Corruption is not very sporting

by Hugh Cortazzi

Top players in world sports earn salaries that are staggeringly large. But, if various allegations that have recently been published are true, the earnings of top sportsmen, combined in many cases with huge payments from companies using the stars’ images to advertise their products, have not been sufficient to overcome the temptation of “filthy lucre” that may be gained through match fixing.

Cricket is hardly known in Japan and North America, but it remains popular in Britain and Australia. It has become almost a cult in India, Pakistan and the islands of the West Indies, which used to be British colonies. Every year a series of test matches lasting up to four days between teams from cricket playing countries attract large crowds of fans at famous cricket grounds. This summer a team from Pakistan has been touring Britain and playing both test matches and 20/20 games, which are one day affairs and often more exciting. But the image of cricket that was of a gentlemanly game for true sportsmen has been seriously tarnished by allegations in the popular Sunday newspaper The News of the World.

The paper undertook a sting operation which involved a taped interview. This suggested that at least three members of the Pakistan team including the captain and the youngest star player were involved, if not in match fixing, at least in arranging for “no balls” to be bowled at specified points in the match. A “no ball” occurs when the bowler, for instance, fails to bowl from behind the bowling line. It seems that gamblers have been betting on the timing of no balls.

The allegations that implied that gamblers were being defrauded were serious and the police interviewed the players involved. The international cricket authorities were alerted and the players have been suspended. As cricket is Pakistan’s national sport, the Pakistani authorities were horrified by the accusations, which were seen as a slur on Pakistan’s honor.

Unfortunately this is not the first time that cricket has attracted unfavorable publicity. In recent years the sport has been seen especially in India and the West Indies as a major money earner for clubs, players and gamblers.

Money and gambling are not, however, unique to cricket. These taints have become apparent in practically every sport. Match fixing is notorious in professional boxing and wrestling. It was also a well-known feature of baseball in the United States, although much has been done to clean up the sport in recent years.

Rugby claimed to be a cleaner and more sportsmanlike game than soccer, but it too has become tarnished. In a recent match, one side wanted to replace a player in the middle of a game to improve their chances of winning. So a player was made to seem to be bleeding profusely from the mouth. To prove that he was unfit to continue, the doctor for the team was induced unethically to cut the player’s lip.

Soccer is now the most popular team sport in both the developed and the developing world, and international matches attract huge flag waving enthusiasts. Hooliganism by fans is less prevalent than it used to be because of tough action taken by clubs and police to ban roughnecks from football grounds. But professional soccer is now much more a profitable business enterprise than a healthy sport.

In Britain and other European countries, star players are bought and sold for astronomical prices. Oligarchs such as Roman Abramovitch, who owns the Chelsea soccer club, sees this as a prize trophy. Clubs have their own local as well as national fans but probably none of the players are local lads. Many are foreign stars whose loyalty to the club that owns them is dependent on their astronomical earnings. Tickets for important matches are increasingly expensive, but successful clubs have no difficulty in selling tickets so long as their club maintains a sound record in the league tables.

Clubs also make a handsome profit from souvenirs such as football shirts inscribed with the insignia of the club and the numbers of the popular players.

The star players get lots of publicity and attract the attention of sporting journalists and gossip columnists who pry into their private life. A top player’s wedding will get much the same publicity as that of a film star. If he is caught speeding in his expensive sports car or found to have been consorting with prostitutes the press will delight in exposing him.

Money and gambling taints extend to other competitive games such as snooker where one of the top champions was recently suspended after allegations were made against him of match fixing. Even chess has attracted some bad publicity.

In golf, champion Tiger Woods has lost his halo. This has reduced his ability to earn advertising fees.

Japan is not immune from the vices of money and gambling in sport. The ancient sport of sumo despite its Shinto purification rituals has been the subject of much bad publicity.

The biggest problem in athletics and other Olympic sports is that of performance-enhancing drugs. Tough action has reduced the number of participants using such drugs, but the problem will inevitably resurface at the 2012 Olympics in London.

What more can be done to purify the sporting world, which is such a dominant feature of the modern world? The media should be encouraged to give publicity to wrongdoing in sports, and the authorities responsible for individual sports should be urged to take a tough line with offenders and bar anyone proved guilty from a sport in the future.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.