January 22, 2013 11:10 pm

Sport: Armstrong revelations refocus attention on playing the game

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In this July 24, 2005, file photo, overall leader Lance Armstrong signals seven for his seventh straight win in the Tour de France©AP

Coming clean: Lance Armstrong wanted to win at all costs

Whatever one makes of his confession to doping throughout his career, former cyclist Lance Armstrong has set the stage for morality and cheating to become the key issues sport must confront in 2013.

Sport has been down this route many times. The central tenet of sport is the uncertainty of outcome, the sporting event shrouded in doubt until its end.

Depressingly, the 41-year-old Texan destroyed this romantic ideal in his interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Was there happiness in winning when you knew you were taking these banned substances, the chat show host asked him. “There was more happiness in the process, in the build, in the preparation,” he replied. “The winning was almost phoned in.”

Doping is just one of the diseases that attack the uncertainty principle. Match fixing, spot fixing, bribery and corruption are also part of the lexicon of sport that cannot and never will be eradicated.

The throwing of baseball’s 1919 World Series, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson doping to win the 100m at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, serial doping organised by East Germany’s sports administrators in the 1970s and 1980s, South African cricket tarnished in the 1990s by captain and match-fixer Hansie Cronje – these are but a few of the notable blemishes that stained each affected sport. It can take years to recover the sport’s reputation.

The question for all sports administrators is how to manage the problem. The public will expect to see evidence of this in 2013 and beyond.

The Armstrong scandal is the present scourge and feels somehow bigger than those of the past. Certainly the scandal is remarkable given his huge importance to cycling’s profile in the previous decade, and the now better understood way in which he manipulated the sport to his own ruthless ends over many years.

Cycling will continue to hog the limelight in 2013 for the wrong reasons. Truth and reconciliation hearings will reveal more about how not just Mr Armstrong, but others too, took to drugs to fuel their win-at-all-costs habit.

There are two other reasons why this scandal poses a greater risk to sport than those previous ones. For one thing, so much more money is at stake today, as the growth in the value of live sports rights shows.

According to Sean Hamil of Birkbeck College’s sport business centre in London, ethics is central to sport because of the consequences for its financial health.

“Sports governing bodies have to recognise the interconnection between integrity and economics in sport,” he says.

For another, while sports governing bodies will take comfort in the growing appetite for sport, it must compete for attention like never before with other leisure activities in an economic downturn.

For the consumer, sport comes under that very large discretionary spending umbrella, and in many geographical markets such spending is under intense pressure.

Such a backdrop would be awkward enough for any product. But for one whose integrity is under scrutiny that is especially problematic. Cycling has become the case study of a sport in peril, an example of the disastrous consequences of ignoring a persistent sore.

But cycling is not alone in failing to tackle the problems of unethical behaviour among the ranks of its participants.

Michael Payne, former marketing director at the International Olympic Committee, says doping had been on sport’s agenda for several decades, and for too long ignored in some quarters.

“Part of the problem was that American football and baseball were very slow to the table to engage on the doping issue,” he says.

Fifa, football’s governing body, for years brushed off allegations of corruption, and may have carried on doing so but for the growth in the amount of money it generated and the increasing scrutiny that this attracted.

Fifa will continue to edge slowly along the path of reform laid out by Sepp Blatter, its president. Its attention may well this year be swallowed up in preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

But sooner or later, some of the big awkward questions about Fifa, particularly the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, will have to be tackled.

The Olympic movement has pressing issues other than sporting integrity to grapple with in 2013. A new president must be elected to succeed Jacques Rogge and a decision made on where to hold the 2020 summer Olympics.

The movement can reflect on a successful London Olympics, which did more than most recent sporting events to rekindle the sporting spirit of fair competition, fan engagement and support and high-class achievement on the field of play.

But because the International Olympic Committee likes to portray itself as the embodiment of sporting values, it will be expected to be at the forefront of integrity issues such as bribery and doping.

Mr Rogge said last year he wanted sport to wake up to the threat from the growth of gambling, which cricket has found to its cost with match-fixing scandals.

The need to combat match fixing is the biggest threat to sport, says Mr Hamil. “It is an absolutely fundamental issue – it is not going to go away,” he says. Nor will any of the other threats to the integrity of sport.

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