The Dark Side of Sport

Fraud and corruption have been a part of sports since ancient times. The big question is whether we have better tools and more leverage to curb these practices now.

Sportsmanship has always been upheld as a non-negotiable trait on the field. We try to inculcate it in our children from an early age, encouraging them to smile and shake hands after a match. To be gracious in victory and generous in defeat. Winning, we tell them, is not as important as playing by the rules.

A simple maxim but, as it turns out, one that is difficult to follow as the stakes get higher. For those who have invested serious sweat equity and time into honing their skills in a sport, it is more than just a game. It seems almost unfair not to reap some rewards at the end.

And so, a few will overstep boundaries, bend rules and resort to outright sabotage in their quest for a big prize or set of prizes – a win, a medal, a path to fame and glory.

It doesn’t take much digging to find examples of such behaviour around us. Not too long ago Maria Sharapova, the former poster child of women’s tennis, admitted to using a banned substance to give her forehand that extra punch on the court.

The use of illegal substances to gain an edge could be something that is encouraged by coaches or entrenched in a particular sport. The Russian athletics team has invited a wholesale ban on itself in the upcoming Olympic Games with its doping habit. For now, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is standing by this ban in light of reports that revealed ‘a deeply rooted culture of cheating’ within the team.

Lance Armstrong’s own confession in this regard was not entirely shocking (doping is widespread in the elite biking community) but it did leave his many supporters and fans feeling betrayed, in part because he vehemently denied any wrongdoing for many years.

And these are just the stories we know of. There are probably numerous drug-assisted victories that have been recorded over the years and across many sports, the record holders having slipped through cracks in testing and detection. They have been able to walk away with their wins, flushing tainted urine samples down the toilet on their way out.

Dig further and there are other more sordid tales of desperate measures. In the 90s, American ice skater Tonya Harding was implicated in a plot to injure and knock her chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan, out of a major skating championship.  In a sport known for its grace and elegance, Harding’s act seems even more malicious by contrast.

Why do these athletes risk their reputations in this way? It could be for fame or money or both, although that is not always the entire story. There is something else at play here – an innate human desire to win that is stronger than all the social conditioning involving sportsmanship.

However, money is a big factor and nowhere are its effects more amplified than in organized sports. There have been enough real life exposes as well as thought-provoking movies that have probed this underbelly of the sporting world.

There was the 2015 investigation of FIFA that uncovered corruption, mismanagement and a number of questionable deals.  In the IPL, after revelations of match fixing came to the fore a few years ago, several heads – with and without helmets – have rolled within this network. However, the shadow of this betting scandal still hangs over the tournament. Every time a seemingly easy catch slips through a fielder’s fingers, or yet another ball is lifted over the boundary in the same over, the skeptic in us wonders if the IPL’s act is truly as cleaned up as they claim.

While there are many heartwarming and inspiring stories around sports and sporting heroes – think Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Lagaan, Bend it Like Beckham – a few do explore its darker side. ‘Concussion’ is one such movie. It spotlights the true story of a Nigerian pathologist who studied the brain cells of deceased American football players and found evidence of real damage caused by repeated violent physical contact during their playing careers. The National Football League’s (NFL) attempts to downplay the findings and silence him are reminiscent of similar attempts by other industries, notably the tobacco industry.

In another popular movie, Tom Cruise plays sports agent Jerry Maguire who questions a number of unethical practices in the industry and puts a once flourishing career on the line.

When there is so much riding on the success of a team or individual – money, endorsements and celebrity – they suddenly become too big to fail. Winning is the only thing that matters – no matter what the cost.

Fraud in sports is not a modern day phenomenon. It was a problem in the ancient Olympic Games as well, when participants cheated even at the risk of incurring divine wrath. Today, certain practices are both hard to detect and police completely. Doping, for example, is linked to a whole set of gray areas. There are specific substances that are banned but not everything that may provide a competitive edge is off limits. Who gets to enjoy these advantages may then boil down to access and financial resources. In many ways then, the idea of a level playing field is a utopian goal.

When it comes to cleaning up organized sports, however, the power may rest with fans. Fans are the ones that sustain a sport and, in theory, they are the ones who can push for improving the conditions under which it is played – in terms of governance, safety, training, pay parity, and a lot more.

Now that could be a real game changer.