It gives me no pleasure at all that my subject today is sport as it relates to integrity and morality but the spate of recent media revelations has caused me to question some of the fundamentals of human life – it is really that important.
From my earliest memories of learning things at my father’s metaphorical knee, as a sports-mad kid I grew up believing in the principle that what you saw was endeavour at its purest and best. Everything began upon a level playing field and then, well, the best guy or team on the day always won.
Obviously when I was growing up, it was a case of Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, Brian Statham, Freddie Trueman, Godfrey Evans, Tom Graveney and Jim Laker (to name-check but a few) at cricket; Bobby Charlton, George Best, Francis Lee, Tony Currie, Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and the rest of the 1966 World Cup winning side, Johnny Haynes, Pele, Eusebio and Jimmy Greaves at soccer; the great Welsh teams of the 1970s at rugby union; Mary Rand, Mary Peters, Lynn Davies, Don Thompson, Robbie Brightwell and David Hemery at track and field; David Wilkie, Anita Lonsbrough and … er … Duncan Goodhew at swimming; Peter Alliss, Neil Coles, Tony Jacklin, Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo at golf …
I could go on.
I can tell you’re getting ahead of me now – yes, life was near-perfect in those days. At my prep school we played endless games of Owzat?! on long summer days, whilst lessons served as nothing more than minor interruptions between daily cricket games in short trousers, over-sized pads and no need for a box.
It was all based around a simple life in which one of life’s certainties was that sport was sacrosanct, honest and ‘what you saw was what you got’. Even when you were given out ‘leg before’ or ‘caught behind’ when you were sure you weren’t, if the master in charge lifted that fateful finger, you took it as no more than one of life’s little lessons as you folded your bat under your arm, deliberately took off each of your white gloves with the green rubber pimples on the back and trudged back to the pavilion, real or imagined.
I trust I’m not giving a too rose-tinted-spectacles image of how things were in the days of yore.
Yes, even then there were dark tales in history of W.G. Grace refusing to leave the crease despite his stumps being ‘castled’; of competitors in the 1908 Olympics marathon being fed arsenic or even whisky tots to keep them going; even of horse shoes being hidden in boxers’ gloves (I can even remember once meeting British 1930s world lightweight champion Jack ‘Kid’ Berg who told me he’d only lost his title to Tony Canzoneri because the latter’s camp had sent a beautiful hooker to his hotel room the night before who had helped him use up all his stamina by the morning of the fight), but these were mere bagatelles that added a bit of lustre to the folklore and did nothing to detract from sport – and life – as it should be experienced.
Fast-forward to 2015 and I cannot help it, but something has gone from my life forever.
As various Rust contributors have highlighted in recent times, it probably all began with the advent of performance-enhancing drugs.
Let’s not beat about the bush – even the most naïve of us were hearing on good authority, or indeed spreading our own, rumours about Eastern bloc countries’ systematic force-feeding ‘substances’ to their athletes and swimmers.
Step forward as examples the Russian sisters shot-putter Tamara and sprinter Irina Press, plus also that Czech 400m and 800m runner Jarmila Kratochvilová of the early 1980s, who looked more like Arnold Swarzenegger than he did.
Now we are reading weekly stories about how prevalent drug-taking – and how the testing authorities are constantly playing ‘catch-up’ – in track and field. And let’s not get started upon Lance Armstrong and the world of professional cycling. This very week we have learned of rampant drugs abuse in Welsh rugby union and rugby league, not that this should be taken to imply that no other nations’ rugby players are not similarly implicated. Even Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has indirectly pointed the finger at others by stating that he would never allow his players to take performance-enhancing drugs.
And let’s not forget to mention the corruption troubles of the IOC, FIFA or the IAAF, historic or ongoing.
Or indeed the whole issue – in the context of increasingly astronomical broadcasting rights and sponsorship revenues – of ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’ … plus, of course, a herd of sports agents taking their very healthy 15%-25% commissions.
Here I’m entering the realms of shattered dreams.
Admittedly, we all know that life is not, and has never been, perfect. As kids, even as we were learning our rules (and principles) for travelling upon our personal journeys from our elders and betters, we already knew deep down that opportunities to gain an unfair advantage over others (of some sort or another) were always there. If we wanted to take them, of course.
Hold your hand up anybody who nicked a favourite plastic toy off another kid in their kindergarten class simply because you wanted to … and you were bigger or stronger than he or she was.
But – my point is – we were taught about the benefits and rewards of ‘doing the right thing’, which taking such advantage definitely wasn’t. Just because you can do something is no ultimate justification for doing it.
Religion may have had something to do with this issue – and I’m not knocking religion per se.
But by teaching that no man, or woman, was perfect [well, in Christianity’s case perhaps one man supposedly was] religion was also providing a bit of a ‘get out’ clause. In other words, however imperfect though you be, however contrary to any code of mortality or integrity you might act, you can always get back in the Almighty’s good books by sincerely repenting of your sins and – thence through the good grace of His forgiveness – get back on the level with no black marks left recorded against your name.
At least that it what one got taught, although I would beg leave to make special exceptions in the cases of 100 metre runners Ben Johnson and Justin Gatlin.
As my readers might have recognised by now, I’m feeling not a little conflicted this morning.
Half of me harps back to some vivid but probably misty-eyed fantasy world in the distant past in which sport (and life) seemed pure, honest, straightforward and true … but probably wasn’t.
This while the other half of me – worn down by exposure to life’s little absurdities, unfairnesses and the infinite examples that I come across of ‘bad guys’ profiting in some way or another whilst the rest of us get left by the wayside – keeps repeating one of the harsh but key lessons of human existence:
“This is real life, you idiot – what else did you expect?!”