Magazine article The Spectator

Sport's Champion Hypocrites

Magazine article The Spectator

Sport's Champion Hypocrites

Article excerpt

Why sport and sham morality go so well together

Wimbledon next week. Like the tournament dress code, all sports want their heroes white. In terms of virtue rather than skin colour. Sport demands the appearance of righteousness. Its default position is to pride itself on the moral lessons it teaches the rest of us.

All of which makes sport one of the great hypocrisy opportunities of modern times, lagging behind only religion and politics. A sports star who wants to make serious money must set himself up as a 'role model'.

So when the great tennis player Andre Agassi was a boy in 'hot lava' shorts, he set himself up as a lovable 'rebel' who embraced Christian virtues. He spoke of his pride at being a role model. He played under a long-haired fright wig, sometimes terrified that it would fall off at match point, and developed a taste for crystal meth. He knew despair.

Then he rebelled against hypocrisy. He shaved what was left of his hair and made a comeback from 141st in the world. He later released a ghosted autobiography -- Open -- that told the truth. And sport was appalled. Not because of the bad behaviour and the despair, but because he told us about it. He broke the code of hypocrisy.

Sport is hooked on self-righteousness. This is because modern sport is a living contradiction. It was founded and codified as a tool to teach morality: but it is now a global business. This has created the extraordinary situation in which money-making is intimately connected with the appearance of morality.

Sport was supposed to teach the virtues of sacrificing self to a cause and obedience to authority. It offered fun and taught virtue. That principle remains fossilised in the sports industry. You need the appearance of virtue to make the tills of multinationals ring. This is a standing invitation to hypocrites.

Sepp Blatter set himself up as the apostle of righteous. His line was that a man with a mission for world peace must expect setbacks -- and when they came, they made him not angry but sad. Blatter made it clear that opposing Blatter was morally wrong. His enemies by definition operated out of envy, spite, racism, neocolonialism and vindictiveness. 'Football is one of the few universal tools mankind can use to bridge gaps between nations and people and to symbolise what unites our planet over what divides it.' Amen.

'Fifa has to set an example for others to follow,' Blatter said, and no doubt it has. Hypocrisy is the key -- and perhaps the most profound of its pleasures. Not just power and success and money, but at the same time playing all the world for a fool.

It's a pattern you can find across sport. Juan Antonio Samaranch was for 21 years president of the International Olympic Committee. It's been suggested that his former Falangista affiliations gave him the opportunity to take lessons in power from Franco.

'We pursue an ideal, that of bringing people together in peace, irrespective of race, religion and political convictions, for the benefit of mankind,' Samaranch said. That ideal led to the scandal of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, in which Fifa-esque corruption was exposed. Reform had to come in its wake.

One of sport's great attractions for older people is that it offers power over the young, and the moral front is a traditional part of it. That's why today we hold to the absurd belief that top performers in sport have an obligation to be 'role models': to act as moral examples. …

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