The stage is set for the official opening of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. But this year, the stage is not at all a very settled one. There are all sorts of issues impacting the world of sport with particular focus on the Olympic Games.
The development of sport at the global level is a far cry from what it was several decades. Some may suggest that it is significantly different from only a few years ago.
International sporting organisations find themselves having to confront several issues that threaten their very existence. Today we are faced with the changing nature of doping in sport and the annoying prevalence of match-fixing.
In the Olympic Agenda2020 these two areas, in particular, have received much attention. However, even as progress has been made, there is still evidence of the consistent growth n doping and match-fixing in an ever-increasing number of international sport.
Doping scandals have continue to emerge today just as rapidly as has been the case in the past. Some may suggest that this is in large measure because the anti-doping agencies have expended significant resources to develop methods that are better at detecting drugs and methods being used by athletes and their entourages to cheat.
It is also the case that the international media have become far more invasive and are themselves heavily engaged in investigating and exposing cases of cheating in different sports. This has not always been the case and has given rise to a rash of criticisms. But the role of the media, like so many aspects of life, continues to change and so we can and must expect this to ultimately impact the way we do things.
Over the years we have watched the amazing stories of a Lance Armstrong, whose systematic doping scheme for him and several of his colleagues escaped the scrutiny of the anti-doping authorities for many years in succession. The same can be said of Marion Jones and her male counterpart, Tim Montgomery, who were involved in systematic doping that went undetected. It was an annoyed coach that took a loaded syringe to the United States Anti- Doping Agency (USADA).
Weightlifting has long been seen as one of the major culprits in the matter of doping inn sport. Several years ago the governing body for the sport agreed to change the weight categories in an effort to rid the record books of all existing records for fear that they were all tainted. Since there the sport went issue-free but not for long and once more the accusing fingers are pointing in its direction.
Many may recall that in 1999, on the eve of the millennium, then IOC President, Juan Antoni Samaranch, appealed for consideration to be given to erasing all existing world records and starting afresh effective 2000. At the time there were some who pondered whether Samaranch was aware of something that the rest of the sporting world were not.
There have been complaints about the performance of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) so much so that many analysts thought that there was something of a bitter conflict played out in Rio de Janeiro, at the IOC’s Session prior to the commencement of the Summer Olympic Games in the same city.
Given that WADA was a creature of the IOC many thought the open conflict something of an embarrassment.
At the core of the conflict between the IOC and WADA in Rio was the findings of the McLaren report which addressed what was said to be systematic State-sponsored doping in Russia.
The Russia doping scandal reverberated around the entire sporting world with accusations being flung all over the place. The report was particularly damning and caused the Russian political authorities to seek appropriate responses to the very serious charges made.
The McLaren report had been strong in its investigative work and many in sport felt that there was so much in it to support the stance taken by the IOC to ban the Russians.
In Russia itself, the authorities insisted that the report was all a ruse to deny Russian athletes their successes and hinder their further participation in international competition. The report as perceived to be totally fabricated.
The Russians also claimed that the WADA was biased against their athletes and guilty of turning a blind eye to the cheating taking place amongst athletes from the west, especially the USA and the UK.
Interestingly, the Court of Arbitration for Sport CAS) recently created a certain amount of disquiet amongst global sporting organisations when it recently overturned 28 of the 39 suspensions that the IOC had imposed on Russian athletes for alleged doping incidents at the Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
For Russia, the CAS decision is a vindication of their claims all along that the decision to ban their athletes came from a totally fabricated report. This is the reason that all of Russia appeared only too eager to go to CAS.
Richard Pound, an IOC member that has always been very outspoken in defence of the WADA and the work done in combating doping in sport, the CAS decision is a difficult one to understand.
As far as Pound is concerned the CAS insisted on the provision of “absolute proof” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt”. He claims that in the past decisions at the level of CAS was always about the latter. The change in the approach by the CAS means a game-changer in respect of the future of cases against athletes found to have tested positive.
In the meantime, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has apologised to the Russian athletes for appearing not to have done enough to defend them once they had been fingered as alleged drug cheats.
The incidence of match-fixing has been of growing concern.
We are familiar with match-fixing cases in the sport of cricket that reached the public domain during the era of South African resurgence in the sport in the post-apartheid period when then team captain, Hansie Cronje was featured.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald (14 December 2017), Cronje was charged by Indian authorities for fixing one-day matches against the Indian cricket team. While he denied fixing the matches he did admit that he had provided ‘information and forecast’.
The Herald reported, “Cronje admitted in his own testimony that he accepted money from bookmakers and that his ‘great passion of the game and for my teammates’ was matched by ‘an unfortunate love of money’ “.
It was also reported that “Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams received six-month bans from international cricket after pleading guilty to charges of accepting an offer to underperform in a one-day international in India”.
In 2016, stories broke about accusations of match-fixing at the highest levels in the sport of tennis.
Match-fixing has also featured in football and boxing over several years.
The fact is that the IOC has adopted a very strong stance against match-fixing in its events but continues to struggle with the management of this aspect of its work.
Finding the culprits is not an easy task.
The matter of exactly how far sanctions for infractions of anti-doping and match-fixing rules should go remains unclear.
Officially it is stated that the athlete is responsible. However, there is increasing evidence to suggest that there are persons of influence around the athlete that may well be as responsible as the athlete.
The athletes’ entourage has come under intense pressure in the recent past and it appears that more work on this aspect would be undertaken in the future.
Perhaps the most recent aspect that is bothersome in sport is that of sexual harassment.
The indictment of US Gymnastics medical doctor, Dr Larry Nasser, has served to highlight the very sad state of affairs in respect of sexual harassment in sport around the world.
The gory details by a seemingly endless list of gymnasts in a sordid court case against Nasser has forced the resignation of many of the board members of the national association for the sport in the USA as well as members of the Michigan State University.
But the case of US Gymnastics is only the latest in a long line of sexual harassment charges to see the light of day over the past several years.
It should be noted too that the matter of sexual harassment in sport has not been limited to acts against athletes but the entire spectrum of those involved. We have had cases of sexual harassment against sport journalists, coaches and medical personnel in sport.
“Child safeguarding is about keeping all children safe from harm, abuse, violence, exploitation and neglect”(www.sportanddev.org).
In contemporary society the matter of child safeguarding has emerged as particularly important. This has been of concern in some sports more than others. Gymnastics and swimming have been touted as being areas where this is of immense importance, if only because of the tremendous amount of pressure placed on children in these disciplines to do well at a very early age.
Parents as well as coaches are often guilty of forcing children to do too much too early, hampering their growth processes. This s one of the reasons that gymnastics and several other sports have raised the minimum age at which children can be exposed to official competitions sanctioned by their respective international federations. They are concerned about the long-term negative impact of too-early engagement in the rigours of training for and involvement in international competition.
The list of contentious issues confronting sport and more particularly Olympic sport would no doubt continue to increase.
Many sportspeople are only concerned about winning. Participation alone counts for naught.
It is therefore important that we engage ourselves in the ongoing global dialogue regarding the changing nature of sport.
With increasing emphasis being placed on the protection of the clean athlete as per the IOC’s Olympic Agenda2020, this is not an option but an imperative.