[*Edited version 11th November 2015*]
Another week, another explosion of shocking back page headlines. Athletics has faced some pretty big doping scandals in the past, but perhaps the latest will prove to be the sport’s biggest challenge yet. The possible scope of Russian drug-taking and corruption within the top levels of track and field governance are yet to be fully understood. New IAAF president Seb Coe certainly has a job on his hands. The reactions of both athletes and fans to negative stories like this range from shock and disbelief to outrage and anger. So why do we keep forgiving sport for its multitude of sins?
I’m a long way from perfect, but I’d like to believe that most of the time I can differentiate between right and wrong. However, when I think about some of the sportspeople I grew up idolising and many of the sports I continue to buy tickets and a Sky Sports subscription to watch, I realise I have sometimes been quick to put my moral compass to one side. My two biggest sporting heroes as a kid were Eric Cantona and Linford Christie. Despite his glittering football career, Cantona might be best known for kung-fu kicking someone in the crowd having been sent off against Crystal Palace in 1995. Christie won Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth sprint titles, but ended his career under the shadow of a positive drugs test for nandrolone. The problem for me is that I can’t really undo Christie’s Olympic gold at Barcelona 1992 as the first sports event I remember watching. I can’t forget the 10-year old me turning my collar up Cantona-style for football practice or attempting to run my 100m races without blinking or breathing, because that’s how Linford did it.
In the wider world of sport, the extent of doping in cycling exploded into the public consciousness a couple of years back. Perhaps we haven’t forgiven Lance Armstrong, but more road bikes and Lycra shorts are flying off the shelves than ever before. Meanwhile, FIFA has clearly been involved in some pretty dodgy dealing (to put it mildly) around World Cup bidding. Rumours abound that the IOC isn’t exactly squeaky clean on the bidding front either. This time last year, Luis Suarez was sent home from the World Cup in disgrace having bitten an opponent – he’s now being touted as one of Barca’s heroes. Almost three years ago, Oscar Pistorius won his sixth Paralympic gold medal – he’s now in jail in South Africa for culpable homicide.
The paragraph above illustrates that it can be all too easy to group sporting ‘sins’ clumsily together. I’m certainly not suggesting that all the examples I’ve cited can be directly compared – and I’m not trying to judge what is or isn’t forgivable. But each in its own way calls into question why we invest so much time, energy, emotion and money into sport given the depth of its darker side. What is this magical hold that sport seems to have over us?
It’s partly down to the fact that we love having something to talk about. There’s something inescapably satisfying about sitting on the sofa / in the pub / at a computer having a moan about how let down we feel, how sad it is, how we can’t believe this has happened. Half the time it’s not even gossip or a debate, everyone is simply regurgitating facts (and ‘facts’!) they have read somewhere, with a little emotion added for good measure. Talking about sport makes us feel more engaged in it. Put simply, talking about the good, bad and ugly of sport is fun.
Then there’s the concept of role models. There is often an expectation that sportspeople at the top of their respective games should be good human beings as well as good performers. I think this expectation creates an interesting debate in itself, but that’s not for now. There’s no doubt in my mind that the visibility of top-level sportspeople makes them role models to at least some degree. Ultimately, the majority of people who play, watch or coach sport want to see the best of the best. Performances on the field can give us something to aspire to and marvel at. That’s why Luis Suarez has been banned for alleged racist comments and for biting three fellow professionals, but is still allowed to play: he’s damn good at football, so people want to watch him.
Competition and the ambitions of people to become the best have created powerful and inspirational displays of physicality and human achievement across the history of sport. But in raising the stakes for performance, money, greed and fame have also become ingrained in the DNA of many sports. Fundamentally, we are all flawed and it stands to reason that sport is no different. My sister rightly pointed out to me that when bad things happen, it isn’t sport that’s in the wrong – it’s the people who play it and run it. However, to me, sport IS people. They inspire us, astonish us and motivate us… as well as sometimes leaving us disappointed and let down. We accept that people aren’t perfect – and therefore I think we accept that sport will never be perfect either.
Greed, corruption, cheating and some generally questionable morality are displayed just as regularly in sport as they are in ‘real life’. However, because sport seems to occupy a unique place in our social consciousness, we cut it a little more slack. Even when our most revered sporting events turn out to be run by a bunch of money-grabbing bad guys, or when our perceptions of what superhuman performance means are threatened, we can’t imagine life without them. I actually think there’s an argument that sport – whether we are watching, playing or talking about it – allows us to escape these same vices and corruptions in other spheres of life. We forgive sport to let us forget other things.
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[From first edit, June 2015]
Sport didn’t exactly cover itself in glory last week. Serena Williams, Stan Wawrinka, Women’s Sport Week and all-conquering Barcelona may beg to differ – but FIFA’s corruption, Sepp Blatter’s resignation and claims of doping in athletics on a BBC Panorama programme stole most of the newspaper headlines for all the wrong reasons.