In Part 1 on a four part series looking at corruption in sport, Henry Vespa introduces us to the idea that a game is no game…
Sport. I’ve got to admit, it’s not my thing. And before you start, yes my lack of interest is mirrored (caused?) by my lack of ability. I can read a book, I can watch a film; I can even be a charming and witty conversationalist, but an athlete? Never. But there are two sporting concepts that I admire. First, it’s pretty damn impressive what people can do. Running that fast? Doing that many somersaults? Getting the ball in the cup/pocket/goal? Incredible. And second, there’s the ‘sporting ideal’; the idea that sports is somehow a noble pursuit, far above life’s daily grind and pettiness – what’s that quotation… It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, but how you play the game… something like that. Well, of course, that’s a load of old $*!¡ – every year there’s another performance-enhancing drugs scandal, and every year, the outcome or location of a major competition is determined by the money in somebody’s bank account. ‘Scuse my cynicism.
But check the reality. Money and sports have always been intertwined and they do not make good bedfellows. Only a few weeks ago, Sandro Rosell the president of FC Barcelona, one of the world’s biggest football teams (that’s soccer by the way) was compelled to resign over lying about the tiny matter of nearly EUR 40m. He’d signed some superstar player from Brazil, bragged about the ‘cheap’ price compared to recent signings by arch rivals Real Madrid and somehow neglected to mention the extra millions that had been handed over in under-the-table contracts.
And just in case, you’re deluding yourself that this is a modern phenomenon, historians are agreed that one of the first sports scandals occurred in 338BC at the ancient Olympic games. A boxer, Eupolus of Thessaly apparently bribed three opponents to take a dive when they faced him in the ring. Ah, the noble art of boxing! And things got ridiculous a few hundred years later when the Emperor Nero decided to compete. He bribed the judges to add extra events to the Games, ones that he was skilled in and had the best chance of winning. Nero even managed to take home the gold in the chariot racing despite having six extra horses, falling out of the chariot and failing to finish. The bribes are described as “astronomical” but they’re probably nowhere near the price of the modern day International Olympic Committee.
But forget the funny tales of history; bribes, backhanders and corruption are a very modern problem. Maybe because in the 21st century there’s more money than ever before tied up in these huge international events – the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup (soccer again) – for which there’s always fierce competition between governments just to play host and then billions of dollars are spent building facilities that will be used just once. It’s not just gambling interests and match fixing anymore, it’s politics and big business too; and when those boys get involved there’s no way the ‘sporting ideal’ is going to come out untarnished.