(In a previous article about squash and the Olympics, Bob Kingsley outlined the inner workings of relationship building and importance of making back-channel alliances in order to curry favor with the powers-that-be. In this article, he explains in detail, one example of how it goes sometimes in the nuts-and-bolts of deal-making.)
After an abundance of political and relationship work done in the late 1980’s involving amongst many things the USSRA, (now US Squash) gaining membership in the USOC, (United State Olympic Committee), US Squash was providing leadership to the Pan American region and the squash communities that made up that large family of nations by creating and then organizing the Federacion Pan America de Squash. This amalgam of the 28 countries throughout the region that had squash federations lent legitimacy to our efforts to push for the inclusion of squash further into the Olympic family of sports.
What resulted was the success of squash being deemed as a sport eligible to be contested in the Pan American games! The key word here is “eligible” as distinguished from “on the roster” of permanently included sports. It is up to the various sports organizations themselves to lobby the host country in order to gain access to that stage. In most instances, about half a dozen sports are in that “eligible” bubble, competing with each other for their shot at participating as “demonstration sports.” For the 1995 Pan American Games, squash was one of six sports looking for that chance.
It was my job to see to it that squash was that sport.
Once a sport is actually contested in a big regional games venue like the Pan American Games, then the decision makers at the highest levels can observe, assess and better understand whether or not that sport has the necessary ingredients to become a part of the events on the larger stage of the Olympic Games themselves.
In order to make that case to the organizers of the upcoming 1995 Pan American Games that were announced as being hosted by the Argentinean city of Mar del Plata, it was determined that a visit to the host city and meeting face-to-face with the games organizers in Mar del Plata made the most sense. In the spring of 1990, I flew into the Buenos Aires international airport with the goal of meeting the host organizers and making a deal for the inclusion of squash in the upcoming Pan American Games.
Before leaving the states, I had to have a clear understanding from US Squash leadership as to what the parameters were regarding my deal-making abilities. As we hashed out ideas and suggestions, it was determined that we would offer to bring a state-of-the-art glass squash court to the venue, at our expense, and if need be, make a financial contribution to the organizational committee of up to $10,000.00.
At the time, the portable, glass-paneled squash courts were scarce and expensive. If it was absolutely necessary in order to make the deal, I was authorized to gift the court itself to the squash federation of Argentina, but only as a last ditch measure. Obviously, if I could somehow accomplish what we needed to do with less cash and less commitment, then all the better.
I landed in Buenos Aires on the 2nd of April and was due to return home on Easter Sunday, April 15, 1990. In planning this trip, I had been stymied in securing a connecting flight to Mar del Plata due to the flights being sold out. I had not considered that in South America, the seasons are more-or-less reversed from ours, and this was the end-of-the-summer holiday season where everyone was returning from vacations and the domestic air traffic was impossibly busy. Being the adventurous, world-traveler that I was, I decided to rent a car in Buenos Aires and drive to Mar del Plata, a route along the eastern shore of the country, some 250 plus miles to the South.
At the time in Argentina, many police sub-stations were located adjacent to roadway round-abouts throughout the cities and even throughout the countryside. In those days, the police would often times simply send uniformed men outside and into the near-by streets to conduct random traffic stops. The 2nd day of April, 1990 was my lucky day in experiencing the inner-workings of the Argentinean police apparatus, in this case specifically the Buenos Aires sub-station. As I waited in the line of cars, I thought this would be a routine examination of paperwork and I would quickly be on my way. When the officer questioned the legality of my drivers license, he instructed me to pull into the police parking lot and go inside to deal with his Sergeant.
My Spanish is really limited, but I tried to explain to the Sergeant that my license was indeed sufficient and that my car was legally rented. Unfortunately, the Sergeant’s English was no better than my Spanish, and as we struggled to communicate, he took my English-Spanish language translation booklet from my hands and looked directly at me and said, in English: “Pay cash.”
I told the Sergeant that he was making a big mistake. As I explained to him the nature of my visit, and how I was representing the United States of America in dealings with his own country, I offered to him a letter I had that was from the President of the US Olympic Committee addressed to the President of the Argentinean Olympic Committee. He handed it back dismissively and repeated his only well-spoken English phrase, “Pay cash.” I knew if I protested much more, I would end up in jail and all of my money would be gone, so I relented and after some additional back-and-forth negotiations, left the clutches of the Buenos Aires police sub-station $300.00 poorer and much the wiser.
Six or so hours later, driving on one of the most dangerous roads I have ever been on, (and that is saying something), I reached my hotel in Mar del Plata and got good nights sleep.
Then next morning, I arrived at the local mayor’s office in the municipal building where I was to conference with the games organizers. I was provided an interpreter and as her and I chatted, I told her what had happened back in Buenos Aires. As she translated my comments to the assembled group of various officials assembled for the meeting, I could see the blood run out of the faces of those listening. All hell broke loose as the local police chief was hastily summoned to take my statement. He arrived carrying an old-school typewriter and he painstakingly took my statement. Quick to follow the chief came the Chief Justice of the Argentinean Supreme Court. This man spoke English and we had a very nice conversation about what had happened. He asked me if I would recognize those men again if I saw them and I assured him that I would.
The next day, the headline in the national newspaper of Argentina was: American Olympic official extorted by Buenos Aires Police. My hotel phone began to ring. First a request for a radio show interview locally, (which I did.) Second, a call from a radio show producer in Havana wanting my comments, which I gave, and finally, as I left my hotel, the throng of reporters and news people haranguing me with questions. This went on for a few days and as some began to doubt my rendition of what happened, a local citizen that had happened to be in the same line of cars in back of me at the police station corroborated my story because he too was extorted by the same Sergeant and he had overheard our conversation.
Later that week as things settled a bit, I had a dinner meeting with the organization President and Vice President. They were profoundly embarrassed by what had happened. They told me that they were going to secure my rental car, make arrangements to have it returned to Buenos Aires, and take charge of my return transportation. I believe they were afraid it might happen again. I told them flat out, no, I drove here and I would drive back. I wouldn’t be cowed into submission by some thug cop or a corrupt system. I could see the panic in my host’s eyes. As the meal progressed, I told them that it would be a shame if news of my extortion became widely known outside of Argentina. That could have a devastating effect on attendance. The bargaining negotiations had begun in earnest.
Squash was indeed contested in the 1995 Pan American Games, beating out at least four other sports for that opportunity. US Squash ended up supplying the glass court because it made the venue so much better for spectators and it also allowed for choosing almost anyplace to stage it. We did not however leave it for the host country, nor did we make any financial contributions. My $300.00 payment to the Buenos Aires police benevolent association proved to be payment enough.
My flight back to the states was scheduled for the evening of April 15th, 1990, Easter Sunday. After determining to drive myself back to Buenos Aires, my hosts were so worried about my well-being, that they fashioned a rolling caravan of vehicles around me as we formed a cong-line north to the capitol.
As we approached center-city Buenos Aires, our caravan pulled into that police sub-station at the round-about and stopped. I looked outside the station and saw scores of uniformed policemen standing in formation at attention. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that had interviewed me earlier escorted me along the lines of the assembled policemen and asked me to point out the two men. I first spotted the officer I encountered in the street and as I indicated to the judge his identity, I asked him to please consider that he was only doing his basic job and that he did nothing to me other than to follow his orders. I really didn’t want anything to happen to him.
The sergeant however was another story. I had warned him. As I proceeded along the lines, I spotted my Sergeant. I walked up to him and I got out my English-Spanish translation booklet and I said, in my bad Spanish, Te dije que estabas cometiendo un error, or in English: I told you you were making a mistake.”
With that done, I told my hosts I was perilously close to missing my flight and the judge said to me, “No worries, I’ll have you taken from here to the airport, we’ll take care of the rental car and you’ll make your flight, I promise.” As I said my goodbyes and grabbed my bags, I got into the back seat of a Buenos Aires police car and as we pulled out into traffic, siren wailing and lights flashing, I had the terrifying thought that this all could have been a set-up and I could be taking my last ride. As we raced up a main street in Buenos Aires, we were easily going 60 plus miles per hour and as I looked out to see how in God’s name we could be accomplishing this in the middle of a metro area with some 13 million people, I saw that every cross street we were passing had policemen stopping traffic so we could make our run to the airport without any interference.
Once at the airport, the driver of the police car handed me off to another cop that took me, without stopping and without any questions or examination, directly onto the jet way to the aircraft that was already loaded and waiting on me. As I made my way down the planes main isle, every eye was on me as responsible for the 20-minute delay. I was never so happy to leave a place as I was on that Easter Sunday in 1990 and that $300.00 was undoubtedly the best investment US Squash ever made.