The messy world of sport

fifa_fair_play_Today’s biggest challenge to international sport is the seeming unwillingness to apply the fundamental principles of fair play.
When one examines the international sport scene one readily recalls the tremendous expenditure by the international football federation – FIFA – to promotion of fair play. Indeed FIFA has made popular the FIFA Fair Play Anthem. Today however, much of the world is left pondering whether it was all part of a grand design to deceive.
That the sport continues to hold the spotlight in the international community is reflective of the way in which its dynamism has captured the imagination of people everywhere.
People are keen on seeing what others can do with themselves. Many are constantly awed by the display of skills and sheer artistry of athletes in different sport. We all enjoy witnessing how individuals can develop themselves to such an extent that they can push the limits of human capability.
Nadia Comaneci’s perfect scores in Gymnastics at the Olympics left onlookers spellbound.
Everyone stands in awe as we watch Usain Bolt live up to his name and reputation. Like a bolt of lightning he exemplifies the speed a human can generate all on his own.
We enjoy today, for example, the remarkable combination of Messi, Neymar and Suarez on the field in Barcelona’s colours and how Arsenal’s manager, Arsene Wenger has described their magic following their most recent encounter. He lauded them for being able to make a major play out of nothing almost anytime they wished.
For years we were all mesmerised by the genius of Tiger Woods in golf so much so that the game owes its current popularity to him despite his fall from form and grace.
We can recount endless instances where athletes have shown us the immense potential that we possess as human beings and we are thrilled by them all.
The scourge of drugs, the blight of corruption and the curse of illegal betting and match-fixing have all challenged us but fail to stop our keen interest in seeing athletes strive after better achievements, setting new records.
But there is something morally wrong with much of what obtains in sport today that threatens to derail all the lofty ideas that we have come to attach to sport. There is still a yearning for clean sport even as we despise and condemn those who have been found guilty of bringing sport into disrepute.
For fame and glory
The dark side of sport has always been with us. History reveals that even in the heyday of amateurism there was cheating.
Because success brings with it fame and glory at the national, regional and international levels athletes and their entourages have been involved in cheating.
The bright lights and the recognition that are attached to human success is among the most sought after aspects of life. While we have come to recognise this in the political realm we have come to an understanding that it is much more the case in the world of sport.
While the world of sport has been seeking to bring to the fore the positive values attendant to sport many practitioners have done much to attain success for the social recognition and appeal it bestows upon them.
The Olympic Charter speaks to the concept of Olympism. In outlining the fundamentals of Olympism it states,

  1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
  2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

The foregoing sounds very good but how many athletes and their entourages really take the sentiments of the concept seriously.
The scourge of drugs
Over the years we have had one successful athlete after another held in high esteem by the global community. Much of this has occurred by the media, which are always anxious to help in the creation of heroes.
It is the same media that however hounds those heroes they created for the global community when they learn of their involvement in the use of performance-enhancing substances and methods.
Perhaps the most renowned example of the way in which the media makes and breaks a sporting hero is the case of Lance Armstrong. He may well emerge as perhaps the most successful cheat in the history of sport.
Armstrong’s success was significantly magnified by the sadness people felt for him when it was proclaimed in the media that he had contracted cancer. His victories in the Tour de France following what the media described as a remarkable recovery were taken as evidence of sheer heroism, almost beyond belief.
The media had served Armstrong to the world at once as a sporting icon and a remarkable human being so much so that even when some of his former cycling colleagues sought to expose him as the drug cheat he really was the very media stood stoutly in his defence. The accusers were turned into spoilers eager to detract from his outstanding achievements because of their envy.
Not surprisingly therefore once Armstrong confessed to having perhaps the most sophisticated doping scheme in the history of sport the media took him to the cleaners in a most venomous manner.
The findings of the WADA in respect of the scale of drugs in the sport of track and field athletics has led many sport purists to think that the bad old days perhaps never left the sport.
Perhaps we were all too naïve when we believed that State-sponsored use of performance-enhancing substances and methods had ended with the startling revelations of what transpired in East Germany several decades ago.
Was there a link between the desire of Socialist and Communist nations to show the world that their systems of governance produced better human beings and that the success of their athletes stood as evidence of this?
The perpetrators of systematic drug use are well aware of the significant impact that success in sport has on the peoples of the world. They feed on the desire of the individual human being for global recognition as an achiever regardless of the consequences for the individual and the sport to say nothing of those who held much by way of adulation for the successful athlete.
The recent revelation of drug use Maria Sharapova is merely a continuation of the story of the use of performance-enhancing substances and methods. Already we are hearing of swimmers who have been using the same substance.
Some may recall that Boris Becker, not long before his retirement stunned the world with his claim that some athletes in the sport were s=using performance-enhancing substances. At the time many did not take him seriously.
But Becker’s comments had to be taken against the backdrop that the governing body of the professional version of the sport had long since established a near-cruel annual regimen of competitions to which the players had to commit. Was this not the reason that Bjorn Bjorg chose to walk away from the game at the height of his career? Was he not insistent that he needed to rest so that he could recover and retain a very high standard in his game?
Did the professional players not eventually get their way that allows them to opt out of some competitions from time to time?
Have we sought to understand the science behind burn-out in sport?
How far can we stretch the limits of human sporting achievement relying only on the improvements in the science of sport?
WADA’s capacity to retain and retest samples of athletes several years later is likely to bring significant information to the fore and so we would all have to endure the exposures attendant thereto.
Corrupt leaders
Finally, it seems impossible to conclude this Column without addressing the thorny issue of the exposure that we are now getting in abundance amongst leaders of sport.
Money does tremendous things to people.
In the world of sport administrators and coaches have somehow always found themselves in contravention of the norms of sport.
It took some time before the international Volleyball federation recognised the sweetheart deals that an individual, Acosta, characterised for many years as the sport’s most insightful leader and marketing guru were exposed.
Long after another proclaimed sport visionary, Joao Havelange, had retired from the presidency of FIFA, revelations came to the fore of his own involvement in corrupt practices with ISL, a sport marketing group.
Last year seemed to have been a year of distress for international sport leaders. First there was the case of FIFA which is still on-going and has thus far led to the arrests of 14 of its leaders from around the world, scores of others may yet be entangled in the web. Investigators seem to believe that they have only touched the tip of the corruption iceberg in the organisation thus far.
Then came the expose on the son of Lamine Diack and eventually on Lamine Diack himself. The French are investigating a number of claims. There are claims that he may have been involved in seeking money from athletes to keep their positive drug results secret and therefore avoid sanction. There is also a claim that he may have made deals with some organisations and or individuals to exchange is vote for their hosting the IAAF World Championships.
No one knows just what the investigations into FIFA and the IAAF President would turn up but they have certainly caused the world of sport into profound introspection.
FIFA and the IAAF have all agreed to comply with the investigations and committed to taking whatever actions are deemed necessary to bring respectability back to their respective sports. These are all laudable.
But the jury is still out on just how many more revelations may emerge from other international sporting organisations.
Many around the world would have to put their shoulder to the wheel to clean up the messy world of sport if we are to convince future generations that there is something good and admirable about clean sport. That would nonetheless take some doing.