Tuesday, 27 September 2016

‘Playing within the rules’ – Power, the sporting superstar and the culture of sport

British sport is imbued with a strong ethic of ‘fair play’. The concept of amateurism promoted ‘pure’ sport, played for its own sake, unadulterated by commercial influences. But for all their amateur bluster British sport was frequently tainted with class prejudice, racism and jingoistic fervor.

British fair play has always, therefore, required a contrast and there is an implicit suggestion that while we Brits play with a ‘straight bat’, foreigners cheat. The outcry over Maradona’s 'Hand of God' or Lance Armstrong’s doping contrasts starkly with the hyperbolic coverage of the Brownlee brothers recent display of sportsmanship – even though it appeared to break the rules. But what of Michael Owen’s diving, Rugby Union’s 'bloodgate' scandal or, most recently Bradley Wiggins use of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs)?

Unlike Armstrong, a case has been made that Bradley Wiggins use of powerful performance enhancing drugs under the guise of TUEs is acceptable – fair even – because it was an approved prescription sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) itself. As Team Sky supremo David Brailsford claimed; his team had complied with the rules at all times and stayed "the right side of the line". Indeed they had, and there’s the rub.

Like Apple, Vodafone, Amazon or Starbucks who legally avoid billions in corporation tax, Team Sky’s actions are, according to the rules in place, justified. But their actions, like those of the multinational corporations, look extremely unethical; especially in light of Team Sky’s previous claims of cleanliness.

That Apple and Team Sky remain within the rules means the condemnatory finger has to be pointed towards the people who control the organizations that make up these ‘laws’. If societies want equitable tax structures, or sporting contests that are in any way genuine, they must change, but cultures of doping, corruption, racism, sexism and homophobia persist because of their actions or, more commonly, inaction. Governing bodies had no qualms in banning athletes for life in the past for the most trivial offences, but there appears to be no genuine will to stamp out doping or other controversial issues in sport.

Only this week we have witnessed FIFA’s lamentable decision to abolish its anti-racism taskforce. Claims that its work was completed before Russia, a country with a serious problem of racism, hosts the 2018 World Cup have raised many a cynical eyebrow, even if no other country (as with doping) is blameless. But why are such counterintuitive decisions repeatedly made? And why don’t sports journalists question what they see, or are told, more often?

Cynical or not the answer is, of course, money. Who pays the piper calls the tune, and the decisions made by those at the very top of sport are seldom designed to benefit anyone but themselves or other interested parties. But while political expediency used to dominate (the provision of a UK passport to Zola Budd, or particular governments or governing bodies decision to join or ignore Olympic boycotts for instance), the basis for the majority of decisions today is economic.

Multi-millionaire sportsmen and women may benefit from this administrative leniency, but they are mere pawns in a much larger game where the governing bodies and corporate sponsors benefit most. Team Sky’s financial value to cycling, like US Postal before it, or Manchester United to the Premier League, affords them a certain amount of leverage with their sport’s governing bodies, for their success directly impacts upon their own revenue streams.

Individually, Tiger Woods receiving a two-shot penalty, instead of disqualification, for an illegal drop at the halfway stage of the 2013 US Masters is a case in point. Golf’s biggest global ‘superstar’ at the time, this decision benefitted the US PGA, the broadcaster and the sponsors far more. For as Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, explained: "When Tiger Woods enters a tournament and when he is in contention in the final round, we see a 30 to 50 per-cent increase over what is the 'normal' rating”.

But even when a scandal breaks, the corporations such as Nike still win by claiming to have taken a moral high ground in dropping tainted athletes such as Woods or Armstrong, although they appear to have made an exception regarding Maria Sharapova.

The media are not invulnerable to riding this financial gravy train of course, and many journalists, including The Times Matthew Syed, have been accused of getting too close to Team Sky or other sporting bodies. However, there is a fine line to be tread between blatant sycophancy and hard-nosed investigative journalism. Without access there is little or no story, and journalists who ask hard questions rarely get interviews, and football managers, including Sir Alex Ferguson, have banned journalists who do not toe the line.

The result is that most of the biggest stories, such as the FIFA corruption scandal, or the slavery conditions of those building the stadiums for the 2020 Qatar World Cup, are now broken by journalists who do not specialize in sports reporting. The media, and indeed academics, have a crucial role to play in holding those who govern sport to account. Some media outlets, most obviously Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which owns a significant stake in BSkyB and recently purchased TalkSPORT radio, clearly have vested interests in the Premier League but it is incumbent on others to report objectively and challenge the actions of those in charge much more than any individual athlete (granted the Armstrong case is exceptional).


We may think what we like of Team Sky and Wiggins behavior but if the rules allow athletes to gain a competitive advantage they are going to take it. However, the sporting public, and the athletes themselves, deserve greater clarity.

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