Sport is a majestic thing.
Just like our imaginations, it takes us to so many good places. The backyard: where gran and grandson become batting partners in a fiercely fought family ‘Test Match’. The beach: where sand and water gently accommodate the thrills and spills of diving and catching and tackling and throwing. The family home: where mum’s and dad’s bed becomes a make-shift trampoline; a safe place in which we learn how to fall. The oval: where the football and the netball and the tennis ball connect us to team mates for the first time.
Sport is a noble thing.
It introduces us to people who become life-long friends: people of different status, colour, and Creed. It lets us know that life doesn’t revolve around “me”. To achieve something worthwhile requires others as well: I am not alone; I am with others in good times and in bad. It builds-up perseverance and resilience: hard work, failure, success, honour, and humiliation are constant variables in sport. It is rare that fickleness and laziness meet success, so sport is inherently a wise, if at times, hard task master, one that makes it very clear:
- Short-cuts won’t do;
- You’ve got to earn it;
- “C’mon, there’s more in you than you realise: take a risk.”
Sport is transformative.
Our human dignity comes wrapped in bodies of all different shapes, sizes, abilities, status, creed and colour: The amputee crippled by war wondering what is left in life; The young man marginalised because of his weight; The teenager immersed in a life of crime and gangs; The paraplegic confined to a chair with two over-sized wheels and a couple of foot rests; The loner who doesn’t know how to belong; The lady confined to bed by her depression; The child excluded because she is the ‘wrong’ colour.
For many, these different circumstances become a struggle between life and death, prosperity and poverty, misery and joy, hope and despair, dignity and humiliation.
And, for many, it is sport that changes everything: The amputee and the paraplegic can now stand on a podium listening to their national anthems; The young man carrying too much weight is now carrying his team mate off the field; The teenage gangster is now a man who carries a football instead of a gun; The loner now belongs to a church soccer team: “It’s only social, mind you.”; The lady now gets out of bed because she owes it to her netball team to do so; The child can now mix with other colours, because that’s what sport demands.
But there is another story, one that weighs heavily as it mocks and undermines the true worth of sport and its participants.
Whatever it takes
Amidst all the feel good talk, the rags to riches stories and wonderful qualities that people like to associate with professional sport, when all is said and done, what really shapes and drives it are these three things: 1. Results; 2. Results; 3. Results.
Winning is everything, and self-interest, the jockey. In such a hyper competitive environment, gaining an advantage, any advantage, becomes the Holy Grail; even a one per cent edge can be the difference between winning and losing, between keeping your job and looking for another. No wonder clubs aggressively pursue all sorts of human expertise: corporate heavyweights, nutritionists, wrestling coaches, scientists, bio mechanists, dieticians, psychologists, hypnotherapists, life coaches, lawyers, motivators, and so on.
It is a terribly costly exercise that demands a 24/7 focus and a whatever it takes mentality. Within this milieu, risk-taking becomes an essential requirement. The temptations are enormous as administrators and participants weigh-up the pros and cons of pushing boundaries to the limit, of ‘tasting that forbidden fruit’. For some, pushing boundaries means relegating athletes to the status of machines to be optimised. 1 When this happens, all sorts of supplements – legal and illicit – are introduced in order to get the ‘best’ out of a player’s body, to enhance performance. Thus, sport is reduced to a kind of Machiavellian project where the ends justify the means – just ask Lance Armstrong, Essendon, Cronulla, Maria Sharapova and ?
Sport is also a global, multi-billion dollar industry and, as such, has become a honey-pot for crime and corruption – just ask FIFA. And while drugs continue to pose a significant threat to the integrity of sport; a far more destructive and pervasive force is that of gambling – one of our ‘favourite sports’.
And, with technology having all but extinguished physical boundaries, it is now possible to gamble anywhere in the world with just the touch of a screen or the click of a mouse – all aided and abetted by the often unfettered access betting agencies have to sporting coverage and sponsorship.
According to the Australian Crime Commission, in 2000–01, this nation wagered $12.8 billion on sports, $880 million of which went on racing. In 2010–11, these figures blew out to $23.5 billion, and $3.3 billion respectively 2 – Lord knows what these figures must look like today.
With such enormous amounts of money on offer, the stakes are high, seductive, and very dangerous. Indeed, “the integrity of professional sport in Australia is increasingly being threatened, with organised criminal groups and identities developing an increasing presence in the professional sport sector. As the popularity of sports betting grows, organised crime groups will increasingly target professional sport;” 3 – just ask the Manly Rugby League Club.
It may not be overstating things to say that, if left unaddressed, organised crime syndicates could potentially enjoy more influence over sport than administrators and players
The health of sport is vital to the health of this nation. It is a treasure that mustn’t be left to the mercy of breweries and gambling dens; nor to greedy corporates; nor to ruthless opportunists and criminal gangs.
Let us never forget the joy of the backyard: “Quick, gran; there’s two runs in that …!”
Peter Day is a Catholic Priest in Canberra.
- The term, “Machines to be optimised”, is taken from Michael McVeigh’s article, The Real Scandal at Essendon, (Eureka Street, 28 Aug, 2013)
- Australian Crime Commission, Threats to the Integrity of Professional Sport in Australia, p.4 Endnotes)
- Australian Crime Commission, Threats to the Integrity of Professional Sport in Australia, p.1)