Commentary – When is sport no longer sport

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.

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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.

Inspiring a generation and how money can work in sport (Image from Getty Images)

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?

One man who can hold his head up high and be safe in the knowledge that he stayed true to himself (credit Thierry Luton)

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.

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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

14 thoughts on “Commentary – When is sport no longer sport

  1. I am not for one second saying that what Lance has done is right, but he has done a lot of good for the sport of cycling. When Lance left the tour revenue and viewing dropped by almost half, when he made his return the cash and the viewers returned, in record numbers. Yes now we know this was done maliciously, I think as the title of the commentary suggests when sport is not sport, the loser in all of this is cycling. Let’s remember these charges are being brought forward by USADA, not UCI, which raises questions in itself, but it doesn’t change the end outcome of what damage is done to the sport.

    In regards to Nike, they are still sponsor’s of Tiger Woods, and also Michael Jordon, both of whom have had falls from grace but have had been shown solidarity from Nike.

  2. Hi Dan,

    Reading through the USADA document it is clear Lance took EPO, cortisone and blood doped all through his career and then made out that he was clean the entire time. I find that pretty disappointing as someone who really admired the man, read all his books and found his comeback inspirational when I was going through my own chemotherapy in 1999/2000.

    I hear what you are saying but I also believe that Lance was the best rider in all the tours he won and, had drugs not been so endemic in the sport through the 90’s, then Lance may have been the best clean athlete to win the tour. Lance no doubt did what he thought he had to to win, and part of that included using techniques to boost his red blood count. All his competition and team mates have mostly been proved to be dopers as well at a time when the governing body was only paying lip service to cleaning the sport up. Most of the blame has to be carried by them not by the riders who only did what they had to do.The reality is though he still had to train 7 hours a day, climb mountains, improve his aerodynamics and then ride his guts out, the EPO was only part of the formula. He also really did come back from a cancer that should have killed him, the PEDs didn’t make that happen. I am not excusing him for his actions but his achievements are still incredible in my opinion.

    Imagine if you were young, had a great ability, loved your sport and wanted make a living out of it, but found out you could only compete with a massive handicap and therefore would never make it. With potentially millions of dollars at stake could you honestly say what you would have chosen in LA’s position? I cant.

    Lance is described as a bully and an all round d!ckhead – and I have no doubt that is true, but he has used his fame in a very positive way when he could have very easily taken a much easier and more selfish route. Trying to tear down all the good that LA has done just to tear the man himself down seems the real tragedy.

    1. “Imagine if you were young, had a great ability, loved your sport and wanted make a living out of it, but found out you could only compete with a massive handicap and therefore would never make it. With potentially millions of dollars at stake could you honestly say what you would have chosen in LA’s position? I cant.”

      That is sad

    2. Charlie, I totally hear you and the reality is that for all of us, when faced with a decision about whether to take the fork in the road and dope, we can’t answer it because we haven’t been there.

      All I can do is say what I think I would do – and I know that deep down, both morally and ethically I would turn that money down as its just money. I’m more interested in staying true to myself and my own set of moral standards. I’m not motivated by money, I’m motivated by feeling good about what I do in life. This is why I believe its a question of morality over money. I’ve used the example of Christophe Bassons in this article as someone who knew the difference between right and wrong.

      When I was 18, my Dad gave me a piece of advice just before I left home to go to Uni and it’s a piece of advice I’ve lived by ever since, he said, ‘No matter what you do in life, stay true to yourself and what you believe in, and if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.”

      I’ve turned down projects at work based on the fact that I won’t work with certain companies. When I’m old and grey I want to look back on my life and think, have I always stayed true to myself? If I have I’ll die a happy man.

      Some may think that is a load of bullshit, but if they don’t know me personally I don’t particularly care. It’s about what I think that matters.

      1. If anyone doubts that they were ALL doping, check out the top 10 finishers of (say) the 2005 Tour
        1. Armstrong
        2. Basso (2 suspensions)
        3 Ulrich (Admitted and therefore formally struck off)
        4 Mancebo (Wasn’t allowed to start in 2006 when his details were found in Operation Puerto)
        5 Vinokourov (Worse cheat of all – openly doesn’t even regret his doping)
        6 Leipheimer (has admitted doping in the current investigation)
        7 Rasmussen (tested positive x 2)
        8 Evans
        9 Llandis (tested positive and was DQ’d a few years later)
        10 Periero (Tested positive in 2006 to salbutamol)

    3. yes, it is the lesson of Christophe Bassons that we should be celebrating. That in the face of potential wealth and fame he took a position (as do many other elite sports people) that he would compete within the rules and spirit of the sport.

      The justification for cheating is often ‘every body else is doing it.’ This is actually never true and way too simplistic – even in the top10 post about the 2005 TdF results below. Look outside of the top10 there will still be those that say no to drugs. Many talented elite athletes don’t achieve the best results in sport due to the cheating and deceit of the others. But from what i have seen these people who don’t follow that path of lies stay in sport long after the lights and cameras have gone simply because they run, or ski or ride because they love that sport.

      There is a progression of performance and improvement over the course of a sports persons career either elite or fun runner. People that dope will never be satisfied with their level once off the ‘juice’ given their super improvement and performance can never be achieved without it.

  3. I think it is very optimistic to believe that doping is not already common place in ultra running at elite levels. It has been in in most sports since ever since competition has been around… I suppose that means for ever……. Beetroot juice beware.

  4. I have never liked Lance Armstrong and long felt he was (and is) a very poor human being.
    His actions during the 2004 tour when he chased down Filippo Simeone who had formed part of a 6 man break and told the others repeatedly they would not be allowed to go clear until Simeone dropped off, were the worst actions I have seen in cycling.
    When the dejected Simeone dropped back Armstrong continued to harrass him, laughing with others in the Peleton and making the infamous lip zipping actions.
    Simeone’s crime was being a witness in the trial again Michele Ferrari (Armstrongs dopeing Doc), and later sueing Armstrong for defamation as Armstrong berated him as a ‘compulsive liar’ to the worlds media.
    How on earth did the authorities not take action against Armstrong at the time is beyond me, but I have always hated bully’s and those that go along with bullies.
    I have no sympathy for Armstrong.
    Simeone, a nondescript rider with only one previous victory to his name must be at last satisfied to see this web of deciept and lies finally unravel.
    Armstrong intimidated anyone who dared speak out against dopeing for years so i find it frankly annoying to read comments about poor old Lance just doing what he had to do to win…
    Prison is too good for lance Armstrong.
    My only real surprise is that anyone really though he wasn;t doping?? Really??

  5. I think a major point in this discussion is the origin of both sports. Whereas I see Ultras coming from a background where the race has just as much about the struggle against yourself. The strength of the mind vs. body. Therefore I don’t think you’ll see the same amount of cheating in Ultras as in pro cycling. Ultras is becoming more and more competitive, but still not in the same way as cycling, where you have masssprints, Time trials etc.
    Cycling was born as a struggle man vs. man where Ultras, as mentioned, was born as struggle me vs myself.
    Doping has been a part of cycling since day 1. When TdF started in the early 1900’s the competitors where drunk and coked out of their mind. (Just read about Tom Simpsons death on Mount Ventoux in 1967) This continued until the birth of more sophisticated drugs as EPO.
    In cycling it’s often the small details that decide whether you loose or win. Which make a lot of competitors use drugs to get those extra procents. It’s not like in an Ultra where Kilian might win with an hour, to nr. 2.

    Of course there’ll be, and is, doping in competitive ultra running. But I don’t see it becoming as major an issue as in cycling.

  6. I have just taken up trail running. I was/am a cyclist with a bust shoulder. My thing was Audax, long distance rides between 200 and 1200kms. Our motto is “a sense of achievement” and completion of an event is always more important that the time it took, There are no prizes for first. The ethos has helped to educate the competition out of me. Competitiveness is a short step from arsehole-ness for a lot of people, myself included. Running is similar to Audax in this respect. Most run for fun and the personal challenge. One can only hope that the top long distance runners in the sport are not enticed to take shortcuts for an extra sponsor dollar.
    When I get back on my bike I am going to tour France on nothing but bread and water, baguette strapped to my top tube. Incidentally, Bassons has just been given a one year ban for missing a drug test (see in a mountain bike marathon. Read his story, it seems unjust,

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