The whole Lance Armstrong saga has got me thinking around a number of issues around sport, its grassroots, the money, competition and where we guess running and in relation to us, where ultra running is headed – You’ll have to excuse the self-indulgence for a moment, but the purpose of this piece is to get us thinking and take a forward-look at some of the issues that could affect our sport in the next few years, while also opening up questions for debate.
To kick things off, let’s touch upon the issues that the ‘Lance-saga’ has created for us. In cycling you have a sport that was on an upward-boom in the late 80s and early 90s. Mass participation and popularity leads to increased dollar spend in the shops, leading to increased involvement by companies, which ultimately led to TV rights and broadcasting of said sport – the Tour de France being the showpiece each year.
It’s this last piece in the jigsaw, the TV rights that brings a sport into the mass mainstream and with it, brings in the major companies who want a piece of the action and thus a mass injection of cash. Cash means prize-money, which for those involved means earning a livelihood from what you love doing. As the competition increases, so do the stakes and then ultimately this is where athletes reach a crossroads in their lives – just how far will you go to win? For the next 20 years, cycling decided it would go in a certain direction and it is now reeling from the mass expose we’re seeing on our screens and in our papers this week.
In the Lance scenario, it was win at all costs but not just that, create a smokescreen so great that it was implausible someone would question your motives. On a personal level, as someone who has been deeply affected by cancer in my close network of friends and family I find what Lance has done despicable. No-one wishes cancer on anyone, but to use cancer as a smokescreen for his win at all costs mantra puts him in the same class as a criminal. Yes he raised millions of cash for cancer victims, but that cash is tainted and this is not about the money in the slightest, it is about the fact that he built false beliefs for people based on a story that he told and stuck to and still continues to tell. How he’s dealing with this internally I have no idea. If he had any sense of morality, surely the weight of guilt would be so great that he’s going to go one of two ways, admit his wrong-doing and try to rebuild what ever shred of dignity he has, or as I said to someone today, the man should be on suicide watch. The other side of the coin is that if he is so narcissistic in his nature, that maybe this is not affecting him in any way whatsoever. That puts him in the same line as some of the greatest narcissists known on this planet.
But where does this leave sport as we know it? And when is sport no longer sport? There’s a simple equation that I saw this morning regarding the notion of sport.
Competition + Money = Cheating
When you look at the simplicity of this notion, try to think of a major sport that hasn’t been affected by cheating?
Cricket is still reeling from a match-fixing scandals that saw three Pakistani players jailed for their role in a betting scandal. Each week we see players in the English Premiership diving in the penalty box in a bid to get players sent off so that they can win a game – because winning = more cash. Rugby union in the UK saw the bloodgate scandal and one of the best coaches in the sport banned from all rugby for three years, because of the win at all costs mentality.
So should sport simply revert back to its amateur ethos whereby nothing is at stake apart from a 80 minutes of hard and fast, yet fair action? Based on the above you’d think so, but then there is the other side to consider.
Money has developed and enhanced sports of all forms and indeed progressed sportsmen and women to be the best they can. One only has to look at the advancement of Team GB in the last 16 years to see this. Back in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Team GB won just one gold medal – Sir Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent. Someone somewhere decided this wasn’t good enough, so over the last 16 years, funding was channeled through the British Olympic Committee via the National Lottery to enable those amateur sportsmen and women to train full-time and become the best they could possibly be – just look at the levels of competition in the paralympics too. A national talent programme was also set-up to help identify people who may have what it takes to succeed at the highest level and who had not necessarily come through the ranks so to speak – this is why you see a trend in people coming from other sports or backgrounds and who had not previously spent their entire lives in one particular sport. The proof is in the pudding at the recent London Games and the success that Team GB had.
But it’s not just the success within the team. You simply cannot measure the impact that those 30-odd gold medals will have on the next generation and also on the economy as a whole. The UK, like most of the rest of the world is in the pits financially. The feel-good factor that those medals created during and after the event is again something that cannot be measured, and something that politicians are only too aware of. Those sportsmen and women will inspire the next generation to come through the ranks and quite possibly leave a legacy that will last for the next twenty years or so – this is what the London Games was built upon and why they ultimately won the gig. That message was replayed through the opening ceremony with genuine heartfelt sentiment rather than a meaningless big bang launch that simply aimed to dazzle. There was a story behind it all for those that missed it and wanted to see fireworks all night.
But all of this costs money, the necessary evil in the equation. But is it the evil? I’m a glass half full type of man and while I hate to see sponsors like McDonalds plastered all over the shop (is the irony not lost on the organisers here?), I do appreciate that to get to that point you must have investment by companies. The media also has a role to play in all of this. Afterall, it is this medium that brings sport to the mainstream and creates awareness of sport. One of the reasons Ultra168 does not currently accept advertising from companies is that we simply want to keep it independent. We’re not saying that we would be tainted in any way, but in keeping it ‘clean’ we do what we want, when we want based on what our readers find interesting. That could change in the future by all means and that is something that we continue to review, but for now we do this because we genuinely enjoy what we do and we want to help advance the sport and increase it appeal to others. But where does it all go wrong?
For me, it’s a simple question of morality not money. It’s about what you know is right or wrong and how if you go down the wrong path, you internalise it. It’s at this juncture you have to applaud the likes of Christophe Bassons, the cyclist whose career was destroyed by Lance Armstrong. He stuck to his true self despite 99% of his peers doping. He knew what was right and what was wrong and he can die knowing he stuck true to himself.
And this is where running and those in the sport need to work out their own stance. For the vast majority of us, the issue simply doesn’t exist. We don’t compete at the highest level, but what we should be doing is expecting those we adorn and follow to do the right thing. As the sport grows, so will the injection of cash and ultimately we will reach a cross-roads of sorts. Some in running are already doing it. Ultra running events like Comrades have fallen victim, so it is already here.
Only this morning we have seen Nike dump Lance, along with many of his other sponsors shows how fickle the sport is and it’s closeness to sponsors who flee at the first sign of trouble. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away – its clear that for major brands, this is an issue firmly in the spotlight and how their brand is perceived by the hand that feeds them i.e. the general public. On a personal level, I can’t believe how long it took Nike and I’m still hugely disappointed by how long it took them when the evidence was plain to see.
However the final resting point on this lies with you as the individual and participant. How far will you, or the ones we look up to go to win at all costs? For me, when that line is crossed, sport is no longer sport – sport is about staying true to yourself in all senses of the word, from not taking drugs, to not aiming to get an opponent sent off or taking a bribe for match-fixing, that is when you’re no longer a sportsman or women, but a fraud.
Money can exist in sport, but in line with money must be a sense of morality and of what is right and wrong.