Coffee House

This could be the year that sport dies of corruption

27 January 2016

3:23 PM

27 January 2016

3:23 PM

Like religion, sport can take any amount of passion in its stride. It’s indifference that’s the killer. Sport can be bubbling with incontinent hatred, poisonous rivalries, ludicrous injustice and the most appalling people doing the most appalling things: but as long as people still care, as long as the sporting arguments still echo, as long as newspapers are read from back to front, then sport’s future is safe.

But now, as we look forward to an Olympic year, a Wimbledon with hot British contenders in the men’s and the women’s competitions for the first time in damn near 50 years, a summer with a thrilling England cricket team, an England rugby team with a fancy new Australian coach and a European football championship in which England aren’t yet a total write-off, we have to wonder if sport will have the same audience when the year is over.

Sport is in trouble as never before, not just because it’s been getting all kinds of stuff wrong, but because the people who watch the stuff are beginning — just beginning — to replace their sense of passionate engagement with a shrugging indifference.

Sport depends for its existence on a willing suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t work unless you set aside your knowledge that it is an entirely trivial pursuit. You have to believe it matters, at least until the final whistle. You have to believe the athletes dedicate every moment of their lives to bring us the joys of partisanship, drama and the wild pursuit of excellence, You have to believe it’s real — and that’s a matter of trust.

But trust is a fragile thing. Sporting trust has taken a hammering. As a result, the world’s sporting faith is starting to wear thin. It’s always the way: you think you’ve got something that will last for all eternity, no matter how you treat the people you have in your sway. And then you get up one morning and wonder why half the people have walked away. It’s not new. It happened to the Catholic church in the 16th century.

And it’s beginning to happen to sport. Every week there’s another blow: another story that tells the world that sport is not to be trusted, that sport is full of phonies who don’t make the slightest attempt to live by the principles they preach and don’t even care much about sport.

This week Adidas — a firm that makes money by selling plimsolls — announced that it was ending its sponsorship of the athletics governing body, the IAAF, four years early. This will cost the organisation sums estimated at ‘tens of millions of dollars’.

This is a commercial judgment on the sins of athletics, principally its having broken the commandment ‘Thou shalt not be found out.’ Investigations into the IAAF have found corruption, not just in terms of dodgy finances, but also in covering up positive dope tests and, as a bonus, taking money to do so. This is not just exploiting sport: this is destroying it.

And no, it’s not enough to say let’s make it a free-for-all and may the best pharmacist win. Spectators want sport performed by undoped athletes, even if they’re not entirely sure what that means. People want sport they can believe in.

In last year’s Tour de France the devastating leader Chris Froome was rewarded by a spectator who threw a cup of urine in his face in mid-race while shouting ‘Dope!’ Excellence is now accepted as prima facie evidence of cheating. No sport can survive once that idea has general acceptance.

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As the Australian Open tennis tournament moves towards its climax this weekend, proceedings are hag-ridden by unsubstantiated allegations of match-fixing. There are whispers involving ‘household names’ and suggestions that matches at Wimbledon have been deliberately lost for cash.

Novak Djokovic, the world number one, said that he turned down US$220,000 to throw a match. There are claims that a group of 16 players was involved in serial match-fixing, and that the governing body, the ITF, preferred not to investigate. This would fit the pattern in sport: the enemy is never corruption, but always people learning about corruption.

Who can you trust in football now? Before Christmas, yet another 16 officials from the world governing body, Fifa, were charged with corrupt activities. Obviously nothing that comes from that organisation will ever be taken on trust again. It’s clear that the leading people in the organisation weren’t interested in sport at all.

So what should be a sporting administrator’s priority? Most of them believe that the more money their sport makes, the better it is for the sport. Certainly money brings power to the people who run sport, but that’s not an unambiguously good thing.

Sport is increasingly run not by sports people but by business people — but sport is not exactly a business. Sure, it makes money, but then so does religion. There are things other than commerce going on here. If you run a church entirely to make money, you will do OK, at least at the start. But soon enough you’ll excite understandable doubts in the church’s followers. And they’ll stop following.

It’s widely accepted among cricket players that the most searching examination of an individual and a team is Test cricket, with matches that last five days. If your first duty is to sporting excellence, you must do all you can for Test matches. But it is also a fact that the most effective way of making money from cricket is through T20 tournaments, with matches that last three hours.

So do you go for excellence? Or income? What sort of balance do you seek? The decision of cricket administrators is to do whatever India wants, India being by far the richest cricket nation. England and Australia get a modicum of power by hanging on to India’s kurta-tails while the other nations struggle to make ends meet. India’s domestic T20 tournament is rapidly becoming cricket’s dominant event (despite several allegations of match-fixing) and money’s victory over excellence has become a rout.

Money is not the root of all evil in sport. The evil enters when you decide that money is more important than anything else. Sport has gradually — in some cases eagerly, in others reluctantly — become professional. It’s worth noting here that the amateurism is not a lost world of sanctity — it was initially a device for keeping working people out of sport: a social division reinforced by bogus morality.

But sport is now worth billions. Adidas sponsors the kit of Manchester United in a deal worth £75 million a year. This month Herbert Hainer, the Adidas CEO, dropped a careful hint to Süddeutsche Zeitung that Manchester United’s current style of play did not meet their approval. ‘We are satisfied but the actual way of playing is not exactly what we want it to be.’

In other words, the team’s current cautious style — which has them fifth in the Premier League despite last Saturday’s defeat — doesn’t help Adidas to make money. Message: if you want the contract renewed after 2025, play sexy football.

So now even tactics are an aspect of commerce. Question: is the team you’re cheering on maximising its talents in search of victory? Or is it playing the tactic that best pleases the business people? Another day, another nibbling away at sporting faith.

Next thing we know, we’ll have football as a festival of gimmickry and showboating and personalities in which results are subordinate to spectacle and competitiveness subordinate to income. Not so terribly far to go there, you might say. More than ever like professional wrestling.

And wrestling makes money. It is, if you like that sort of thing, magnifique. Mais ce n’est pas le sport.

Sport is not entertainment. Grasp that point and you see all. Sport is often entertaining, sure, but it is incidentally entertaining. The spectacle of great athletes coming together in a sincere competition for the mastery tends to be compelling. But that’s not necessarily entertaining, in the way that wrestling or Strictly Come Dancing or I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here are entertaining.

In sport it is sometimes appropriate to be dull. Some people found Pete Sampras dull: after all, he won seven Wimbledon singles titles. I always replied: if you find excellence boring, go and seek something more your size. In the 1980s, Arsenal notoriously played defensive football and delighted in every 1–0 win. Sir Steve Redgrave won five Olympic gold medals in rowing, a sport with no entertainment value whatsoever.

In real sport, there is no need to entertain. Your only obligation is to do your damnedest to win, or at least not to lose. But the forces of money now want from sport other things than integrity. They want sixes, showboating, back-stories, big names, big hits, slam-dunks, high fives, Twitter followers, celebrations, celebs, personalities, quotes, haircuts, clashes, outfits, interviews, jewellery, tattoos, emotions, ad breaks, endorsements, logos — and even pitch-side advertisements designed to distract the audience from the action.

Without belief there is no sport. You have to believe that the athletes are competing with sincerity and that they are being fairly tested — beliefs harder to sustain with every passing day. Sport is in serious danger of eating itself.

Last year The Great British Bake-Off had the highest viewing figures of the year, peaking at 14.5 million. Those people all watched because they had faith. I suggest that every sporting administrator in the world watches Bake-Off to learn what sport is losing.

Innocence. Meaning. Belief. Trust. Faith.

This piece appears in tomorrow’s Spectator.

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Show comments
  • anonuk

    “If you run a church entirely to make money, you will do OK, at least at
    the start. But soon enough you’ll excite understandable doubts in the
    church’s followers. And they’ll stop following.”

    Well, if people start to doubt their faith in such a church, you can always stick them on a boat.

  • Classicist

    Wowzers, how did that comment about the Catholic Church get through the (generally pro-Catholic) editors? I know this article is about sport, but that comparison is so facile and so wrong that I’m amazed it has appeared in a mag supposedly not for thickos.

  • Sean L

    This is mostly twaddle. Yes money corrupts, since when was that news? But if the contestants aren’t genuinely competing, then whatever the event’s supposed to be it can’t be a genuinely sporting spectacle anyway.Otherwise all that distinguishes sport from other diversions or entertainment is the fact of allegiance: that people have *their* team or *their* man whom they “support”, which is often related to other forms of allegiance: national, regional, racial, historical. One might follow a football team for no other reason than that another family member did. People support the Labour Party for the same reason, a comparable form of allegiance in many respects, being no less rationally explicable.

  • freddiethegreat

    Quite so, except that business techniques (which don’t even work in the business world) and sponsorships, with the overall profit motive are exactly the problem with sport. Nobody would cheat or bribe if the reward was a tinplate medal or cloth badge. That’s why the Comrades Marathon was so great. Enter business, with vast rewards and now Comrades is worthless – just a circus.
    I realised years ago that road running is run by the SA body just for the money (for the professional runners prizes and the numerous hangers-on (ie relatives) of the body president); and to provide a crowd background for the professionals.

    No more. Viva ParkRuns!

  • overbeefed

    “This piece appears in tomorrow’s Spectator.”

    arrgh is it really so difficult to put this at the start of the piece rather than the end? My copy usually doesn’t arrive until Friday and I do hate it when it turns out I’ve read half of the thing online already.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    England’s obsession with football: Worthy of a top 10 ranking on your “emigrate, reasons to” list.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

  • SonOfaGun

    They had blood doping for certain events since the 70s/80s. Carl Lewis had braces in his late 20s, HGH causes the jaw to grow out. Jonah Lomu died at 40 of kidney failure, heavy steroid use causes kidney failure. Clean sports stars are the exception. If they are too good to be true, they probably are.

  • polidorisghost

    Professional sport has always struck me as a contradiction in terms, but without it Mr Barnes would be unemployed..

    • Peter Simple

      “Professional sport has always struck me as a contradiction in terms”. Quite. The purpose of true sport is the enjoyment of the participants not the making of money. Gerald Davies said that he played rugby because it gave him pleasure and he walked his dog for the same reason and would have been astonished if anyone had offered to pay him for doing either.

      • Todd Unctious

        Rugby is not sport. It is, like soccer and cricket, a game. Hence we had to endure Games lessons at school. Sport is fishing, shooting, boating and the like.

        • Peter Simple

          Possibly. I have heard this before. “Father Ted” is very funny, btw.

        • HJ777

          Rugby is both a sport and a game, Not all sports, however, are games.

          Is boating a sport?

          • Todd Unctious

            Yes. Especially powerboat racing. One of many motorsports.

            • Jackthesmilingblack

              I did five years rally driving in the 1960. Restricted club rallies moining up to internationfall

      • ex-pom

        Good on Gerald Davies ! An Amateur does something because they love it and the Public appreciates that. I have never understood how the term “Professional” somehow became a term of approbation. The single and only reason “Professionals” do what they do for you is because you pay them loads and loads of money . . . just like sex-workers . . .

  • Sanctimony

    Interesting that when the announcer, at a recent cricket Test Match in New Zealand; every time a match-fixing Pakistani bowler, who had been imprisoned for his spot fixing, ran in to bowl, played the sound of a cash till being opened and was roundly condemned by the cricket authorities and forced to apologise to the inherently cheating Pakistanis….

    Cricket is probably as corrupt as any other sport and the authorities are only interested in one thing…. money !

    • HJ777

      Match fixing is not the same thing as spot fixing so the terms should not be confused. The former has a much more serious impact on the sport – the latter rarely materially affects the outcome of matches, reprehensible as it may be.

      As for the ‘inherently cheating Pakistanis’ you will note that Pakistan’s Mohammad Hafeez has refused to play in the same team as players who have ever been found guilty of spot fixing. Is Mohammad Hafeez an ”inherently cheating Pakistani’?

      • Sanctimony

        Possibly not…. but he’s but one of eleven… or even more… wasn’t it that heroic Pakistani folk hero, Imran Khan, who taught his Sussex teammates how to scratch the ball with a bottle top ….

        • HJ777

          Ball tampering in cricket is hardly the sole preserve of Pakistanis!

          • Todd Unctious

            Tax fiddling is more so. Them Nigerians,Cypriots and the Irish.

          • Sanctimony

            No, I agree, Hanse Cronje, from another third world country, was a maestro in the art of cheating…. and also threatened the careers of many of those under his care and control… he’s number 2 on the Pistorius scale of South African sporting heroes….

            • freddiethegreat

              Professionals. Not sportsmen.

    • Todd Unctious

      Not sure about Cricket. But Pakistanis have a hideous reputation as cheats.

  • Graeme S

    Once sport ended up being run by faceless businesses and non Anglo Saxons it became dirty and grubby…… We give the world wonders and they can do is spoil it

  • ThatOneChap

    Sounds a lot like what happened to pro-wrestling. It survived by embracing the whole ‘It’s all made up and you’re suspending your disbelief’ and by going further into absurdity. No doubt the same will happen to sport. And I disagree that spectators wouldn’t want pharmacological, technologically augmented monsters competing against each others in sports. Just put them in their own league and have them be sponsored/owned by big defence/medical companies.

    So if you want proper sportsmanship, go see the small local teams. It’s very entertaining. If you want the big money, big names pageant akin to pro-wrestling, go watch the Premiership or its equivalent in your sport of choice, and if you want juiced-up monsters against monsters, in an ideal world there would be a level of competition for that legitimately. Some might complain that such a thing would be destructive for people competing in it, but there are plenty of occupations that destroy the human body and plenty of sports which do the same thing.

  • Todd Unctious

    Carlos Kickaballs on £150,000 a week. F1 drivers buying their seat using dictators I’ll gotten dollars. Steroid filled cyclists skipping up Alpes D’Huez. Clenbuterol induced ladies chucking spears and cannonballs . Tennis players rigging matches. What’s not to like?

    • polidorisghost

      “I’ll gotten dollars.”

      Ah, a new game to play! Freudian slip bingo.

      • Todd Unctious

        Numpty.

        • polidorisghost

          Humour failure?

  • HJ777

    I’m not quite sure what Simon Barnes is getting at.

    Plenty of sports are flourishing with no hint of corruption. I’ve not heard of any in Rugby Union, hardly any in Cricket (at least in England) of in the football Premier League. All seems to be in rude health, largely untainted by corruption.

    And he mentions other sports which seem to be doing fine. Rowing – which he claims has no entertainment value whatsoever (and it is true that it is mainly a participation sport, not a spectator one) – is booming (and Henley RR is packed with spectators every year) and untainted by corruption.

    What is he talking about? Any human activity will have a few rotten eggs – why is he singling out sport?

    • Todd Unctious

      But what about Tennis, Boxing, Cycling,Weightlifting, Horse Racing ,Swimming, the NFL, Gymnastics, Biathlon , Triathlon and Marathons?

    • Larry David Niven

      Look into the ‘Big Three’ stitch up by Australia, England and India to take the lion’s share of revenues which will kill the game in other nations. Or rugby’s inconsistency in applying bans for foul play. Never mind the fact that modern physiques strongly suggest the influence of performance enhancing drugs.

      • HJ777

        Australia, England and India generate the lion’s share of cricket revenues. Are you saying that because they want to keep the lion’s share it constitutes corruption?

        And inconsistency doesn’t imply corruption – it implies inconsistency.

        • Larry David Niven

          Taking greater than the lion’s share of revenues will lead to the death of the game. The responsibility of the ‘Big Three’ is to grow the game not usher its demise. Do you know how many five test series South Africa were granted against England while they were the best side in the world? Or the proportion of wickets taken by Dale Steyn, at his pinnacle the best fast bowler in the world, against England? It might suit the theatre goer to play and beat Australia every other year for eternity, but real fans would like to see the likes of Amla, Gale, McCullum and Younis Kahn play in meaningful series over an English summer. You could even throw in the treatment of Kevin Pietersen as an example of corruption in sport – the best English batsman I have ever seen, denied the chance to give a proper account of himself because his face didn’t fit with the establishment. And while your dismissal of rugby disciplinary findings makes for a pithy disqus point, it shows an ignorance of the sentences handed out to the players of lower tier nations during the World Cup, never mind the skewed judgements in favour of Irish players, particularly compared to their French counterparts, during club competitions.

      • HJ777

        None of which, even if true, implies corruption.

    • ChuckieStane

      There may be no evidence of financial corruption in rugby union but certainly it not without its own drugs (i.e. cheating) problems. The pressure to increase in size and bulk to compete in the modern game means many players physiques are not due solely to training and diet.

      Laurent Benezech compared drug use in French rugby to cycling, claiming it is as rife as it was in the 1998 Tour de France scandal.

      John Beattie blogged that “When I was in South Africa covering the 1995 Rugby World Cup I wrote then what I repeat now – that the biggest growth in requests at GPs in Capetown nearly 20 years ago was from schoolboys wanting prescriptions for steroids. They were often accompanied by parents”

  • Hamburger

    Odd that Adidas has withdrawn it’s support from athletics but simply refuses to contemplate any loosening of its ties to FIFA.

    • Sanctimony

      Septic Blather probably has volumes of evidence of Adidas’ collusion with the terminally corrupt FIFA… he is a vile and wily old fox and will have ensured that he has something on anyone who might prove to be a threat to him… sadly, for him, he didn’t make allowances for the US investigators… it’s going to be a day of exquisite schadenfreude when the hideous gargoyle gets banged up in Sing Sing for the rest of his life….

      • Hamburger

        Indeed.

    • HJ777

      Not really.

      The allegation in the case of athletics is that you can’t believe the results of athletics events because of doping. There is no suggestion that football matches are being fixed in any way, however corrupt FIFA may be.

      • Hamburger

        They may not be fixed, but one of the great mysteries of today is the lack of investigation of doping in football. I have begun to wonder why our, Germany’s, national team always seems to have more energy in the end rounds of a WC or EC than it’s opponents. Doping? Our DFB was the only sports organisation that refused to cooperate with a German official investigation into doping in sport in the 1990s.

        • HJ777

          The 1990s was a long time ago.

          I always put the energy of the German team at final stages of the WC and EC down to a less demanding domestic season. They simply turn up at tournaments fresher than most squads.

          • Hamburger

            If you are suggesting that doping would have stopped in the last 15 years then I think that you are mistaken. Many ex national players have made allusions to doping at international level and at a domestic level here.

            • HJ777

              I’m just saying that just because something may have been the case 20 years ago, it doesn’t follow that it is now.

              Also football is not a pure physical performance sport. It relies as much on skill, tactics, organisation, etc. so doping is unlikely to be as influential.

              • Hamburger

                I agree with you in any other field. Doping, unless tackled, is not going to fade away. Also football is getting more physical, just think of Mr Kopp’s ‘gegenpress’.

          • anonuk

            If the German domestic league competition isn’t up to much, then how are they still so good when playing against foreign competition?

            • HJ777

              I didn’t say it wasn’t up to much”. I said it is less demanding.

              The Bundesliga has 2 fewer teams than the PL which means four fewer games per season. The PL is also probably the most competitive league top to bottom which means that there are fewer opportunities to rest your top players.That doesn’t mean that the top BL teams aren’t very good – just that their players don’t have such a demanding schedule.

    • GnosticBrian

      Sponsorship is a significant part of the problem; how can they be the solution?

      • Hamburger

        I hope that I did not imply that, the more I learn about Adidas’s role in sport, the more disgusted I am.

  • mathias broucek

    I slightly lost it with football after Ian Wright trashed the referee’s room following being sent off and the FA came down like the proverbial ton of feathers.

  • London Calling

    Who would have thought kicking money around was a sport?…

  • erikbloodaxe

    Turn off your TV and watch football and cricket at your local park. Better still, play.

  • The Masked Marvel

    I thought this was the year there would be no more snow due to man-made global warming.

    • Sanctimony

      Isn’t Simon Barnes one of those sandals and beardie gits who support all that sort of cr.p ?

    • freddiethegreat

      Didn’t work out that way. I heard there was an ‘in case’ project to replace skiing etc with polar bear hunting, since their numbers have inexplicably exploded.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      So you don’t think, only decry science.

  • sir_graphus

    Football has had a foul stench for years and it doesn’t seem to worry anyone. People will watch the Russian and Qatari world cups, and hardly remember the scandal of their being awarded.

    • Todd Unctious

      But Coe is a nasty piece of work. Difficult to live with, arrogant, self-centred ,aThatcherite Tory who is being exposed as totally and utterly corrupt like his grim little crony capitalist party.

      • Sanctimony

        He also had early morning wrestling bouts with the Mekon… William Hague….

        • Todd Unctious

          Wierd but true.

          • Sanctimony

            I have always imagined it to have been a passion-free union… with Hague preferring to grapple with celebrated middle-distance runners and their ilk.

            Coe managed to somehow get himself ennobled…. a gong for a …. as one might say …

            Hague’s infatuation with that airhead wannabee, Angelina Joli, who hangs samples of her exs’ blood around her neck and, in a fit of paranoia, had her boobs chopped off, is not a good ally for a freaky British Foreign Minister who wishes to be viewed as someone exhibiting gravitas and intelligence….

            • anonuk

              Are you suggesting that Hague prefers the affection of his fellow men? No wonder Cameron was so keen to get gay marriage off the ground- it had obviously been kicking around as an idea in social-liberal Tory circles for over ten years by then.

      • HJ777

        He was exposed as ‘totally and utterly corrupt’ when?

        Nothing wrong with being a Thatcherite Tory, by the way. She belonged, of course, to the more liberal wing of the party which is why many more traditional Tories weren’t so keen on her.

        • Todd Unctious

          Um. I wrote “is being exposed…”.Thatcher was a ghastly ,joyless, trout.

          • HJ777

            So he hasn’t been exposed at all.

            Margaret Thatcher was admired around the world and was known for her personal kindness. Whereas you…

            • Todd Unctious

              He is being exposed. And not before time , the weasel.

              • HJ777

                A rather desperate assertion on your part for which you present no evidence.

              • polidorisghost

                “He is being exposed. And not before time , the weasel.”

                When he has been exposed you can come and tell us, but not before.
                And the behaviour of the modern left makes Margaret Thatcher look like an angel in comparison.

          • Holly

            …And you are……
            A ‘nice’, ‘joyful’ what exactly????

            • Todd Unctious

              Well aside from being dashing, tall and erudite I am not in the public eye ,nor so self important as to put myself forward as a politician. Thatcher did, the old trout.

    • freddiethegreat

      And the vast bribery in South Africa – the lie of thousands of jobs being provided

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