By Paul Radford
After three decades of reporting on an endless succession of scandals in international sport, I sometimes feel the need to ask myself two obvious questions.
“Why do you still watch sport obsessively? And why, oh why, do you love it so much?”
The evidence for the prosecution should be overwhelming. The charge sheets against organizing bodies, officials, coaches and athletes keep piling up endlessly.
Can anyone seriously believe in the integrity of sport when you are constantly made aware of the bribery, corruption, cheating and doping that permeate the scene?
Thirty years ago, I was reporting athletics for Reuters at the Seoul Olympics when the shock news broke that the biggest star of the 1988 Games, Ben Johnson, had been disqualified for failing a dope test after his brilliant victory in the men’s 100 meters.
At the time, it felt like the Olympics, rocked to its foundations, might not survive this thunderbolt. The greatest athlete in the biggest event had been exposed as an outrageous cheat. Spectators and television viewers around the world could no longer watch events in the stadium and believe what they were seeing.
Serial addiction to the gravy train
Days later, I sat in the press tribune to watch Florence Griffith Joyner smash the world record in the women’s 200 meters twice in one day, winning the semi-final and final with the rest of the field barely in sight.
The record stands to this day, and no one has even got remotely close to it. There was no excitement. Sports journalists exchanged resigned and knowing looks. Although the American never failed a dope test, doubt had taken root, and her victories, which should have been celebrated as glorious and unique achievements, were greeted with jeers.
The International Olympic Committee tried to grapple with the problem of doping in sport by setting up the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as an independent body. It has caught plenty of cheats but has never been able to claim it is winning the fight against this scourge of the sports arena.
Consider these statistics. More than 50 medal winners from the Beijing Olympics in 2008, 20 years after Johnson, were later disqualified for doping violations, most of them in testing done on stored samples, some as recently as last year.
The London Olympics in 2012 ended up with around 30 disqualifications, 10 of them gold medalists. WADA uncovered evidence of systemic doping involving athletes from Russia, the biggest, but not the only, offender.
Russia’s failure to put its house in order meant it could not compete formally as a nation at the last Summer and Winter Olympics or at the World Athletics Championships.
Organizers of the world’s greatest events have been mired in disgrace often enough. Since a whistle-blower revealed that the bribing of IOC members won Salt Lake City the right to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, FIFA has been subjected to almost routine suspicion around the awarding of every World Cup finals.
The fall of president Sepp Blatter, almost drowning in corruption allegations, and the prosecution of numerous other leading soccer officials have barely restored confidence in a body that is often accused of serial addiction to the gravy train.
Why do we continue to watch?
Police raids and the revelation of a doping scandal at the 1998 Tour de France almost brought the sport of cycling to its knees. Suspicion still abounds that not all riders are performing without resorting to artificial aids.
The problem is clear enough. Sport has proved an irresistible driver for television and Internet viewing, and broadcasters and sponsors are ready to throw millions and sometimes billions of dollars to secure contracts for the biggest events.
Sadly, as the money pile grows higher, the temptation to cheat rises to match. Human nature appears to decree it should be so.
So why do we watch?
For me, it’s because there is nothing to match the grace and beauty of an extravagantly gifted athlete performing at the peak of his or her powers. It makes your heart soar in wonder in a way that little else can. For those, it is worth suspending your disbelief.
I think back to some of those moments.
In 1987, I was in a stadium in Prague watching an athletics competition delayed by a torrential downpour. As it grew dark, just a handful of spectators and journalists stayed to watch the end of the pole vault.
Sergei Bubka, splashing through standing water in the run-up, soared over the bar at 6.03 meters, a world record, one of 35 he set in his career. He actually cleared the bar by probably a further 10 centimeters or so, a jaw-dropping feat beyond any comprehension given the conditions.
Two years later, I followed the Tour de France for its full three weeks and observed Greg LeMond, who had almost died in a shooting accident two years earlier, return as an outsider and complete a scarcely believable comeback — snatching victory by just eight seconds on the Champs-Elysées against all the odds with a mind-boggling performance in the final time trial.
I could list many more. Like millions of others, I remain a hopeless case. Whatever the evidence against, I cannot help but believe in sport.