Saturday, 21 July 2012

Is there a place for ethics in sports - Part Two

(Originally written in 2007)

Note: this article was originally written and intended for online publication prior to the news of Vinokourov's positive doping test. I've decided against adding any more to the article as I think it is more interesting to see how it now stands in light of Tuesdays events.

With a little luck and timing, you should be reading this as we reach the 2nd rest day of the the Tour De France. By now we should all have a better idea of who the winner, or at least the 3 podium places will be, and although the Tour may not yet be won, for some it will certainly already be lost, with the heartbreak of those whose tour dreams were shattered by a crash or a bad day creating much of this years drama. For those of us watching though, will there be doubts about the veracity of the stage winners and GC contenders? Will their performances be believable examples of athletic performance and strength of character, or will we be eyeing these riders with suspicion in the wake of the 'epic' stage 17 of last years Tour?

In part one I wrote about my own feelings of ambiguity regarding drug taking, the double standards and hypocrisy in the sport and questioned the agendas of all concerned, even those who are whistleblowing on the cheating, ostensibly in the name of an ethical and clean sport. This time I want to widen the lens a little, and examine the commercial pressures on today's sportsmen and women.

It's no secret that sport is big money both in terms of what it generates for those who are directly involved, and for those whose business is to sell it. Top sports stars are as glamourous as movie and pop stars with not only their professional salary, but also product endorsements and even their wedding photos adding to earning potential. Sport is big money for big business too. From Managers and Agents to Corporate sponsors, the urge to tap into the enormous river of money flowing from the pockets of an eager public is too tempting to resist. Most sports rely on major corporate sponsorship to maintain them at a high level. Without this sponsorship and the cycle of TV coverage and advertising, any sport would soon shrink to a fraction of its popularity.

The recent scandals surrounding former members of the Deutsche Telekom Team have made daily headlines in the German press. The show of ethical stance by the current incarnation T-Mobile, while laudable, is perhaps a little ironic in light of recent scandals regarding corruption in Germanys Corporate Sector and the complicity of the teams management during the period in question. Any sponsors considering choosing a sport with a cleaner reputation (on the surface at least) must be wondering in the back of their minds who the owners of the remaining 142 bags of blood found in Spains Operation Puerto belong to, and whether it will come back to haunt them. Drug scandals in Baseball and American Football in the USA, not to mention the bans on athletes such as Tim Montgomery, have revealed that drug abuse and cheating is rife in other sports too. It is however conspicuous that the European press, while very active on doping in cycling, have been so silent regarding the other sports listed by the notorious Doctor Fuentes.

One of my arguments in the first article was that the organiser of the Tour de France at the time of the Festina affair, Jean Marie Leblanc, could not possibly have failed to realise what was happening in the peloton and equally, I find it impossible to believe that Corporate sponsors have no idea about whether their athletes may be doping. Back in 1999, François Migraine the CEO of Cofidis Insurance, backer of the French Cycling team of the same name commissioned a study of drug taking among his own riders. Although the results were disturbing and alarming - a culture of both performance enhancing and recreational drug use was discovered in the team - at the time nothing was done. Why did Migraine turn a blind eye? Was he thinking about his profits and share values? Or perhaps the resulting fewer victories and reduced publicity if he were to quietly clean the team up? A study made in Italy by anti-doping proponent Sandro Donati concerning EPO and other drug abuse in the Peloton (at least 80% of riders were estimated to be doping with EPO) was also shelved by the Authorities at the time who considered it too provocative. These are the same Authorities now sanctioning the likes of Basso, Mazzoleni, Scarponi et al.

Pressure on athletes to perform filters down from Corporate sponsors to Team managers and Coaches, concerned about future financial stability and continuation of sponsorship. During his period of sanction, former Cofidis rider David Millar talked of having to fake illness in order to abandon races simply so he could get some rest. Prior to his failed attempt to win the Tour de France prologue for a second year (2001), Millar called his sister (who was also his agent) to confess he was utterly exhausted and low on form. In desperation, Millar took two many risks in the Prologue and crashed badly, subsequently abandoning the Tour. It was at this point he reports that he was first lured by the habitual dopers within his team.

What are athletes to do when faced with corporate pressure to win at all costs? When their own single mindedness and ambition, (a requirement of any top athlete), comes into conflict with the rules of their chosen sport? When everyone else around us is breaking the speed limit do we obey it or do we do what everyone else is doing? Former Tour podium rider Alex Zülle certainly saw it that way. So did disgraced Canadian Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson. It was either that or throw over a decade of commitment away and return home to nothing, these athletes felt. Some of course decide that the time has come to retire: 'when I saw guys with fat arses flying up the mountains I realised it was time to quit' said Luis Herrera of Columbia. Americans Andy Hamptsten and Greg Lemond are also reputed to have left the sport earlier than planned due to finding that they could no longer compete with riders using EPO.

However the reaction to riders now confessing to being involved in this almost ubiquitous state of affairs has been disingenuous. the likes of Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel have been unofficially at least, stripped of their respective Yellow and Green jerseys from 1996. By scapegoating 1 or 2 riders who have had the courage to break the sports Omerta - the law of silence - while disregarding the fact that their colleagues were also doping (some proven in court), seems like a cynical exercise of Public Relations damage control rather than an ethical stance. It also has the likely effect of dissuading other riders from coming forward and surely negates attempts to reconcile the sports protaganists with the necessary cultural change required for it to survive.

We are often reminded of the 'Olympic Spirit', but I sometimes wonder if it ever existed. One wonders if somewhere down the line, a decision will be made that the tide of doping in professional sports can no longer be resisted, and that athletes will simply be permitted to take whatever they wish. There are some who are already speaking in favour of such a stance. Perhaps it all depends on whether we wish sport to be inspiring or merely a spectacle à la Reality TV. With Genetic Malipulation methods of performance enhancement probably just around the corner, how long can WADA and other anti-doping authorities guarantee any level of effectiveness in dope controls? Time will tell if ethics and fairness win out over the tide of commercial pragmatism, but knowing a little of human nature and history, I can't say that I'm particularly optimistic. As I write this, a scandal is building around the Tour leader Michael Rasmussen concerning missed doping controls and a rumour of his connection with a story concerning shoeboxes and Bovine Hemaglobin. Watch this space.

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