Doping: Does the power of sport outweigh corruption?

With further revelations in The Sunday Times that marathon runners have been using blood doping techniques to cheat their way to victory, Luke J. Harris, a sports historian, asks whether the power of sport can ever outweigh that of corruption

Blood doping: A shame on Athletics
Luke J. Harris
On 9 August 2015 18:15

The recent allegations about athletes doping have yet again placed athletics under a black cloud, and raised questions about the legitimacy of past, present and even future competitions among the media, public and sponsors.

The claims made by The Sunday Times have come during a bad summer for top level sport, as already there have been unsubstantiated claims about Tour de France winner Chris Froome taking performance enhancing drugs, and corruption within FIFA has damaged the reputation of the governing body of soccer.

The domination of athletics' blue ribbon event, the Men’s 100 metres, by former drugs cheats Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay has once again called into question the duration of bans.

But what is the wider impact of claims of corruption?

The Media: The investigative journalism which has seen athletics and soccer plunged into corruption scandals is typical of that undertaken by the British press.

It is undertaken like so many areas associated with top level sport to sell newspapers and make money. Broadcast media companies pay millions and sometimes billions of pounds to show events on their channels. Such income is vital for sports and its athletes.

The transformation of English Premier League football clubs thanks to the broadcast media’s money is perhaps the best example of this. If, somehow, this money was lost it would be damaging for football from the grassroots to the highest level. The same, perhaps at a lower level, applies to any sport

The public: The throwing of urine, spitting and abuse directed towards Chris Froome during last month’s Tour De France was extreme, unwanted and vile. The reaction seen on several occasions across France demonstrates the concerns the public have that yet another one of the stars of the Peloton might be cheating in front of their eyes.

On 22nd August, this year’s premier athletic event, the World Championships, begins in Beijing, coming less than twelve months before the 31st Olympic Games in Brazil.

China might not be the best place to judge the impact of drugs on attendances at athletics meetings, but might it turn people off attending future events and watching them on television?

In the summer of 2017, London will host the World Athletics Championships and the hope will be that Britain’s love of sport will see the races run in front of full houses and millions will be watching on television. It will be interesting to see whether all this talk about corruption turns some people off.

Sponsors: Companies sponsor sporting events to positively associate themselves with athletes, events and healthy living. Many sports are reliant upon sponsors’ investment. If they pull the plug, it matters.

For example, following various match fixing allegation made against some leading snooker players in the late 2000s the sport struggled for corporate investment, placing the whole professional circuit in jeopardy.

The recent scandals within FIFA have put off new sponsors from becoming associated with soccer and present sponsors are questioning their position.

The general point is that if the public are turned off sport because of corruption, then sponsors might not want to be involved for fear of negative association.

All of the above areas exist in a vicious circle. The investigations by members of the print media have an impact upon the public, broadcast media, and sponsors.

Sport is no longer the pastime it was when it began to take on a mass character in the late 19th century. It is now serious business, and although sport still exists for the entertainment of children and the working man, it is now much more than this. Money and the desire to make it predominate.

Such is the power of sport and the affection in which it is held is that despite corruption scandals in almost all of our favourite pastimes in recent years their popularity has been not been seriously diminished.

The public flock to see contests, the media send plentiful journalists to cover it, while television companies and sponsors pay millions to show it on their screens and be associated with it. The question is, can this last?

Luke Harris is a Sports Historian from Canterbury Christ Church University. He is the author of ‘Britain and the Olympics 1908-1920: Perspectives on participation and identity’

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