Saturday, 21 July 2012
Is there a place for ethics in sports - Part One
(Originally written and posted in 2007)
Like many cycling fans I have been disheartened by the constant cloud of doping hanging over our sport and the implications of such problems for its future. As time has gone on though, I've begun to wonder whether it's all so black and white, and have begun to question much of the accepted reasoning on the subject, due to it's inconsistency and lack of logic.
Recently I wrote a letter to a cycling magazine on the subject of Ivan Basso and his ‘attempted doping claim’. Like many others I dare say, I was irritated to say the least by the way his so called confession insulted my intelligence as a fan. The letter was good enough to win the star prize that month (an as yet unreceived pair of Rudys), however on reading my published letter, something began to bother me.
Re-reading my original letter and comparing it with the published version, I found it to be, not only heavily edited, but subtly changed in meaning. Naturally my approval for these editorial changes had not been sought for such a minor thing as a readers letters page - Publications probably universally reserve the right to do so - but this slight distortion of my personal thoughts got me thinking about how journalistic licence can affect the nature of a story by deviating from fact and truth for commercial or perhaps other more insidious reasons, and how that conflicts with the duty of journalsim - to inform the public.
Just this week I've finished reading a new book ‘In Search of Robert Millar’ and was intrigued by some of Millars opinions. in an email to the books author Richard Moore, Millar articulated that sport mirrors real life and "Being an athlete doesn't turn you into some kind of morally superior being - it's all a reflection of the society we live in". Millar was pointing out that cheating and dishonesty occurs in all walks of life and the fact that we expect a high level of integrity from our athletic heroes is something of a paradox.
One of my heroes of cycling besides Millar, when I first took an interest in the sport was Sean Kelly. I still consider him to be a great champion, but guess what, he tested positive during his career and this coupled with the likelihood that he was the ‘strong man of the classics’ referred to in Willy Voets ‘Breaking the Chain’, causes me to wonder about my comparative judgement on todays stars and their misdemeanors - are they after all, not simply reacting to the environment they are in?
Consider David Walsh’s sustained campaign against Lance Armstrong. It bothered me how he singled out one rider (albeit the most famous one in the world at the time), especially in the light of recent events surrounding his closest rivals for Tour de France victory - is that fair or ethical? Consider also the reaction of Christian Prudhomme, the Director of the Tour, to Bjarne Riis’s recent confession. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Prudhomme that the next 3 riders on General Classification in ‘96 (Ullrich, Virenque, Dufaux) have all been subsequently implicated in doping scandals. Probably we would have to award the Yellow Jersey to the Lanterne Rouge that year to find a worthy champion (and even then I wouldn’t be sure). Are we going to strip Virenque of his Polka Dots too?
I don't know about you, but I would not believe for one minute that Prudhomme's mentor, and Director of the Tour at the time, Jean Marie Leblanc had no knowledge of the rampant EPO abuse in the peloton - no he simply turned a blind eye and ironically, rather like the riders, only took action when his back was to the wall. In the same way that the guilty athlete only feels sorry because he (or she) has been caught, Leblanc only chose to become righteous when other parties uncovered the dark underbelly of cycling that he and so many others had been trying to hide for years.
Paul Kimmage, the well known sportswriter and infamous whistle-blowing former pro found UCI Chief Pat McQuaid’s recent change of attitude astounding considering McQuaid had labeled Kimmage ‘Bad for Cycling’ and attempted to deny the existence of systematic doping within the sport. Of course I have a bit of a problem with Kimmage too these days. The reason for this is that I find his cynicism a little too embittered. I wonder at his motives - does he actually want cycling to clean up its act and survive? Personally I wonder if deep down he may get some form of satisfaction if this sport he once loved which discarded him so brutally, finally self destructs.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the death of Tom Simpson. There is little need for me to go into detail regarding the circumstances surrounding this tragic event, but suffice it to say that I’m sure cycling magazines will be happy to print a memorial article over several pages praising him as a hero of British Cycling, yet these would be the same publications which are coming down so hard on todays stars when they are caught or confess.
Which brings me back to Ivan Basso and my own discomfiture on the subject. What may raise a few eyebrows is the fact that I was more bothered by this particularly likeable riders insult to my intelligence (I only attempted to dope - my Giro win was clean - honest guv) than with his likely having doped. Maybe I'm like Jean Marie Leblanc or Pat McQuaid in that I'm only concerned about doping because its embarrassing my beloved sport. Am I a hypocrite too? I have to ask myself the question that had I been a talented rider who had given his youth in the pursuit of his dream and been confronted with the reality of being unable to keep up with the rest of the peloton, would I have doped too? My answer is that I think I almost certainly would.
That's not to say I'm not anti doping because indeed I am. It's just that I'm prepared to admit that it may not be totally for the ethical reasons that others claim to champion. We all have an agenda. Prudhomme and Leblanc's is to protect the reputation of Le Tour. A magazine editors agenda is to sell more copies of his publication. Perhaps Walsh and Kimmages agenda is to help keep themselves in a job, writing books and articles about doping scandals. What's mine? Perhaps it's so that my sport will survive and not degenerate into a farcical and parochial affair that I will be too embarrassed to be associated with.
In part two I will consider how we define sport in todays society, whether ethics have any place in a commercial world, and what are the nature of the pressures forced on todays athletes.