Time for a Rethink?

As 2007 draws to a close it has been a year when sport, in its various forms, has been subject to acrimony and hostile debate. Sport originated in the display of military prowess and the Ancient Greek Olympics had a strong political element. In more recent times, sport had come to mean fairness in competition. There probably never was a truly golden age of sport when competitors were ‘sporting’ and participated only for the joy of competition for the sake of a particular sport, but there was never a year more bad tempered and venial than 2007.

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The America’s Cup features an increasing number of national teams, each funded by major commercial companies

The America’s Cup was a yachting event famous for the hard fought contest between high performance yachts. 2007 has seen this great race descend into a legal battle and the exchange of open letters, where each group tries to win a propaganda war in addition to attempting to win a court battle. The yachting contest itself seems to now be the minor sideshow to the battle of wills between lawyers and commercial corporations.

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Rsecuer Mike Golding with survivor Alex Thompson aboard the damaged ECOVER limping towards Cape Town

Ocean yacht racing continues to throw up examples of the finest traditions of sportsmanship and humanity. Typical was the action of Mike Golding in abandoning a race through the Southern Oceans to go to the aid of a competitor. In the process he not only gave up a chance to win a race, but he placed himself and his vessel at risk. Battling against storms, he made the rescue and then lost his mast, far from the nearest rescue services. Rescuer and survivor then worked together to limp to safety in South Africa. In several races during 2007, competitors have gone to the rescue of sailors in distress, including the rescue of illegal immigrants attempting to sail to Europe.

The darker side of ocean racing is that the risk level has been increasing and, although this is in part due to the competitive nature of sport, it demonstrates the pressures from sponsors that drive some sailors beyond the point where their experience counsels restraint.

Drug use has produced some concerning examples during 2007. That the use of illegal substances is widespread in some societies, and therefore amongst their sports people, it presents a danger to drug takers and breaks rules governing sports. There have been a series of claims by sports figures that they have been unfairly convicted by drug testing. Some of those claims may be correct, but many may be false excuses. It highlights a need to not only improve the accuracy of tests, but to demonstrate their fairness, and then enforce the rules. For an athlete to be banned for missing a series of drug tests does not seem unreasonable because this would provide a way of cheating the testing system. For that athlete to then be allowed back to competition on the grounds that they had not been positively tested seems bizarre and unfair to others. There has also be the case of a sailor offering an excuse that someone must have spiked his drink to justify his positive test result. For that excuse to have been accepted also seems bizarre and unfair to others, even though the body governing of that sport might have seen adequate proof. However, if they had been presented with proof, that suggests that another competitor was deliberately attempting to remove competition by administering an illegal drug, which is not only an obvious breach of rules for the sport, but a very serious criminal act that could have resulted in illegal killing.

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Even the 2012 Games logo attracted great controversy and involved considerable design costs

The 2012 Olympics are producing more than their share of controversy, not aided by the rapidly spiraling cost. The British bid included cost estimates and it is now very clear that someone must have realized that they were not accurate costings. As the bidding was a competitive process, it appears that Britain cheated to win the 2012 Olympics for Britain. One defence offered is that every nation cheats in the bidding contest and in past contests there have been examples of corruption. That appears to negate the avowed objective for the Olympics to promote fair and honourable sporting competition between nations.

What is clear is that the Olympics have become a major financial event where sport is taking, at best, second place.

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Sailing competition covers a wide range of vessels from sailboards to high technology keelboats and multi-hulls. Reducing the Olympic range by eliminating keel boats is restriction too far.

The enormous and rising costs of staging Olympic competition is forcing attempts to restrict the number of events and the number of competitors. That has raised controversy in yachting circles where the RYA is complaining that the 2012 Olympics will prevent some traditional and unique yachting competition. Of course the RYA and yachtsmen are not alone because other sports have been cut back severely and some new sports admitted for the first time.

Once again, ‘open letters’ are being used by the warring parties to promote their position in a propaganda war.

Sport has become much more complex as a result of concepts of professional and amateur competition. Once, many sports were strong in their rejection of competitors who earned their living from sport as professionals. That resulted in parallel competition in sports, such as football and boxing. That has now become a very murky area because some athletes are effectively employed under various grants by universities, that equip them with a significant advantage over other ‘amateur’ competitors and, in some cases, provide most of the benefits enjoyed by professional competitors. Increasing penetration of sport by sponsors is making a difficult moral position impossible.

Perhaps the time has come for greater honesty in sport and a breaking up of major high cost events such as the Olympics.

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2012 Host Country, United Kingdom, has made hadngun competion an illegal act, but will bend its own laws in 2012 for the Olympics

One accusation is that the Olympics major on track and field events which would otherwise cease to exist because they are not attracting adequate support, effectively subsidizing those events by including them with popular sporting activity. Those who support field and track events will argue that this is not the case and that they events attract loyal support around the world through the period between Olympic Games. There will also be groups who claim that their favoured sport has been unfairly excluded from the Olympics and the irony that some countries hosting the Olympics may have to include sports that are prohibited in those countries. One example in 2012 is that the British shooting team was forced to train in other countries because of the draconian laws in Britain that seek to outlaw all guns for sporting activity. That is both a direct and an indirect effect because the banning of hand guns has made it impossible to purchase and use in the United Kingdom some guns that feature in Olympic competition. This has then had an indirect effect by driving out of business those clubs and gunsmith that served handgun competitors, and placing ever more restriction on the surviving gun clubs and target ranges. The result is that even though special exemptions will be made to allow illegal sport to take place in the United Kingdom for the 2012 Olympics, the numbers of young people coming into the sport is reducing every year and eventually Britain will no longer be able to field a world class shooting team.

The simple solution to many of the problems of Olympic competition could be to hold a series of world sporting competitions so that more countries are able to host Olympic level competition without the burden of having to provide facilities for all of the events that currently make up the Olympic Games. In effect, to franchise the Games as a series of major world class events rather than as a single event every four years that leaves some sports supporters feeling unhappy because their events are not included. Potentially, it would provide the means to expand the number of sports that are competed under the banner of the Olympics. For example, why not have an Olympic Round-The-World Yacht Race, or an Olympic hang gliding event, or Olympic Horse Racing? Of course there would be those who would object on the ground that these sports already have their own regulating authority and provide world class competition. The largest countries might also object on the grounds that they would be unable to dominate sporting competition in the way that they currently do.

Making the Olympics a more democratic, inclusive and affordable system of competition would offer many benefits around the world, but it would continue to suffer, as does competition at all the other levels of sporting activity, unless it was able to produce a transparently fair way of dealing with drug taking and funding.

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The 2012 Olympic Stadium is being designed so that it can be reduced in size after the event which is still wasteful

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The 2012 aquatics centre may be impressive but will it be used after 2012?

Unfortunately real solutions are at least as complex as the problems. The Olympics impose a special problem because they are held every four years and require facilities that do not already exist. That means that the winner of the bidding competition has only four years to put in place and complete a major construction project. Any major project with a fixed completion date is always randsomed to contractors and workers who can demand more money with increasing leverage as the completion date approaches. Once the construction is complete, much of it will become irrelevant once the Games are completed. This is a huge waste of valuable resources and a burden on taxpayers.

Unless we begin to address these growing problems, sporting events will suffer and support will fade.

IJB

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