Thursday, 17 September 2009

Is professional sport corrupt?

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, sport is "a game, competition or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules, for enjoyment and/or as a job". There is no doubt that professional sportspeople exert terrific physical effort (that's why Andy Fordham isn't a sportsman) and display expert skill. It's what comes next that needs to be examined: "According to rules".

At the top level of professional sport are athletes whose sole purpose is to beat the rest and be the best. Recent news from Formula One and rugby union, coupled with longstanding issues in soccer, athletics and cycling, suggests that contempt for the rules is perhaps more widespread than assumed.

In Formula One this week, the Renault team has been exposed asking one of their drivers to deliberately crash his car in order to help his team-mate. Over the summer, Harlequins rugby union club came under the spotlight for faking blood injuries and therefore enabling substitutions.

Cycling has long had a problem with drugs, as has Athletics. Diving has come out of the pool and onto the football pitch, most notably and recently at the Emirates Stadium.

These examples are more than rule-breaking, they raise serious questions about the morality of those at the top of professional sport. I'm tempted to propose that it is professionalisation - and the monetary concerns that it implies - that has led us to this point.

Paul Rees makes the case that amateur rugby was full of 'cheating': nicking a few yards on the touchline, for example. He also says that 'A difference then was that the game was for the players' and that 'Professionalism has acted as a disinfectant'. In some ways maybe, but likewise I'm not so sure.

The amateur game was indeed for players; the professional game is for money. Whether due to pressure from a club owner or manager, or whether it stems from a misplaced perception of what it means to succeed, that induces a 'win at all costs' mentality that has surely contributed to an erosion of the ethics of sport.

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