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Australia on a sticky wicket

Hand-Wringing and breast-beating are not officially recognised as sports, but in recent days Australian officials could easily have claimed the crown in either field.

The impetus came from the results of a year-long Australian Crime Commission (ACC) investigation that concluded unfairness was rife across any number of sporting activities. Doping? Tick. Match-fixing? Tick. Underworld connections? Tick.

Welcome, then, to the international world of sports, where various forms of corruption have prospered for decades. Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist who recently confessed that each of his seven Tour de France titles was acquired with the aid of performance-enhancing substances, wasn’t exactly a pioneer. Nor was spot-fixing an innovation of the three Pakistani cricketers who got nailed for it in 2010.

It is perfectly possible that even the Chicago White Sox, the American baseball team that notoriously threw the so-called World Series in 1919, was continuing rather than initiating a trend. The lure, of course, was hard cash.

The culpability, in the context of corruption, of the sports-money nexus is fairly obvious. And it’s hardly a surprise that, in the modern era, the United States got there first. During the period of the White Sox scandal, much of the world still relied on amateurs to demonstrate athletic prowess. The switch to professional status was gradual, but by the late 20th century it encompassed almost every field of sporting endeavour.

Which, on the face of it, seems fair enough. No one can seriously question the concept that dedicated sportspeople ought to be adequately compensated for dedicating their lives — up to a certain age at least — to a particular game. Kerry Packer’s World Series cricket was a tremendous success precisely because cricketers were until then poorly paid.

But an ostensibly good thing can be taken too far. It has long been common, for instance, for footballers to be “bought” and “sold” for enormous sums by European clubs. The Indian Premier League (IPL) brought the concept of auction blocks to the subcontinent. Other nations have emulated the idea, not least Australia with its Big Bash League, which is now under scrutiny.

It is still the IPL, though, that, despite corruption scandals, remains unprecedentedly lucrative for international cricketers.

In one respect, the IPL and other bodies instrumental to the internationalisation of sport deserve approbation as an antidote to the virulent nationalism that all too often sullies the potential of such pastimes as goodwill-generating pursuits. On the other hand, all too many of them can be seen primarily as profit-generating enterprises that barely give a toss about fair play.

Betting, illegal or otherwise, has a great deal to do with it. And in countries where gambling on the outcome of sporting fixtures is common, the line between legal and illegal variants is thinly drawn. On top of that there are syndicates with underworld connotations.

In Australia, the ACC’s unclassified report has not named names, ostensibly for legal reasons. But classified reports are said to have been forwarded, mainly to the National Rugby League and Australian rules football clubs whose procedures are considered suspect, some of whose names have emerged in new reports. Sports scientists, doctors and bureaucrats have been cited as potential culprits.

Hormone-inducing peptides are believed to have been administered to players, sometimes apparently without their knowledge. The various “footy” codes are particularly under a cloud, whereas in sports such as cricket match-fixing is deemed to be the chief issue.

The trouble with performance-enhancing drugs, of course, is that they make a difference in any field of endeavour, affording an unfair advantage to those who imbibe, knowingly or otherwise. Roger Federer complained this week about the laxity of controls in tennis, saying he was surprised not to be tested after the Australian Open. He is not the only tennis player to have suggested that testing is less rigorous than it used to be.

Cricket Australia has noted that its primary concern is spot-fixing, given that the game itself depends largely on talent. But, surely, it could not possibly be unaware that stamina-enhancing substances could prove attractive to players.

The non-specific allegations on what was described last week by a former anti-doping official as the blackest day for Australian sports have prompted claims that what the ACC has unearthed is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The damage this might do to the self-esteem of a nation where sport is effectively a religion, and which has long prided itself on a drugs-free sporting field, is potentially considerable.

There’s also the possibility, though, that — regardless of the extent to which deleterious tendencies can henceforth be curtailed — it won’t make all that much of a difference. After all, if religion can withstand the assault of rationality, what’s to prevent sport from surviving the onslaught of ethics?

Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a dilemma if everyone were to recognise that competitiveness on the field is inevitably aligned to the capitalist ethos of making as much money as possible, regardless of who is trampled in the process.

In a world where players can be bought and sold, it would be hard to convince them that there is anything seriously wrong with taking a lucrative dive at a propitious moment, or with injecting a solution that enhances their prospects of heroic deeds and, consequently, their bank balances.

It could justifiably be argued that in the past purportedly socialist nations such as East Germany and the Soviet Union went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate their supremacy in various sports, and China has been accused of conforming to the pattern.

Nationalism has undoubtedly been a culprit in promoting unfair tactics on the field. But it ought to be equally clear that the individualism and the profit motive that capitalism prides itself on have now effectively taken over.

Even the supposedly illegal betting syndicates, after all, are instances of free enterprise. Many worthy athletes, in Australia and elsewhere, are perfectly justified in resenting the stigma, but it’s hard to imagine it will ever completely be vanquished.


Mahir Ali, "Australia on a sticky wicket," Dawn. 2013-02-13.