Sport: selling its integrity to highest bidder


The Olympic spirit sullied by big business

Those who know me know too that sport is not my thing. It never has been. At school I had a tacit agreement with the sports teacher that he would turn a blind eye to my absence from the school gym if I helped organise the annual sports day.

That compact was breached only once when I was ‘volunteered’ by another teacher to participate in a five-a-side GAA tournament. Let’s just say my father was astonished when arrived home with a medal. He couldn’t quite comprehend how I had managed to end up on the winning team.

Fate played a part. The four other players went on to have distinguished careers with Down. I am still somewhat red-faced to admit that through the heats, and in the final, I never once touched the ball. But I deserved my medal for effort. I tried. My God I tried.

Needless to say, I couldn’t walk for a week. I don’t know whether or not the teacher (an Armagh man) was trying to scupper the chances of my team mates. He is now a parish priest, so I doubt there was any mal-intent.

In those far off days, there was still a sense that the purest sports were those untainted by commercialism – and the GAA was the purest of the pure. Amateurism was revered and, surprisingly perhaps, still is; alhough there is continuing pressure for the governing body to yield to professionalism.

In those days too, the Olympics, the pinnacle of sporting excellence, upheld the amateur code. The games celebrated the achievements of men and women who took part purely for the competition.

In the solemn Olympic oath, athletes committed themselves to take part “in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams”. It was a world where taking part was more important than winning (unless of course you came from one of the Soviet-bloc nations).

Television changed all that. The money proved just too tempting, and one by one sports succumbed.

Boxing remains an amateur Olympic sport, but its professional incarnation is dripping in cash and gets the bulk of attention. In golf you would be hard-pressed to name the leading amateurs, but even I (who does not know one side of a golf ball from the other) would easily be able to reel off a list of the professionals’ names.

Avery Brundage, who headed the Olympic movement from the fifties through to the 1970s, refused to contemplate any whiff of professionalism around the games. Speaking in 1955 he said: “ We can only rely on the support of those who believe in the principles of fair play and sportsmanship embodied in the amateur code in our efforts to prevent the games from being used by individuals, organisations or nations for ulterior motives.”

Ulterior motives indeed.

Sport today is reaping the consequences of its decision to embrace big business, and like a male preying mantis, it is now being consumed by its mate. It is a sad and sorry sight.

This week’s revelation of corruption in world tennis might have been shocking had it not been preceded by scandals in athletics (last week we had the latest instalment), football (Fifa is now the dirtiest of four-letter words), and cycling – to name but three. Where there’s brass there’s muck.

Sporting scandals are not new. We are dealing with human beings here, and humans are frail.

But there is something truly rotten about the scale of institutional connivance in corruption: dirty deals, bribery, and drug misuse. It’s not just individuals going astray, global organisations are in the gutter.

Those charged with maintaining the integrity of their sports, and with protecting the legacy of sporting heroes, have not just been asleep on the job. They have been active participants in the destruction of confidence in their sports and the achievements of their athletes.

Money has reduced sport to the level of mere entertainment. But at least in the movies we know the stars are pretending. Sporting excellence is supposed to be about the real thing, about endurance, about humankind transcending its limitations.

There are countless arguments about the benefits professionalism has brought to sport: it has rewarded athletes, it has helped sports to grow and to reach new audiences. But with it, we have lost something special; and we have allowed a virus to enter the sporting arena. It is a virus that may be possible to contain, but now it is there we will never be rid of it. The GAA should take note.

  • A version of this column appeared in The Irish News on January 22 2016.