What Sport Needs …

In this morning’s Straits Times, Rohit Brijnath writes about what Champions need to do to champion sport.

The names of the kids don’t matter. Their geographies are irrelevant. Maybe they’re a postman’s son, a teacher’s child, a janitor’s daughter. They run, kick a ball, wield a racket. Let’s say they’re 17, own an unusual turn of speed, a heightened gift of hand-eye coordination. Just kids, like a million others, who want to be great.

They breathe sport, they worship the field. They dream of a Ferrari one day, a house for their parents, a title. They practise, sweat, vomit, bleed. Hour after hour. They’ll do whatever it takes to get there.

So how do we tell these kids that “whatever it takes” in modern sport isn’t what they thought it was?

In locker rooms, the kids will see talent. They will be seduced by the cult of celebrity and enamoured by the sense of entitlement. They will hear stars laugh about diving in the penalty area. Dad may have said football was about character, but maybe dad was wrong. They want to be great. Maybe they should dive.

Whatever it takes.

The kids may have presumed Australia was a promised sporting land, but a new report scarily titled “Organised crime and drugs in sport” has confirmed no nation holds the moral high ground.

They will read the seizures of Performance and Image Enhancing Drugs at the Australian border rose 106 per cent between 2009-10 and 2010-11; that hormones detected rose 225 per cent in that period. They will be shaken that prohibited substances are being facilitated by “sports scientists, high-performance coaches and sports staff”.

What should the kids do? They are given pills, vitamins they are told; they take it. They are given drinks, to replace fluids they are told; they drink it. At Essendon footy club in Australia, some players reportedly complained about injections but still had to take them. Do these kids have the authority to challenge their trainers?

Or just take whatever it is?

Kids just want to compete. Sport at its simplest. But it’s never that simple. They know cricket has been tainted. Tennis has banned fixers. Now, again, football matches are being investigated.

Inevitably the kids will hear strange conversations and find strangers trying to befriend them. They will need to be taught strong codes, but instead will get the one about “omerta”, the code of silence. Don’t rat on your cheating fellow players or clubs to officials, media, the world.

What can we do for these kids?

We talk, we change policy, we involve the police. Fifa recently asked all its 3,182 officials to sign an Integrity Declaration. There are cameras outside dressing rooms in some sports. There is a hotline in cricket, there is new one for Fifa. They promise anonymity. Does anyone dare call?

Perhaps what the kids need are heroes for they still believe in them. Just stand-up guys, anti- Lance Armstrong guys.

If established athletes tell of advances by crooks, if they insist on more drug tests, it is reassurance. The job of the athlete is to play, and to play cleanly, but excellence in itself isn’t enough any more. Sport needs protection and it needs it from players willing to speak out because this is their life.

So let’s introduce the kids to Andy Murray. In tennis, in 2011, only 131 blood tests were done – incredibly less than the 195 in 2006 – and only 21 were out of competition. It’s feeble. So the Scot challenged it powerfully:

“If one in 100 players is doping, in my eyes that isn’t a clean sport and we need to do everything we can to ensure that everyone that’s competing at the highest level – and below – is clean. I think that comes with the biological passports and with more blood-testing.”

The kids will hear Murray recommend a cutting of prize money – presumably from top players – to fund testing. They will hear him say of cycling, “I don’t want that happening for my sport”. They’re kids but they understand that once a sports’ reputation dives, it’s hard to retrieve it.

The kids need to hear about Simone Farina, an Italian footballer whose actions confirm courage is more than not flinching from a tackle. In 2011, Farina reported an offer of bribe, Farina stood up, 17 people were arrested. Farina said recently: “(The management) cannot leave players isolated and afraid to speak out when they are confronted by the wrong individuals.”

The kids should watch a 2011 speech made by Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid, who said: “As players, the one way we can stay ahead for the game, is if we are willing to be monitored and regulated closely. Even if it means giving up a little bit of freedom of movement and privacy.”

Dravid flirted with the idea of lie-detector tests to clear the innocent and with finances being scrutinised. It seems too much, but he added: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Imagine if it has come to this.

Some athletes will always lean towards cheating. And there’s no elegantly precise solution. But if champions are presumed to lead by example, here’s where they can start. Off the court and outside the arena. At clinics and press conferences. Vocally asserting their authority and exerting their influence. And trying to reclaim sport by giving it a true, clean voice.

LeBron James, Lionel Messi, Sebastian Vettel, Rory McIlroy, Tseng Yani, Jessica Ennis, Sun Yang. All of them saying: test me, check me, any time. They owe it to themselves. And sport. And the kids.

Maybe it’s time for them to do whatever it takes.


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