Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A vintage year in Sport? Yes but, no but…


“Prats – talking, writing and pontificating about things of which they know nothing are the curse of modern sport. And I definitely include prominent former sportsmen; in fact they are the worst of all.” Andy Ripley

Andy Ripley, that fine and fearless man of Rugby, and a great deal more, died this year at the tragically early age of 62. Andy was not an establishment man - and yet he did more for sport as a player, commentator and administrator than all of the men in suits he mercilessly mocked put together. Quite what he would have said about the myriad sporting scandals that have grabbed the headlines in the six months since his death can only be conjectured – but you can be sure that he would have had a point of view. There is hardly a sport that hasn’t featured on the front pages as well as the back for all the wrong reasons this year. Drugs, violence, greed, cheating, bribery, corruption, disloyalty and just plain stupidity have been almost daily occurrences and no sport has been free of the whiff of scandal. So I offer below, and to the memory of Andy Ripley, a cynic’s antidote to the Awards season when sportsmen (they are mostly men) some of whom we know to be self-indulgent and avaricious prats, will dress uncomfortably in designer suits to pick up one gong or another. “And the award goes to Bloggs – fresh from kicking the teeth in of another second row forward at Twickenham.” “And the Personality of the Year is Blank – fresh from demanding a 50% rise on his already obscene weekly pay packet”. “And the Trophy goes to Dubbin whose contacts in the world of illegal betting wish him well”. And so it will go on.

If some of the players are hypocrites and the commercial organisations which sponsor the awards short-sighted what about the gullible rest of us who lap it all up? Those of us who paid Sky serious money to watch that grotesque parody of sport that was the Haye v Harrison fight. Those of us who hailed the arrival of new fast bowling talent on the Pakistan tour and paid good money to watch it – only to find that that talent was being paid by someone shady to cheat. Those who paid thousands of pounds to go to South Africa to watch England’s grossly over- hyped and overpaid Football team, incompetently led and devoid of any team sprit or focus fail so utterly and miserably. Those of us who fell for the Tiger Woods brand and watched used his image being used to sell anything from razors to golf holidays – only to find that the brand was bogus. Those of us who were fooled into thinking that an exceptional England bid for the Football World Cup in 2018 would be judged on rational grounds – only for it to be contemptuously dismissed by a FIFA committee with zero ethics and greedy hands. Those among us who remember the glory days of Formula one when brave men of integrity competed fairly for trophies surely look askance today at this scandal-infected pseudo-sport headed up by a man who not only successfully bungs his way with Heads of State and Prime Ministers but also says that Adolf Hitler was a man who "was able to get things done", and that “democracy has not worked out for Britain”. Those of us who played Rugby in days of yore, when the nearest thing to a scandal was the stuffing of a few used fivers into the socks of “amateur” players before a match, will recall that in those halcyon days Doctors were not employed at the Stoop to cut players’ lips. And sometimes they never learn. In 2006 Floyd Landis was being awarded victory in the Tour de France only later to be stripped of his title for a doping offense. Roll forward to 2010 and the “winner”, Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador, may suffer the same fate as Landis if the investigation into his positive test for using a banned substance leads to his guilt being confirmed. This is a sport which has long since lost any semblance of respectability – and yet Rupert Murdoch’s News International has ploughed tens of millions of dollars into “Team Sky” seemingly oblivious of the fact that the whole sport is rotten to the core. British Tennis is not exactly rotten – but what a shambolic ongoing failure there has been over decades to create a domestic structure which produces professional players of even the most modest quality. Great Tennis nations like Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland and Austria are just some of the countries that have humbled Britain’s best in the Davis Cup in recent times. And we await, as we have done most of my lifetime, the day when we once again have a Grand Slam champion. Hosting the world’s finest tennis tournament well is one thing – actually creating a domestic system that produces decent players seems beyond us.

There has always been an element of “If you can get away with it” in sport – its only human nature after all. But it is the scale of the abuse that is breathtaking today. Just as the Captains of Industry condone things that their predecessors would never have tolerated (John Browne and Tony Hayward’s cavalier approach to Health and Safety at B.P. for example) so sporting administrators and sportsmen behave in ways that would have been unthinkable decades ago. Can you imagine that one of Giles Clarke’s distant predecessors at the top of England cricket would have been as comprehensively conned as Clarke was by Allan Stanford? And can you conceive that in the distant days of Alan Hardaker the Football League, as it then was, would have allowed great Clubs to become the playthings of absentee owners in the Gulf States, or Russia or the USA? In the past Football Clubs had businesses which served the sport – today all too many of them have sport to serve the business. That sports need sound financial underpinning is right – but when the raison d'ĂȘtre of a Club becomes financial, just as if it was a commercial organisation no different from a factory, then we get the sort of vulgar shenanigans we have seen at Liverpool and Manchester United with their phony owners wearing and besmirching Clubs’ proud colours and for whom a Shankly or a Busby is probably an item of headgear. And what would those who ran the Rugby Football Union in distant days have thought of the current mob who in recent times have sent England’s team on to the Twickenham pitch dressed in purple or “anthracite” rather than white – not because there was a colour clash with their opponents but just to sell a few more replicas in the shop.

Sport is for all - and major broadcast sport has to be universally available. In 1966 at Wembley or 2003 at Sydney or 2005 at The Oval the nation was glued to its TV sets as English sportsmen triumphed in major competitions at the highest level. But at The Oval in 2009 or Adelaide last week only those with expensive satellite subscriptions could join in the fun – a deplorable failure of governance. The blame is shared between those who run English cricket and a supine Government which accommodates them. Government can be a force for good in sport, and should be. Tony Blair’s successful involvement in the bidding process for the 2012 Olympic Games, and David Cameron’s no less commendable attempt to secure FIFA 2018, are examples of how political leaders can help. But Blair’s venal decision to accommodate Bernie Ecclestone’s peddling of tobacco brands early in his premiership and Cameron’s recent refusal to insist that The Ashes are returned to terrestrial television shows that political expediency can all too often trump public interest. Even worse is Education Minister Michael Gove’s apparent decision to remove funding of £162m which had been allocated to school sport through many hundreds of successful “School Sports Partnerships” – a decision which will not only be bad for the health of the nation’s children but will also largely banish sport to the elite and mainly private schools. And if we can’t trust our political leaders to protect our interests and those of our children we certainly can’t trust our sporting head honchos. To take cricket as one example how do those at the top of the International Cricket Council, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Indian Premier League and the rest get away with always putting profit before principle? And that’s in the sport which so ludicrously congratulates itself on having a special “spirit”! Top of this ignoble list is of course the Pakistan Cricket Board which has consistently brought the game into disrepute for as long as can be remembered. The spectacle of mendacious officials of this Board posturing, prevaricating and libeling this summer was in many ways even worse than the sight of the on the pitch duplicity of some of their players.

There are a couple of golfers, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell, on this year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year short list and few would begrudge either of them the award if they are chosen. The Ryder Cup was a triumph, in the end, for Europe and these two contributed much to the result – and McDowell also won a Major this year. But let’s not delude ourselves that everything in the garden is lovely in this sport either. At the Ryder Cup we were treated to the unpleasant spectacle of the Captain of the American team using military symbolism to “inspire” his team and an Army Major spoke to the team on the eve of the event “I want these guys to be accountable to each other and have each other's backs, and basically that's what happens in the military” said Corey Pavin. Phil Mickleson commented afterwards, with absolutely no sense of irony at all, that he felt “…proud to be part of a country that cares about the civil rights of people all throughout the world and not just in our own country,”. You couldn’t make it up! Meanwhile these pampered multimillionaires flew around in their private gas-guzzling airplanes from tournament to tournament living a life as far removed from the average golf spectator as it is possible to imagine. The bizarre tendency for sporting enterprise to associate itself with the military is not confined to professional golf. Rugby Internationals at Twickenham now have obligatory military displays and there is a presumption, like that of Corey Pavin, that spectators and competitors should support this. As Richard Williams writing in “The Guardian” put it recently “There is something disquieting about this gradual blending of sporting and military culture, with its underlying assumption that all spectators at any given event…necessarily share the government’s view of the rightness of what our forces are doing overseas.” Indeed!

That some members of FIFA have been corrupt should have surprised nobody – especially those who remember the vices of the International Olympic Commission over the year. Power corrupts – and the opportunity to use one’s position on these bodies to enrich oneself corrupts absolutely. Unlike FIFA the IOC may no longer have personally dishonest individuals at its top – but in its decision making it has long since foregone the moral high ground – if it was ever there. The conspiracy to provide a cloak of respectability around the degenerate gang which rules the People’s Republic of China with Beijing 2008 showed that the IOC hasn’t moved on one iota from Berlin 1936 – and that money echoes far more loudly than principles in the IOC’s fetid corridors. Will London 2012 and Rio 2016 be scandal free? Let’s hope so - but don’t hold your breath.

The further sports move away from their followers and spectators the more likely it is that they will forget that we the paying public have a stake in what they do. The ECB disadvantaged millions of cricket fans at a stroke when they awarded live international cricket to Sky. Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City alienated countless thousands of their fans when they sold the clubs down the river to foreign owners who then, in some cases, incurred massive debts. And they compete with one another in spraying their money around in an obscene way – not helped by the greed of players and their agents. It has just emerged that the Manchester City player Carlos Tevez is paid £286,000-a-week tax free at Eastlands - To do the sum for you this is just short of £25m a year gross (very gross!). Nobody would wish to return to the days of the maximum wage – when Jimmy Greaves (worth ten of Mr Tevez) lived in a grace and favour one-bedroomed flat in Chelsea for which he paid thirty shillings a week out of his £20 a week wage. But Greaves and his teammates related to the supporters who went to watch them in a way that the Tevez’s and the Rooney’s never could. And that matters.

Top level motorsport is the same. The leaders of Formula one have taken the sport a million miles away from the ethos and values of the past making it unaffordable for the ordinary spectator to attend a Grand Prix and increasingly holding races in locations where the coffers are unlimited. So great circuits like Estoril or Kyalami are unused whilst absurd and uninteresting new constructions built with oil or vanity money add congestion to an already overcrowded calendar. If you think that nighttime races around the brightly illuminated streets of Singapore give a bad example environmentally then what about FIFA’s incredible decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar? The Qataris plan to build air-conditioned stadia to allow the matches to take place at the height of a Gulf summer – when temperatures of 50 degrees in the shade are common. Just down the road from the grounds a gas-fired power station or two will be cranked up to maximum to provide the electricity that this scandalously wasteful nonsense needs.

As you settle down to watch the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year next Sunday accept it for the superficial, selective and sycophantic spectacle that it is. Cheer when cheers are due – the England cricket team, Tony McCoy, Lee Westwood and the others who have done us proud. But as a counter-balance remember the wise words of Andy Ripley I’ve finally settled on my little maxim for life. You can earn a living from what you get - but you only get a life from what you give”.