How Volleyball annihilated its Hero

Mario Goijman’s struggle for his life

A world cup, an economic crisis, a dictator-like association president — and a whistleblower, who suffers from the power of corruption in sports. Mario Goijman’s life has been nearly destroyed. After 15 years, he is incapable of giving up.

Mario Goijman (foto by Roland Peters)

By Roland Peters, Buenos Aires

Will Mario Goijman die for his ideals, alone, robbed of his property, deserted by his family? In a film script, his story would certainly end well. There, justice would be done to him before his end, he would be a hero, rehabilitated in the world of Volleyball, his debts would be payed off. Because eventually, the better one should win, in sports and anywhere else; not the most thwarted and powerful. Because the Argentinean stood up to corruption in the executive ranks of the world volleyball federation FIVB. Because he challenged the dominant and criminal then-president Rubén Acosta.

But this story is not a fairytale from Hollywood. Goijman has been fighting for one and a half decades. He has lost nearly all of his battles.

When the 72 year old is talking about this time, he is forced to take breaks. He has to cough heavily. “I feel very bad”, he says. While describing important details of his drama, his voice elevates; just to disappear towards the end of the sentence somewhere in his throat. Nearly no one wants to listen to him, albeit his psychologist. His children don’t want to see him anymore. Only in the social networks, over digital distance, he gets encouragement. Keep on fighting, Mario. Don’t give up, Mario. It’s worth it, Mario.

The documents about Volleygate and himself are stacking up on his desk. In this “hut” outside the city where he has to live now, as he complains, before he averts his gaze; through his glasses, and through the café’s one, onto the Avenida Santa Fé. Then he asks the question which normally are asked by those he is currently telling his story. “What did go wrong?”

So, what happened?

In the 1990s, Mario Goijman was a successful and respected businessman in his South American home country. He works in the pharma industry, producing generic medicaments, pharmacies use his distribution software. He also has a passion for sports. In 1996, he becomes chairman of the national volleyball association FAV, the Federación Argentina de Voleibol. Two years later, the world association FIVB allocates the world cup 2002 to the FAV. When the economic crisis in Argentina begins, Goijman is forced to sell his company way below its value. The country slides into disaster, hitting rock bottom in 2001 with national bankruptcy: “La crisis”. There is hyper inflation, starvation, plundering. Goijman organizes the tournament anyway.

The association‘s chief finds sponsors, closes a deal with ESPN for 4 million US Dollars, borrows money with his own house as security for the bank. First, the money for the TV broadcasting rights is payed to the world federation FIVB, but 30 percent are entitled to Argentina. Goijman is also a member of the Board of Administration with Rubén Acosta, who has been in office since 1984. The advanced money of the national organizer, about 6 million Dollars, is meant to be refunded after the final statements will be done. The tournament is an organisatory success. Rival Brazil wins the World Cup for the first time, Argentina finishes sixth.

Rubén Acosta in 2004 (foto © FIVB)

Acosta rules the FIVB like a dictator. One week prior to the tournament, the association‘s general convention is taking place in Buenos Aires. Goijman uses the opportunity and publicly expresses his doubts: Income that is declared in documents of the FIVB’s Board of Administration doesn’t show as funds in the balances presented to the 177 national associations which are present at the congress. He also decries a conflict of interest: According to him, the FIVB bought a mansion for 1,7 million Swiss Francs at the federation’s seat at Lausanne, Switzerland, from Acosta’s just then deceased father-in-law. Acosta’s wife received the money. The president and his board deny everything. Only years later, an internal investigation is initiated. It finds that 33 million Dollars had disappeared — money that is missing in sports — and was illegally put into the pockets of executives, particularly the Acostas’.

Just after the world cup, the FIVB starts open war against its whistleblower at the board meeting in Lausanne on 7 November 2002. “They accused me of the wildest things. That I had talked badly about the association, bad-mouthed Acosta, wasted money”, Goijman bristles at the meeting to this very day. “They also complained about the flowers at the congress in Buenos Aires, that they had been just 20 instead of 30 centimeters high.” Ridiculous, a theatre play, a farce; the former official literally spits out his opinion about what happened.

One blow now follows the other: Goijman is removed from his offices. He is prohibited to put his foot onto any volleyball court worldwide. The Argentinean consults his lawyer, they file suit against the FIVB. He sets up a website and publishes all of the documents he has about the corruption accusations: Volleygate. As Acosta is also member of the IOC, Goijman files a complaint at the Olympic Committtee’s ethics commission. According to the files, the IOC’s payout to the FIVB doesn’t completely show in the FIVB’s books. The money has disappeared.

Acosta sets a deadline for the Argentinean association FAV to arrange internal elections to eventually replace Goijman. One after the other, the FIVB expels all Argentinean clubs and athletes from international competitions. Finally, the world association replaces the FAV with the Federación Voleibol Argentino (Feva), which is loyal to Acosta. From this point onward, Goijman doesn’t have any lobby left.

The legal struggle ends after a lot of turns in 2008, when a court rules that Goijman is right — except for one key detail: It isn’t proven that the 15 million Dollars, which were the object of dispute back then, were defrauded intentionally. But how could that have happened? How can 15 million Dollars disappear just like that? The Argentinean tries to appeal the ruling, which the court rejects because the injured party is not Goijman, but the FIVB.

Shortly before a meeting in 2004, where the ethics commission is set to decide about possible sanctions against him, Acosta retires. But nothing changes. The ex-president’s lawyer and the federation’s are the same person. “They all were scared to be sanctioned”, says Goijman, a lot of executives had friends and family in the FIVB.

In addition a deal was made, claims Goijman: Acosta’s lawyer had threatened the IOC that he would publish information about corruption in the Olympic Committee in case it legally acted against his client. But he would step down. In Switzerland, this is denied: “The IOC was never involved in any deal with Mr. Acosta”, says a speaker of the Committee now on request.

“Accomplices or blind idiots”
Acosta with his successor Jhizong Wei at the congress in 2004 (foto © FIVB)

Even today, 15 years after the World Cup in Argentina, the world federation has neither transferred the income from the tournament to the FAV, nor to Goijman, who still claims one million Dollars from it. It appears that Acosta’s successor Jhizong Wei was not interested in resolving the matter, and now, with current president Ary Graça, there is also little evidence of a will to find a solution. As there are still nearly the same heads in the Board of Administration as back then, the whistleblower concludes: “Either all of them were Acosta’s partners in crime, who received part of the money which disappeared, or they were all blind idiots, who signed everything which Acosta served them.”

It is not being cheated by his money which enfuriates Goijman so much, but injustice and its consequences. “Who are you, Don Qijote?”, asked his 40-year-old son and his 39-year-old daughter, before they broke off contact. Their father stood up publicly against corruption in international, professional sports and is fighting for more than what is due to him personally. He could have fought Acosta with his weapons and simply blackmail the then-president with his knowledge. He didn’t. But his children don’t see him as the courageous Mario, who sacrificed his life of privilege and is still fighting. They are just seeing the father who cheated them of their heritage, Goijman laments.

“All my fighter’s heart is in sports”, says the ex-official, now with tears of rage in his eyes. “But I don’t see the way.” Hence, he keeps on walking blindly. At home, his cupboards are filled with files, everything is in order. Once more, Goijman wants to bring himself to compile a package of documents, send it to Switzerland to his lawyer, and the Ethics Commission of the IOC.

He shouldn’t put his hopes up too high. “The IOC has no jurisdiction over the personal situation of Mr Goijman”, says the IOC. The case would be “within the remit of the FIVB”. In addition to resistance in the executive ranks, the Argentinean is struggling with his health, physically and psychologically. “Currently, I am unable to carry on.” Again and again he stumbles over facts he had forgotten: “I was undone, robbed, and expulsed”, he says bitterly.

The struggle as personality

If one is listening to the story of the former director of the Argentinean Volleyball Association and member of the world federation’s Board of Administrators, he is creating proximity. Maybe that’s a problem, and why people turn away from him: because his fight has become too large a part of his personality. Whistleblower Goijman is Volleygate, and Volleygate is Goijman. A man whose passion for sports became his fatality. A sport that creates its own laws within its associations, which facilitates corruption and is thereby fostering avarice for money and power in the boxes.

Which moral standards in professional sport are valid for everyone? Looking at Volleygate, the conclusion is as extreme as disappointing: Do everything possible in whatever way where the committees are gathering to talk about the highest profit possible. In this world, there always is an escape route from one lie to the other. Goijman saw that differently, therefore he talked about corruption in international volleyball without taking more precautionary steps. He is paying for that. That’s why he has to talk about it to this very day. Despite his merits as a whistleblower, he is exemplary for the way the world of sports is mistreating his non-competitive heroes.

Over and over, Mario Goijman has laid out his life before others since this decisive year of 2002. One and a half decades of struggle, told once again. What he also does every time when meeting a journalist. Mario, that’s nothing new, they then say. Mario, we already wrote all this. Mario, we cannot help you.

And then, after nearly two hours, Goijman’s collected anger gives way, it gives way to the pain. As if the human core had been buried beneath all the facts, complaints and details. After a last question Mario leans forward, but only slightly, as his wounded leg is put up and his belly in the way. Resignation and indignation resonate in his voice. “I am still watching Volleyball. I don’t do much more.” It sounds like a confession.

This article was originally published on 2 May on the German news website n-tv: