliver the games they had promised.

To understand what motivated Murray Neto in his lengthy campaign, you need to know about his grandfather, Sylvio de Magalhães Padilha. There’s a wonderful picture of him winning a race early in his career, in 1929 (he was a 110-metres hurdler), springing forward eagerly with a gazelle’s stride, arms raised, towards the tape, the very image of clean-cut athletic endeavour. Murray Neto idolised him.

Murray Neto's grandfather: the very image of clean-cut athletic endeavour

“I was involved with Olympic sports since childhood,” he tells me via the phone from the offices of Murray - Advogados, his law firm in São Paulo. “My grandfather was an Olympic athlete. He was the South American record holder in the 110-metres hurdles for almost 10 years. He won a trophy for the best athlete in the Americas – in all sports! He was not able to compete [at the Olympics] in Tokyo in 1940 because of the war, but he was top-ranked at the time.

“While still an athlete, he was invited by the governor of the department of sports and physical education [in São Paulo] to be in charge of the first mass competition in sports in schools. This is how I understood that it was not the right time for [Brazil to host] the Olympics. He was a professor of physical education in São Paulo and created the first competitions for children. He was focused on sports for all. His idea was that sport had to be together with education. That’s how I understood sport since childhood.”

Dick Pound, the veteran IOC member and sometimes ferocious critic of the organisation’s shortcomings, confirms Murray Neto’s assessment of his grandfather, describing Padilha as “a very decent man,” and continuing: “We joined the IOC EB [executive board] in the same year (1983); he got more votes than I got for the first of two positions! He did not say much in meetings, probably a combination of his reserved style and some difficulty with languages other than Portuguese.”

Pound adds that he has no particular recollection of Padilha's preoccupation with sport for all, but nevertheless the concept is crucial to an understanding of why Murray Neto battled, even while a member of the COB, against Rio hosting the Olympic Games. To him, as he tells it, the priorities were simply wrong: how could Brazil think of hosting an Olympics when most of its schools were without even the most basic sports facilities?

Unfortunately, all the expectation created around what could have left a great legacy for Brazilian society - in terms of urban mobility, transport, environmental values, the greater possibilities for tourism - did not happen

Now, knowing what we know about the Rio Olympics, such a view is perhaps less remarkable. Marina Silva, one of the candidates in Brazil’s presidential elections next year, recently described the games as a “great frustration” for the Brazilian people, an example of misplaced priorities, telling the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper: “Unfortunately, all the expectation created around what could have left a great legacy for Brazilian society - in terms of urban mobility, transport, environmental values, the greater possibilities for tourism - did not happen.”

But at the time, Murray Neto’s views were close to heresy, especially within the COB which, under Nuzman’s leadership, had set its sights on Rio hosting first the Pan American Games in 2007 and then the big prize, the Olympics.

Initially, Murray Neto says, he was actually in favour of the Pan Am Games plan. He had a vision of the games being played out in upgraded club facilities, creating a practical legacy for Olympic sports athletes after the games. However, it soon became clear that Nuzman and the COB, fuelled by a new law that devoted 2 per cent of lottery funds to sport, had much more grandiose ideas.

Murray Neto, who was a member of the COB from 1996 to 2008, and so was in the thick of the Pan Am Games plans, says: “My idea was that it should be used to make all sports more popular, without too much construction. It should be in Rio or São Paulo. Let’s use the structure of the city. Let’s improve the construction of the clubs and create a legacy to the city and the club. But their orientation was different, they wanted to build major sporting infrastructure.

“I said, ‘These will be white elephants’, but the argument was, ‘If we go for the Olympics, these [facilities] will be used’. That made some sense. But we had the Pan American Games in 2007 and the losses were tremendous: the costs rose by 1,000 per cent to about R$4 billion [$1.2 billion] instead of R$400,000 [surely always a highly optimistic estimate].

“They said it would be private money but that’s not what happened. There was no legacy at all. The swimming pool was not used by anyone except for high performance, the velodrome was not used for cycling and some of the others were destroyed.”

Murray Neto had actually been invited directly by Nuzman to join the COB in 1996 (Nuzman became president the year before). “At that time,” Murray Neto says, “someone in the Olympic committee told me, ‘Don’t think he’s inviting you because he thinks you can collaborate. He wants you under his eye’.”

Murray Neto continues: “I started to notice myself that his main focus was to organise events and transform the COB into a kind of chamber of commerce, promoting only high-performance sports in Brazil, and focusing on hosting the South American Games, then the Pan American Games and the Olympics. He succeeded, if that was his intention.

“But my perception was that something was going wrong: while the COB was spending money campaigning for the games, our sports were completely poor. There was no physical education in schools and only about 12 per cent of schools had any sports facilities. Sports were not in the mentality of the Brazilian people.”

Murray Neto discussed the issue of hosting the Olympics with his grandfather before his death in 2002, saying: “He knew how politicians and some business people are in Brazil: they are going to take advantage of the Olympics to make money. I remember him saying, ‘No one more than me would like to see the Olympics in Brazil, but not by any means’. He said, ‘I won’t be alive when it’s time to host the Olympics. We have to have the Olympic mentality, people practising sports.”

Carlos Nuzman, former president of the COB and of the Rio 2016 organising committee

The “turning point” for the COB, Murray Neto says, came with the new law, enacted in July 2001, giving sport a share of public lottery revenues. “Before that, the COB had no money at all,” he says. But once the law came into force, “I noticed that the money was being given to Brazilian sports confederations, which was fine, but more than half was being kept by the COB, which started to grow physically. 

“I said, ‘It’s not for the COB, it’s for the athletes. Most of the money should go to athletes, coaches and sports confederations’, and I also had in mind that the COB should use part of the money to invest in sport for all, which is part of the Olympic structure of any country. We should use part of the money for the best talents. Brazil has about 200 million people and many are lost that could be good in Olympic sports. We can be good in many things, as long as we invest. But this was not the idea of the COB.

“I also started to notice that these investments of money were not as transparent as they should be. Many of the expenses were unclear. One thing that alarmed me a lot was there were no corporate governance rules and we were never informed of the balance sheets before the general assembly. We had five minutes to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I started to complain, to say this was not correct. Things to be discussed in the general assembly were already decided by the board. There was never a debate.”

It seems like we are speaking today about exactly the same things: names of companies, the possibility of buying votes. Everything!

In 2007, Murray Neto was a member of a COB party that was invited to the Brazilian Senate to speak to its sports commission, to whom he confided some of his concerns. “By the time we finished,” he says, “we had enough signatures of senators to start an investigation into money in Olympic sports. But at the end the COB lobby was stronger than mine, and they were able to postpone an investigation that never happened. These were the things that are being investigated now. It seems like we are speaking today about exactly the same things: names of companies, the possibility of buying votes. Everything!”

At the end of 2008, Murray Neto was not re-elected to his position as a COB member. He has no doubt that Nuzman was behind that decision, as he had become a thorn in the side of the campaign to host the Olympics, which was now in full swing, with the IOC set to select the host city the following year at its Session in Copenhagen.

From that point on, Murray Neto had to wage his campaign from without, enabling the bid committee (also under the leadership of Nuzman) to portray him as an embittered ex-COB member, with his own axe to grind over Rio’s ambitions.

It was around that time that Sportcal (and no doubt other media) began receiving threats of legal action from an agency employed by the bid committee, over attempts to pursue some of Murray Neto’s allegations, with one response to a Sportcal inquiry claiming: “Mr. Murray Neto is clearly out of step with the Brazilian sports movement and the general public whose support for the Rio bid has been tremendous and confirmed at 85 per cent by the International Olympic Committee…

“Mr. Murray Neto seems to be pushing a personal agenda based on his failed re-election by the Olympic movement in Brazil.”

The agency sought to portray Murray Neto as a crank, insisting that no other media would touch the story - standard tactics for organisations with something to hide. 

Murray Neto was, himself, the subject of a lawsuit, launched by the COB ahead of the vote in Copenhagen, and yet to be concluded. The COB requested an injunction to prevent Murray Neto using the word ‘Olympic’ in his blog, a request denied by the judge. “Then they also claimed losses and damages because the campaign was impairing the image of the COB, the city of Rio and the bidding itself,” he says. “Rio was ‘at risk of losing the vote’. They lost at the first level, then appealed, and lost again. They appealed again and that is about to be judged.”

Murray Neto scoffs at the chances of this last appeal succeeding, saying: “Now they’ve lost the object, because Rio did win.”

He says he never received any personal threats over his campaign (sometimes he was sent “offensive emails, but more compliments and I’ve made a lot of friends”). But, from a month before the vote, he claims he was “was monitored 100 per cent of the time," adding, gleefully: "It was fun! I said on the phone I would be in Copenhagen, but actually I was in Chicago for the marathon.” Now aged 53, he still runs marathons, with a respectable PB, set two years ago, of three hours, 41 minutes.

Murray Neto wrote repeatedly with his concerns to the IOC in the years leading up to the games but, asked if he ever received any replies, he says: “[Former IOC president] Jacques Rogge answered me once saying that he was looking into the matters.” And that was it. But, as one Olympic source tells me, “Anyone who raises any difficult or controversial matters in Olympic circles is cast as a ‘troublemaker’, so Alberto would certainly qualify.”

Murray Neto competing in a recent marathon

Fast-forward to the present, and in September AP published a story headlined ‘IOC president warned 8 years ago about Nuzman, Rio Olympics’. As Nuzman was held for questioning over the alleged vote-buying scheme, the press agency reported: ‘Alberto Murray Neto, a lawyer who served with Nuzman for 12 years on the Brazilian Olympic committee, warned then-IOC President Jacques Rogge about investigations into Nuzman’s financial conduct at the Brazilian committee, and about bylaw changes that allowed him to maintain the presidency’. Vindication was on its way.

Last month, the IOC imposed a suspension on the COB over the allegations of corruption and vote-buying in relation to the Rio bid, before partially lifting it in acknowledgement of a positive response to the allegations by the organisation, including confirmation of Nuzman’s resignation and the appointment of Paulo Wanderley as interim president.

Murray Neto wrote an open letter to Wanderley after the COB’s suspension, describing it as “an embarrassing day for the Brazilian Olympic Movement.” He continued: “It was not for lack of warning. It would be hypocritical to say that the ‘Olympic family’ was taken by surprise with the collapse of the structure that had been articulated by Carlos Arthur Nuzman decades ago. I - and many others - publicly exposed the continuing errors that had been made by the Brazilian Olympic Committee.”

But he now approves of what he sees as a fresh new wind blowing through the organisation, saying: “The IOC is understanding that the COB is making the best efforts to change. The response from the IOC is to say, ‘We are seeing that you are moving, but we want to see the whole job’. It’s going to be much better, more open and it will be possible for anyone, any athlete, to be a candidate [to become a COB member], with only the support of one member of the general assembly and no longer 10, as it used to be.

“The elections will be after the Olympics and not before, so not subject to the humour of the president. All will have one vote in the general assembly, athletes are to be elected to the athletes’ commission by the athletes and will have the right to vote in all matters, and there will be an ethics commission that is independent, and not part of the group of the president.

“I’m not saying it will be 100-per-cent perfect, because there’s a short time to approve it [a deadline of 22 November has been set for the approval of new statutes]. But there will be a lot of changes. Let’s see what happens.”

It’s difficult for me to accept that no IOC members knew that some of their colleagues were up to bad things. They know each other, they know the rules

Murray Neto does not lay the blame for the ‘cash-for-votes’ scandal solely with the COB. “For this to happen, you need two sides: one that buys and one that sells,” he says. “It was known that some IOC members were ready to negotiate votes.” Asked directly if the IOC should shoulder some of the blame, he points out that, after the Salt Lake City bribery scandal, the IOC introduced “strong rules’ governing bidding. “The problem is they are not implemented well,” he says. “It’s difficult for me to accept that no IOC members knew that some of their colleagues were up to bad things. They know each other, they know the rules.”

So has the Olympic movement been damaged by the scandal, I ask? “Unfortunately, in Brazil, for sure,” Murray Neto replies. “Olympic sports in Brazil have zero visibility now. The COB has to be again the moral reserve of sports in Brazil. When you speak about the COB, here people laugh. If people want to give an example of a bad and corrupt thing, they say, ‘it’s like the Brazilian Olympic Committee’. The IOC has to give explanations if something went wrong, it has to be open.”

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Murray Neto has no hesitation in saying that, given the chance, he would rejoin the organisation. “It’s part of my life and I would like to be part of a team with a good project,” he explains. “Maybe next term with a new candidate [for president]. I’ve faced a lot of accusations, with people saying I’m not patriotic because I’m fighting against [the COB].”

Why does he care so much, I ask? “It’s part of my life,” he says. “I had the privilege of having my grandfather as my grandfather, and I was always very close to him. I was very proud of what he did for sports in Brazil, and always with passion and dedication. He passed everything to me.

“It’s something very personal, very emotional,” he concludes – and you can hear it in his voice. “I feel very emotional when I see what is being done with sports in Brazil.”