Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.
In other words, it is war minus the shooting.
~ George Orwell
I’ve written about doping in sport several times on this blog (here and here), mostly about procycling, but also what I consider the sporting crime of our times: State Plan 14:25 – the East German ‘diplomats in tracksuits’, approximately 10,000 athletes (including children) doped by the State with performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). The scale, the cruel consequences, the ‘win at all costs’ regime makes Lance Armstrong look like a kindergarten bully.
The release yesterday of the Australian Crime Commission’s Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport report – the result of a 12 month investigation, aptly code named Project Aperio (a Latin verb meaning ‘uncover’ or ‘open’), hasn’t surprised or shocked me. Not the scale of its findings, not the scope of the investigation, or that the coercive witness powers of the ACC were used – and I love sport. I love it because I can’t run out of sight on a dark night. I can swim a bit, and play tennis. That’s it. Oh, I can leg press 180 kilograms (hardly surprising; I have long, strong muscles attached to metre-long legs). I love people who are good – brilliant – at their jobs. If those jobs involve a football, a tennis racquet or swimming caps, all the better.
Orwell captures the essence of my take on the last few days in those few sentences above.
Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play: don’t give me piffle about Don Bradman, or golden ages forever tarnished by a 40-odd page report and a press conference. Sporting organisations and their products have traded on the notion of ‘fair play’ since the first Olympics. You don’t need to use elite athletes to test ‘undetectable’ drugs to make a mockery of an ideal. You can throw tacks on the road in front of cyclists racing aerodynamically down a mountain. You can use your elbows to cause your opponents to fall over in a distance race. You can punch someone below the belt. You can bowl a ball with the intention of hitting a batsmen, instead of the stumps, or roll a ball down the pitch against a valiant, disgusted foe. You can field a below par team to pick the cream of the next crop. You can employ wrestling techniques to slow play.
Serious sport is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness: You can grunt, dive for a penalty, taunt an opponent so tastelessly that they head butt you. You can threaten to rip a man’s heart out, rip his children’s hearts out, bite, gouge, brawl, engage in ultimately deadly rivalries, label yourself the greatest and another man an ‘Uncle Tom’, king hit a player for doing nothing more than marking your patch. You can smash racquets and abuse officials. You can, without proof, label someone who swims faster than and sets world records an ‘obvious’ drug cheat. You can call yourselves leaders in drug testing, and be revealed as a sham. You can lie to yourself and courts, fool millions of people and foully degrade and discredit anyone who dares stand up to you. You can choose to become part of a code of silence instead of speaking what you know to be the truth, or pursue a lead on a story. You can choose to be a cheerleader, ingratiate yourself with athletes, managers, clubs, administrators because you are so close to glory you can taste it.
Serious sport is bound up with a disregard of all rules: you can set a pathetic policy where your players, your product, aren’t subject to the laws that apply to every other citizen, where recreational drug users you catch out are rarely named or reported to police. You can surrender your place in an Olympic team to someone who hasn’t qualified, and watch them win a gold medal. You can handle a ball to score a goal instead of your feet, and win a place or a game in the ultimate exhibition of the joga bonito and blithely admit it in a post-match interview, or claim divine intervention. You can break salary caps and make dodgy deals. You can tweet garbage because you are witless. You can bet on or against your own team or race, consort with criminals, paint a horse so it resembles another, poor performer. You can insist drivers race on unsafe tracks, and take action only when one life too many is lost.
Serious sport is bound up with sadistic pleasure in violence: We, the stadium fillers, bay for ever-harder, brain-rattling tackles, celebrate the spilling of claret or a knockout in the boxing ring. Our games may not be violent, but they become sadistic. Rule changes push athletes to, and beyond, the limits of pain and endurance. We find intermediate stages of three-week races boring, and thrill when tour organisers announce brutal stages. Players who miss penalties never live down the ignominy. We take pleasure in hating rival teams, rival codes, rival sports, other countries. We bait rival fans and rely on other fixtures so we ‘win’ at the expense of another’s loss. We resort to racial abuse and defend those who practice it. We, the fans, have voices. We choose to silence ourselves and demand ever-greater performances. We buy pulp peddled by pundits who self-censor and allow the brave to be damned.
Sometimes, we bear witness to horror, and react with every ounce of human kindness and concern, sorrow at the loss of athletes dying young or stretchered off a ground with broken limbs or hearts which have ceased beating. We remember serious sports bear serious risks and consequences. We remember, and try to right wrongs. We can think, call, write, refuse to pay for memberships, support the outspoken against the omertà. We can accept losses with good grace, instead of crying with indignation that ‘we wuz robbed”. We can be better, act with integrity and ask the same in return.