This could be the year that sport starts to die

Without the public’s trust, it’s nothing. And it’s working hard to forfeit that trust

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Simon Barnes’s latest book is The Sacred Combe. He is a former chief sports writer of the Times.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • 9sqn

    Well I was looking forward to the six nations, till I read that !

  • David Prentice

    Sir Steve Redgrave won five Olympic gold medals in rowing, a sport with no entertainment value whatsoever.

    Hopefully Alan Green doesn’t read this.

    • rtj1211

      Perhaps those who took up rowing as they hated football and rugby might beg to disagree with Mr Barnes’ personal judgement on what constitutes ‘entertainment’?!

      • Fasdunkle

        He means as a spectator sport

  • Stephen Griffiths

    Like religion,sport will always have a pool of easily duped devotees that like to feel part of something.
    I see nothing wrong with watching sport as an entertainment,as a neutral as it were,but there are many that think their chosen team somehow “represents” them. As a teenager I felt that Liverpool FC represented me and the city of my birth. I grew out of that in my early 20’s.
    By the way,I watch football all the time and never once noticed that Adidas are the sponsors of the Manchester United kit.

  • Roger Hudson

    Professionalism in sport killed it long ago.
    Sport is now a marketing and tv engine of profit.

  • Todd Unctious

    The year it starts to die? Thanks started before the millennium, we now look for it to finish dieing.

  • BillRees

    “Innocence. Meaning. Belief. Trust. Faith.”
    All things you will find in Rugby League.
    And the season begins next Thursday when Leeds host Warrington.
    Unfortunately Simon Barnes is perhaps a little too snobbish to take much notice.
    But I’ll guarantee that the spirit of sport will be alive and well at Headingley next Thursday night, and at various other venues in the following days.
    It was good to see former Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield coming second to Andy Murray in the BBC SPOTY awards with 278,000 votes.
    I wonder when writers like Simon will finally get the message.

    • Fasdunkle

      Simon Barnes has written infrequently about Rugby League but is usually complimentary about it when he does – this for example:

      “If you seek confrontation in a team context, nothing delivers like rugby league. It’s unrelenting and unflinching. Few sports punish a mistake so hard and so often; few sports provide a better setting for the out-of-the-blue moment of audacity and flair that turns matches.”

    • Ian

      Sometimes, with the close season antics of Messrs Carney, Pearce, Ferres, it’s better not to be in the spotlight.

    • Michael

      You honestly think, of all sports, rugby league is free of cheating through the use of performance enhancing drugs???!!! As someone said, “Rugby: it’s doping you can see”.

  • Man on the Clapham omnibus

    This article is utter drivel – forget the minority sports, for example athletics – football, rugby and cricket are in fine fettle, just visit The Emirates, Cardiff Arms Park or Lords. Mr Barnes seems to live a a media bubble.

    • rtj1211

      It only takes one huge EPL scandal about spot fixing to come out and the belief in football as a sport will die. Go look at Italian crowds at grounds nowadays where the Mafia controls everything – they are pitiful.

      Just watch the innings of MS Dhoni in the World Cup semi-final in 2015 – a masterful piece of playing for the bookmakers.

      Watch the refereeing in international rugby to determine who controls what: it’s no longer a neutral arbiter.

      Maybe the sheeple haven’t detected the hidden hands yet.

      But they are there.

      And maybe in 2016 they will all be exposed……….

    • Todd Unctious

      Italian, Spanish and Russian football has been fixed for years.

  • John P Hughes

    As a corrective to this gloom and doom and cynicism about sport, I recommend a watch of Angelique Kerber’s victory over Serena Williams to win the Australian Open today (30 January 2016). The best film is the German TV 22 min programme which includes all of the last two dramatic games.
    Angelique Kerber wins Australian Open (in English – Telegraph summary of best points):
    22 mins of German television on the match including start, key points in first two sets, much of the final set including the whole of the last two games:
    The final game which is pretty dramatic starts at 13m30s and runs to 21m00s.
    Angelique Kerber in English (she doesn’t say anything in German) on the podium, on receiving the cup from former champion Yvonne Cawley:
    Victory interview in German (5 mins 35secs), worth watching

    (And yes, her figure and tennis dress are perfect, as is her long hair which you see when she is not playing tennis!)

  • Roger Hudson

    Do they bother to dope test fell runners?, i doubt it, not enough commercial interest.

    • rtj1211

      The champion fell runners I knew 20 years ago ate yoghurt, cargo-loaded on bags of currants from the supermarket and had full-time jobs Monday to Friday. Whether Italian uphill runners changed that culture, who knows……

  • Johnno

    Australian Rules Football, AFL, almost a religion in many parts of the country, has been dealt a serious blow over the past few years with its peak body, the AFL dithering and appearing to acquiesce in a systematic “supplements programme” by one of its oldest and (once) most popular clubs, Essendon. I know of plenty of acquaintances, followers of numerous teams, who have stated that they feel the game will never be the same again, and despite their teams’ ongoing successes will never follow with such passion again. The AFL could not afford, in dollar terms, for Essendon to go under, but in the long term they may well regret their complicity.

  • post_x_it

    It’s quite natural that someone who combines excellence and the ability to win with charisma and a bit of showmanship would have an advantage when it comes to audience popularity over someone who just… wins.
    I preferred watching Yannick Noah to Sampras.

  • Jo10

    I read somewhere that blood doping was used for certain events in the 70s/80s. Then I read HGH causes adults to suddenly need braces on their teeth, like Carl Lewis had. Then I heard McEnroe admitted using steroids, and how you just can’t look like Arnie did without them. Then I questioned every hero, record, final and champion in the decades since, and that’s when I lost interest in elite sport. I couldn’t give a monkeys anymore. They will complain about cheating in their sport, they will never own up, it takes a whistle blower, like Tyler Hamilton.

  • wicketkeeper

    Just beginning to believe in cycling once again after the achievements of Sky with Wiggins & Froome and G and the rest in the Tour de France.

  • sidor

    I wonder if anyone would dare to test the younger of the Williams brothers for steroids?

  • Ian

    How surprising that the non establishment sports weren’t mentioned as something to look forward to. We actually have a homegrown World Heavyweight champ and our Rugby League team have just appointed the most successful coach ever.