Like religion, sport can take any amount of passion in its stride. It’s indifference that’s the killer. Sport can be bubbling with incontinent hatred, poisonous rivalries, ludicrous injustice and the most appalling people doing the most appalling things: but as long as people still care, as long as the sporting arguments still echo, as long as newspapers are read from back to front, then sport’s future is safe.
But now, as we look forward to an Olympic year, a Wimbledon with hot British contenders in the men’s and the women’s competitions for the first time in damn near 50 years, a summer with a thrilling England cricket team, an England rugby team with a fancy new Australian coach and a European football championship in which England aren’t yet a total write-off, we have to wonder if sport will have the same audience when the year is over.
Sport is in trouble as never before, not just because it’s been getting all kinds of stuff wrong, but because the people who watch the stuff are beginning — just beginning — to replace their sense of passionate engagement with a shrugging indifference.
Sport depends for its existence on a willing suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t work unless you set aside your knowledge that it is an entirely trivial pursuit. You have to believe it matters, at least until the final whistle. You have to believe the athletes dedicate every moment of their lives to bring us the joys of partisanship, drama and the wild pursuit of excellence, You have to believe it’s real — and that’s a matter of trust.
But trust is a fragile thing. Sporting trust has taken a hammering. As a result, the world’s sporting faith is starting to wear thin.
It’s always the way: you think you’ve got something that will last for all eternity, no matter how you treat the people you have in your sway. And then you get up one morning and wonder why half the people have walked away. It’s not new. It happened to the Catholic church in the 16th century.
And it’s beginning to happen to sport. Every week there’s another blow: another story that tells the world that sport is not to be trusted, that sport is full of phonies who don’t make the slightest attempt to live by the principles they preach and don’t even care much about sport.
This week Adidas — a firm that makes money by selling plimsolls — announced that it was ending its sponsorship of the athletics governing body, the IAAF, four years early. This will cost the organisation sums estimated at ‘tens of millions of dollars’.
This is a commercial judgment on the sins of athletics, principally its having broken the commandment ‘Thou shalt not be found out.’ Investigations into the IAAF have found corruption, not just in terms of dodgy finances, but also in covering up positive dope tests and, as a bonus, taking money to do so. This is not just exploiting sport: this is destroying it.
And no, it’s not enough to say let’s make it a free-for-all and may the best pharmacist win. Spectators want sport performed by undoped athletes, even if they’re not entirely sure what that means. People want sport they can believe in.
In last year’s Tour de France the devastating leader Chris Froome was rewarded by a spectator who threw a cup of urine in his face in mid-race while shouting ‘Dope!’ Excellence is now accepted as prima facie evidence of cheating. No sport can survive once that idea has general acceptance.
As the Australian Open tennis tournament moves towards its climax this weekend, proceedings are hag-ridden by unsubstantiated allegations of match-fixing. There are whispers involving ‘household names’ and suggestions that matches at Wimbledon have been deliberately lost for cash.
Novak Djokovic, the world number one, said that he turned down US$220,000 to throw a match. There are claims that a group of 16 players was involved in serial match-fixing, and that the governing body, the ITF, preferred not to investigate. This would fit the pattern in sport: the enemy is never corruption, but always people learning about corruption.
Who can you trust in football now? Before Christmas, yet another 16 officials from the world governing body, Fifa, were charged with corrupt activities. Obviously nothing that comes from that organisation will ever be taken on trust again. It’s clear that the leading people in the organisation weren’t interested in sport at all.
So what should be a sporting administrator’s priority? Most of them believe that the more money their sport makes, the better it is for the sport. Certainly money brings power to the people who run sport, but that’s not an unambiguously good thing.
Sport is increasingly run not by sports people but by business people — but sport is not exactly a business. Sure, it makes money, but then so does religion. There are things other than commerce going on here. If you run a church entirely to make money, you will do OK, at least at the start. But soon enough you’ll excite understandable doubts in the church’s followers. And they’ll stop following.
It’s widely accepted among cricket players that the most searching examination of an individual and a team is Test cricket, with matches that last five days. If your first duty is to sporting excellence, you must do all you can for Test matches. But it is also a fact that the most effective way of making money from cricket is through T20 tournaments, with matches that last three hours.
So do you go for excellence? Or income? What sort of balance do you seek? The decision of cricket administrators is to do whatever India wants, India being by far the richest cricket nation. England and Australia get a modicum of power by hanging on to India’s kurta-tails while the other nations struggle to make ends meet. India’s domestic T20 tournament is rapidly becoming cricket’s dominant event (despite several allegations of match-fixing) and money’s victory over excellence has become a rout.
Money is not the root of all evil in sport. The evil enters when you decide that money is more important than anything else. Sport has gradually — in some cases eagerly, in others reluctantly — become professional. It’s worth noting here that the amateurism is not a lost world of sanctity — it was initially a device for keeping working people out of sport: a social division reinforced by bogus morality.
But sport is now worth billions. Adidas sponsors the kit of Manchester United in a deal worth £75 million a year. This month Herbert Hainer, the Adidas CEO, dropped a careful hint to Süddeutsche Zeitung that Manchester United’s current style of play did not meet their approval. ‘We are satisfied but the actual way of playing is not exactly what we want it to be.’
In other words, the team’s current cautious style — which has them fifth in the Premier League despite last Saturday’s defeat — doesn’t help Adidas to make money. Message: if you want the contract renewed after 2025, play sexy football.
So now even tactics are an aspect of commerce. Question: is the team you’re cheering on maximising its talents in search of victory? Or is it playing the tactic that best pleases the business people? Another day, another nibbling away at sporting faith.
Next thing we know, we’ll have football as a festival of gimmickry and showboating and personalities in which results are subordinate to spectacle and competitiveness subordinate to income. Not so terribly far to go there, you might say. More than ever like professional wrestling.
And wrestling makes money. It is, if you like that sort of thing, magnifique. Mais ce n’est pas le sport.
Sport is not entertainment. Grasp that point and you see all. Sport is often entertaining, sure, but it is incidentally entertaining. The spectacle of great athletes coming together in a sincere competition for the mastery tends to be compelling. But that’s not necessarily entertaining, in the way that wrestling or Strictly Come Dancing or I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here are entertaining.
In sport it is sometimes appropriate to be dull. Some people found Pete Sampras dull: after all, he won seven Wimbledon singles titles. I always replied: if you find excellence boring, go and seek something more your size. In the 1980s, Arsenal notoriously played defensive football and delighted in every 1–0 win. Sir Steve Redgrave won five Olympic gold medals in rowing, a sport with no entertainment value whatsoever.
In real sport, there is no need to entertain. Your only obligation is to do your damnedest to win, or at least not to lose. But the forces of money now want from sport other things than integrity. They want sixes, showboating, back-stories, big names, big hits, slam-dunks, high fives, Twitter followers, celebrations, celebs, personalities, quotes, haircuts, clashes, outfits, interviews, jewellery, tattoos, emotions, ad breaks, endorsements, logos — and even pitch-side advertisements designed to distract the audience from the action.
Without belief there is no sport. You have to believe that the athletes are competing with sincerity and that they are being fairly tested — beliefs harder to sustain with every passing day. Sport is in serious danger of eating itself.
Last year The Great British Bake-Off had the highest viewing figures of the year, peaking at 14.5 million. Those people all watched because they had faith. I suggest that every sporting administrator in the world watches Bake-Off to learn what sport is losing.
Innocence. Meaning. Belief. Trust. Faith.
Simon Barnes’s latest book is The Sacred Combe. He is a former chief sports writer of the Times.
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