The wonderful world of sport

The BBC has recently been serialising a documentary on African Football that has drawn attention to the plight of so many footballers on the continent whose dreams of making it big have been shattered.
Many who did make it big fell by the wayside once they got injured. Others squandered whatever they earned so early that they were near the poverty line after retiring from the game.
Numerous African footballers were taken into Europe by exploitative agents promising extensive rewards only to find themselves son the streets begging sustenance and too ashamed to return home impoverished.
But the stories about athletes who have been significantly duped in the aforementioned ways do not end with footballers.
There have been track and field athletes who were duped as well.
Africa is renowned for producing long distance runners. A quick perusal of any edition of the annual publication of the Association of International Marathons would reveal the extent to which African athletes have come to dominate distance running around the world.
Many agents and coaches have gone into Africa seeking athletes of whose talents they can make handsome rewards. In the process they have taken athletes who were just 15 years old and carried them off to what they conveyed as greener pastures. Many have disappeared after a few races some after a few years.
It is all about exploitation.
Life as a sportsperson is not by any means easy and it is the reason why some of us have been urging Vincentian athletes to take some time to attend to their studies so that there is something on which they can fall back should injury force them into early retirement from sport or they failed to make it into the big league.
Unfortunately, no one apologises to the athletes who were taken in by the glamorous promises of the agents, managers and coaches.
It seems that many athletes and their parents so not yet understand that sport is a business. It is unfortunate that too many have been taken in by idle gossip from individuals who are themselves claiming an understanding of and appreciation for sport that has no legitimate basis but are possessive of the gift of garb and little else.
Lance Armstrong
The saga of Lance Armstrong is an interesting one that raises numerous concerns about the business of sport.
For many years Armstrong ruled the cycling road racing circuit and enthusiastic followers of the sport soon enough began to wonder what it was about this particular cyclist that allowed him to break the barriers.
While the International Cycling Union (UCI) appeared to turn a blind eye to Armstrong, there were numerous followers who questioned any individual human being’s capacity to so consistently rule the world in cycling, winning the prestigious but most demanding Tour de France for an unprecedented number of times.
Many thought that there were obvious limits to human endurance and that somehow Armstrong may well have exceeded it on several occasions.
Still, the leadership of the sport held the cyclist aloft and so too his own country, the USA. Armstrong had become a doyen in his native land. His popularity and achievements brought him accolades from everywhere and he pandered to it all, eventually creating his Foundation, Livestrong.
Now, the world knows it was all a big fat lie.
Armstrong has been exposed. He was first exposed by some of his former teammates who were made to look like fools when they spoke about his systematic doping regimen.
Armstrong’s popularity had made him literally larger than life in the USA so much so that anyone, especially fellow cyclists, who dared to speak ill about his achievements were castigated and treated as spoilt brats in the sport. They were thought envious of Armstrong.
As has happened on so many occasions and with so many individuals, the very media that worked assiduously to lift him beyond mere human frailty diligently aided in bringing him down, and they are not done yet.
The many sponsors who were once so eager to join the Armstrong bandwagon now threaten law suits to reclaim their sponsorship monies. At the time that he was deemed superhuman none of these sponsors ever once considered his achievements unbelievable and well outside the capacity of contemporary human endurance. They were too busy raking the benefits that came from their association with the cyclist.
There is a school of thought that suggests that professionalism may well have had a hand in leading the likes of Lance Armstrong along the path he took so easily.
This columnist recalls a discussion with Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in which he was making a case for professionals to be included in the quadrennial Olympic Games. He insisted that amateurism was a creation of the wealthy who saw sport as a pastime, mere recreation. He argued that the time had come for amateurism to be cast aside since many people had turned to sport as a means of survival and the push themselves to the limits of human endurance striving after excellence.
The Olympics, he said, must be Games where the best athletes in the world come together in competition to display sporting excellence.
It was this same Samaranch who, as the last millennium came to a close called for all world records to be closed off at 1999 and that we start afresh with new world records in 2000.
Many wonder even today whether Samaranch was, in a manner of speaking, enunciating a view that suggested many of the then existing world records were tainted.
In the same way that some challenge the UCI today in respect of whether or not they had known about Lance Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs, others wondered whether Samaranch and then president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Primo Nebiolo, were aware of drug use in sport at the Olympics level.
Did either of the two gentlemen know of the extent of drug use by the athletes at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and again in 1980 through to the time of their respective deaths? The jury may well be out on this.
Professional sport has led to athletes being convinced that it is alright to use performance enhancing substances just to win.
But is it just to win?
It is much more than that. Winning becomes everything. It gives athletes immense media coverage that ultimately turns them into national heroes, with many being so recognised well beyond national borders.
Winning allows successful athletes to become role models for numerous children across the world who strive after similar achievements over time.
Nations and drugs
Perhaps there is no country in the world that exemplifies the pitfalls of professional sport as the USA.
The all-powerful media have transformed almost every sport played in that country, regardless of what it does to human beings.
Successful athletes are at once pampered and paraded with little thought given to the transformation of many of their physical beings.
While the US media hammered Canada’s Ben Johnson, the latter country’s media started near disowning of the athlete citing his Jamaican heritage. The US media ignored the charges laid in respect of some of the American athletes at their own trials and who subsequently participated in the Seoul Olympics.
We watch with dismay at the physique of some of the athletes involved in professional sport. We watch their necks, arms and legs in amazement and wonder why it took so long for consideration to be given to investigating the use of performance enhancing drugs by many of them.
Over the past few years the USA appears to have suddenly decided to take the matter of drugs in sport seriously.
Astute followers of sport were not at all surprised when the bubble burst in professional wrestling.
Many were less surprised when startling revelations were made in respect of professional baseball highlighted by the Home Run Derby type engagement.
As yet precious little has been said of investigations into professional football and basketball in the USA and elsewhere. It may not be long before we get as many startling revelations in these sports.
There is a CBC article in CBC Sports Online dated 19 January 2003 that listed 10 of the most influential – and bizarre – drug cases in the past few decades:

  1. 1.     East German athletes & government sponsored cheating
  2. 2.     1983 Pan Am Games: Dawn of drug testing
  3. 3.     The US track and field coverups
  4. 4.     Canada’s shame: Ben Johnson
  5. 5.     Last to first – Irish swimmer, Michelle Smith
  6. 6.     Fake dynasty: Chinese swim team
  7. 7.     Tour de France: Whatever it takes
  8. 8.     Baseball: Home runs in bulk
  9. 9.     Cross country skiing and doping: a Nordic tradition
  10. 10.  Nandrolone goes for the Grand Slam

The word is finally out and we can expect drug cheats almost everywhere. The reason is simple. Winning is everything.