Recent news in the UK has featured two knights of the realm. The death was announced of Sir Roger Bannister, the athlete who ran the first four-minute mile in Oxford in 1954 and was later knighted for his contributions to medicine. Bannister competed in the amateur era and was said to have derived no financial benefit from sport. On the other hand, Sir Bradley Wiggins, performed in the modern era in which all elite sport is professional and richly rewarded. He was in the news because a Parliamentary committee had found that though he had done nothing illegal, he had nevertheless acted unethically in taking prescribed medication not for treating an affliction but purely to enhance his performance in winning the Tour de France cycle race in 2012. This latest in a long series of stories of drug abuse in professional sport raises the question of whether it is still sport in the traditional sense, and whether ethical behaviour can survive in an era ruled by big business.
International cycling competition had gained a bad reputation for drug abuse when a former seven-times winner of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong, was stripped of all his achievements on the revelation of his abuses in 2012. The United States Anti-Doping Agency described him as the ringleader of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” The Sky cycling team, of which Wiggins was a member, was launched on the claim of being a champion of clean sport. It has now been revealed as acting in a way that was technically legal but unethical, behaviour that can be considered as characteristic of much of modern business.
Another interesting reflection on trends in modern sport was provided recently by FIFA’s decision to allow the use of TV monitoring facilities in soccer matches to aid referees’ decisions. Various systems are already in use in cricket and rugby, where spectators are shown replays on a large TV screen. However, replays of action will not be displayed in this way at soccer matches on the grounds that fans would not be prepared to accept marginal decisions that go against their team. This is surely a severe condemnation of a sport by its own ruling body, and shows to what depths sportsmanship and ethics have sunk in this most commercialised of sports.
The lesson from all this would seem to be that the authorities will continue to struggle for legality in sport, as in business, but that little can be done to ensure ethical behaviour, and pure sportsmanship can be expected to survive only in the amateur arena.