It’s all about bread and games

Professional sports is an industry that has arcane rules not many from the outside world would understand.

Such as: on one hand, athletes are supposed to perform at levels above what all other (so-called normal) people are capable of. On the other hand, they are supposed to do so without any outside help.

What kind of outside help?

Drugs. It’s called performance enhancing medication. This professional sports sub-sector employs many: creators of these paraphernalia on one side, and those who make sure nobody gets away with using them on the other. Cops and robbers in real life.

From the outside, looking in, seems like a pretty successful job-creation project.

Why is it all happening? Money, of course, no need to ask. Except: it’s money that would have been much more useful if spent elsewhere. Such as: in schools, building sports grounds for children.

Yes, this is called dreaming in Technicolor.

Nothing but noble reasons

And here’s the reality of where all this hypocrisy has come to.

The former chief of the world’s track-and-field ruling body told the court in Paris, France, the other day that he had known of systemic doping by Russian athletes for years (if not decades), but turned a blind eye on the issue so as not to lose potential sponsors.

Why it has to be a French court to take up this issue in the first place has never been made clear. Perhaps because the guy in question is from Senegal, and Senegal used to be France’s colony.

Still, one thing is undeniable: Lamine Diack, former president of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations, now known as World Athletics), said that yes, indeed, he would do everything and anything in his power to at least delay the investigations into widespread allegations that Russian athletes used banned drugs to enhance their chances of winning. He claimed in all seriousness that he did so in the interest of the body he had been presiding over.

Not only that. He wasn’t joking. He meant it.

At the same time, Lamine Diack (who is now 87, and who used to run the IAAF like his own fiefdom for 16 years, until being forced out in 2015) heatedly denied accusations he had helped launder dirty money. It remains to be seen what the court will find.

According to one allegation made in the French court, official Russian authorities were so happy about Diack’s help, they even provided some $1.5 million (U.S., why do you ask?) for his participation in presidential elections in Senegal. Diack, as could have been expected, denied it.

What he didn’t (and couldn’t) deny was his son Papa Massata Diack’s participation in laundering the money from Russian sponsors. Diack Jr. stands before a court in his home country, accused precisely of that. His father, while not denying his son’s involvement, made sure the French court was none the wiser when it wanted to know the details.

Diack justified his actions by telling the French court that, even with the fabulous Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt making headlines all over the sporting universe, the world track-and-field body was so close to bankruptcy it needed every cent from any sponsor wishing to pony up. And since Russian sponsors made it an indispensable condition (conditio sine qua non) that they would pay provided their country’s athletes continue competing (and earning money both for themselves and for their sponsors), what else could have good old Diack done but agree?

He did so in the interest of his sport, he kept repeating in his court testimony.

Which brings us to an interesting question: does it seem that top sports can’t do without doping? And that raises another question: does the world really, but really, really, really need professional sports in order to survive?

The answer to the first question is simple and unambiguous: yes.

The answer to the second question is just as simple and unambiguous: no.

What is it all about?

Here’s a dose of simple realism: once a sport, any sport, turns its official competition into a professional endeavour, it becomes part of entertainment industry. Right then and there. To survive, it will need money. Not only to pay the athletes. The sites have to be attractive for the paying public. That’s not cheap, either. At the same time, the organizers have to use any space available to promote all kinds of goods and services by companies that hope their advertising presence will turn the attendees into their paying customers.

This, as a minor aside, leads to some outrageously and tragically funny moments. McDonald’s or Coca-Cola have been official Olympic Games sponsors. Yes, there used to be times when some people thought Coca-Cola was a medical product. But we now know enough to appreciate that the claim that these two companies are prime examples of healthy eating habits, lifestyles, even, is stretching it beyond breaking point.

Money does not stink, no matter whence it comes, and when sponsors promise they would continue sponsoring, it would be foolish for the organizers not to meet their demands. Such as: keep their mouths shut about athletes’ behaviour that they (publicly and officially, at least) consider illegal.

Let’s leave aside such questions whether sporting competitions, even the most amateur-rank ones, are good for humanity. George Orwell, yes, THAT George Orwell, of 1984 and Animal Farm fame, answered this question better than many. He wrote a brilliant essay, The Sporting Spirit (it first appeared in newspaper form in 1945, and it would become part of Orwell’s book, Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, in 1950).

To sum up: yes, sports can be good for your body, but sporting competition is not. For reasons, read Orwell’s essay: nobody has ever put it better.

Research that has thus far remained generally unknown to the general public, indicates that professional sporting competitions are dying a slow and painful death.

Even before the outrageous hoax a.k.a. coronavirus pandemic could make its entrance, figures for the last few decades had begun to indicate that general public’s interest in all kinds of professional sporting events is not what it used to be.

The decline has been quite slow, in hundredths of percentage points each year, but it has been constant and persistent.

Radio and television ratings for live broadcasts haven’t been too healthy, either. And new media eyeball counts have not inspired overall enthusiasm, too.

It is too early in the game to start attempting to define the reasons for this decline. There may be way too many of them, from changing lifestyles, to preferring active sports, to liking video games more than Stanley Cup finals, and the list can go on and on.

At the same time, individual national Olympic Committees live off their nations’ taxpayers’ support, making sure all and sundry are aware that their national pride depends solely upon their athletes’ prowess on the world stage.

Way too many swallow this nonsense line, hook and sinker, going so far as to enthusiastically agree that their governments build new sites to host international events. (And never mind the blackmail by professional sports teams’ owners when they demand that taxpayers foot the bill to build their club a new playground.)

It seems most citizens do not realize that governments have no money of their own. Governments only have what their taxpayers are forced to share with them.

Coming back full circle

Here’s the issue: fans would not attend professional sporting events just for the fun of it. Don’t give them gracious movements of a discus thrower releasing his apparatus, or elegant steeple-chase runners hurdling over the water jumps. They want to see something out of the ordinary. Weight-lifters lifting barbells heavier than fully loaded trucks, sprinters running faster than Formula 1 cars, gymnasts soaring close to gymnasia ceilings, and making elegant poses while flying through the air.

Sports organizations would like to have the same thing, provided nobody uses performance-enhancing drugs to achieve them. That they ignore reality is one thing. The other is that when they summon the alleged legacy of ancient Greeks, they are lying through their teeth. The good old Olympiads allowed quite open cheating because the good old ancient Greeks were sincere about the whole thing.

Sponsors would not part with their hard-earned cash until and unless they see crowds huge enough to justify their investment. And if the crowds have gathered to witness results that are beyond normal, let’s give them results that are beyond normal. Who cares how the athletes achieve them. So long as they attract paying crowds.

After all, athletes are mostly adult enough to know whether this or that performance-enhancing medication is good for their health or not. Besides, and this is not much of a secret, many of them are quite cynical about the whole thing. Years ago, a sample of top athletes were asked: if you knew that this drug will help you win an Olympic gold medal, but it would also kill you within the next five years, would you still take it? An overwhelming number (in the 90-per-cent scope) said yes.

Asked to elaborate, some said that what if a cure was found before they died. Others said they would provide for their families for decades with the Olympic gold medal-generated income, and that would suffice even if they were to die doing it.

Did you notice none of them mentioned entering the history of sports with their achievement?

What does it tell you about the morality of professional sports?

Most Canadians remember the name (and complete life story) of the greatest hockey player of all times. (Wayne Gretzky, if you needed a reminder.)

The Great One at least gave us a few things to ponder. Such as: you miss one hundred per cent of the shots you don’t take. Meaning: you won’t succeed if you don’t try.

But: how many Canadians remember the name (and life story) of one of the greatest Canadian scientists, the guy who discovered insulin and its role in treating diabetes? Don’t use any search engines: do you know his name? You didn’t remember? Here’s a hint: it was Dr. Fredrick Banting (with the help of research student Charles Best).

What does it tell you about the social usefulness of professional sports?

Thank you very much.

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