The Saturday essay: There's no going back to the golden age of sport

To talk about the good old days in a tone of nostalgic yearning is merely to waste valuable time
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HERE IS the sports news. A leading tennis player has been fined after a positive result from a drugs test at Wimbledon. In Australia, two world-famous Test cricketers have been instructed to appear before an official inquiry looking into an illegal betting operation.

And that, on Radio 4's Today programme one morning this week, was that. No results, no overnight scores, no deeds of heroism or uncommon skill to arouse the reluctant spirits in a bleak midwinter dawn. Just business as usual - the latest in a litany of sleaze, smear and scandal that has virtually submerged what is supposed to be the real business of sport throughout this year, with examples generated in practically every conceivable register and dimension.

An England footballer is hung in effigy outside an Essex pub. His manager writes a book betraying his players' confidences. The Tour de France, an institution watched by more spectators than any other live sporting event, is crippled by police investigations into systematic drug abuse. England's most successful rugby captain suddenly becomes a national hate figure, in belated revenge for his perceived arrogance. A German racing driver dashes along the pit lane intent on accusing a Scottish rival of trying to kill him and, apparently, looking for appropriate revenge. An Italian footballer pushes an English referee to the ground. A boxer who bit a chunk off his opponent's ear during a world title fight is allowed to resume his career of making millions for himself and even more millions for those who promote him. An Irish swimmer is finally found guilty of drug-taking after a wearyingly protracted investigation, devaluing her three Olympic gold medals (pending appeal, inevitably). An English swimmer fails in her campaign to have her silver medal transmuted into gold by the removal from the records of an East German opponent now known to have abused illegal substances. A players' lock-out paralyses the professional basketball league in the US, which means that the game is wantonly withholding itself from the young fans whose addiction it has so assiduously and lucratively encouraged. Multinational corporations attempt to buy some of the world's oldest and most illustrious football clubs, their only interest in the game the profit it can generate.

But tennis? And cricket? Those white-clad games of summer, born in a world of sunlit garden parties, the traditional emphasis of which on good manners - the etiquette of the anguished ``Sorry, partner'' and the gruffly acknowledged ``Good shot'' - was woven into the conduct of the sport as firmly as the rules of play? Well, maybe tennis long ago forfeited its good name, thanks to the unpunished gamesmanship of Connors and the poisoned genius of McEnroe. And in cricket, although a warning shot was fired when the words ``Marsh'', ``Lillee'' and ``bookmaker'' appeared in the same sentence, perhaps it all went to hell in the instant it took Mike Atherton, England's longest-serving captain, to decide not to follow the tradition of walking when caught behind at Trent Bridge, and the fate of last summer's Test series turned favourably on his refusal.

No sensible observer can consider these events, and the overarching phenomenon that they represent, without sooner or later being drawn into raising the question of exactly what sport represents in our time, and what, in fact, it is for. Beyond, that is, its recently assumed function of ensuring the further enrichment of the owners of multinational communications networks and the manufacturers of pounds 100 training shoes.

Almost anyone old enough to be a parent will remember a time when the answers were clear and threefold. Sport existed primarily for the benefit of the participants, to provide them with a vehicle for the development and exercise of certain special instincts and skills in a healthily competitive environment. Secondly, it existed to provide fun and excitement for spectators, offering an outlet for the human capacity for unreasonable loyalty and unreflective enthusiasm, additionally enriching the store of collective experience and shared memory. Finally, it provided young and unformed minds with a series of behavioural models: not just how to win and how to lose with symmetrical equanimity but how to oppose and how to collaborate, how to hold an advantage and how to recover from a setback, how to lead and how to follow.

All these lessons came under the heading of "Sporting Behaviour", but they were generally accepted to have a wider application in the development of individual character. And no matter how regularly or cynically they were flouted by professionals in the public eye, the principles stood unchallenged. Players and officials and spectators alike, everyone knew where he or she stood in relation to the underlying ethic.

But in recent years the position of sport in society has changed almost beyond recognition. As leisure time and disposable incomes have generally increased, sport has become part of the vast entertainment industry developed to service the demand for recreation. Sports stars, soap-opera actors and members of the royal family have assumed equal status in the new democracy promoted by the strategic synergy of television and newspaper interests. This exaggerated interest in private lives places the existence of prominent sports people in an entirely different (and, for some of its subjects, unendurable) perspective, creating an artificial appetite for news about the love life of a golf champion or the addiction of a gifted footballer. All the old attitudes - not least the nature of what might be called petty patriotism in contemporary life, as evidenced by the immoderate support for British tennis players at Wimbledon - have had to be readjusted to take account of this commercially induced shift in perception.

The earlier reference to parents was not accidental. To the surprise and dismay of many, that old belief in the character-forming function of games has been overtaken by another exemplary use of sport, embodied by the necessity to spend a high proportion of breakfast-time conversations explaining to children exactly why the two men who run English football are in disgrace, what it is that the man whose leg-breaks we were copying in the park last summer is supposed to have done, why two women are allowed to put on gloves and punch each other for money and why the boy who goes out with a Spice Girl and whose poster is on your sister's wall is being treated as though he had committed high treason.

For some of us, this new experience began five years ago, with Eric Cantona's intemperate physical response to the verbal goading of Matthew Simmons on that notorious night at Selhurst Park. ``Indefensible!'' roared the headline the next morning in L'Equipe, the daily sports newspaper of Cantona's home country. It was the obvious instant reaction to the player's assault on the fan, but even by the time the paper reached the news-stands it seemed less than adequate. Although Simmons had slandered Cantona's mother in terms that might have seemed barely exaggerated from the usual run of terrace insult, the Frenchman refused to turn a deaf ear. His dramatic kung fu kick stirred a fascinating and perhaps ultimately constructive debate about the extent to which Britain's small army of Simmonses could be indulged before someone came to the conclusion that it was time to make an unmistakable gesture of disapproval.

This debate found its most important level at the breakfast table, where young attitudes were being shaped in the crucible of moral ambiguities. At the other end of a very specific and narrow spectrum from the Cantona incident, the product of Paolo Di Canio's utterly stupid assault on referee Paul Alcock was refreshingly unequivocal; in any imaginable circumstances, laying a hand on the ref is a bad thing and brings condign punishment.

Few people will have a problem with the question of drug use in sport. All bad, not just in terms of fairness towards all contestants but in terms of the health of the abusers - mostly predicated on so-far unknown side-effects of products that have not been around long enough to undergo adequate testing programmes.

However, you would have to be hard of heart not to extend some degree of sympathy toward cyclists whose teams impose drug-based training regimes and who welcome the short-term reduction in sheer physical pain brought about by the various illicit injections and ingestions. From the saddle, bicycle racing is bitterly hard and unglamorous work, and its tradition of chemical assistance goes back to its very origins.

The same cannot be said for swimmers and athletes, victims of the steroid syndrome in the last quarter-century. But sympathy for those who take drugs merely in order to avoid having to give the rest of the field a 10-metre start, and who do so with the greatest reluctance, should not be allowed to obscure the unacceptability of their habit, even in a world where recreational drug use is a commonplace in every stratum of society.

Most of the incidents discussed so far would have been unlikely, if not effectively impossible, in previous generations. In most cases, the difference is created by the opportunity to make big money, usually from the proceeds of the sale of television rights or from its associated revenue-streams, such as sponsorship or product endorsement. The staggering prosperity of top-level football appears to be the sporting equivalent of a victimless crime, despite the sterling efforts of the Newcastle United board to alienate virtually everyone in sight. But the wholesale takeover of rugby union by millionaires - including members of the Newcastle United board - has been a disaster, at least in the medium term; a formerly amateur game has been intoxicated by the illusion of prosperity, drunk on nothing more than the fumes from the next table.

As for individuals, no one who knows much about human nature would fall for a suggestion that well remunerated players will necessarily be more contented and therefore better behaved. In the vast majority of people, athletes and non-athletes alike, the most powerful effect of the sudden acquisition of large amounts of money is the strengthening of the desire to acquire even more, with the consequent corrosive effect on such things as scruples. A secondary effect is the creeping assumption of superiority to the rest of mankind and a consequent exemption from its most basic rules (although this, as we have learnt from the front pages of this week's newspapers, is a phenomenon not wholly confined to the world of sport).

And yet, in a seeming paradox, this year also witnessed a piece of sporting behaviour as immaculately unselfish as anything within living memory. The fact that it took place during an international cricket match made it only slightly less surprising. By declaring an innings closed against Pakistan while his own score stood at 334 not out, the Australian captain, Mark Taylor, left himself tied with Don Bradman for the highest Test score made by an Aussie batsman, denying himself a solus position at the top of a list of numbers but winning a special place among the immortals for his refusal to claim a spurious statistical superiority to the greatest practitioner of his craft. Triumph and modesty went hand in hand; it was like being in a time-warp.

But to talk about the good old days in a tone of nostalgic yearning is a waste of breath. We don't and can't live in them. We can learn from history, certainly, but we live in our own time, with its own kind of evolution, its own pressures and imperatives, and we should get on with confronting the reality of what that means. Rather than attempting to impose some idealised model drawn from an imperfectly remembered past, far better to invent a new set of responses in which imagination is blended with common sense. Hard to achieve, certainly, in the present overheated climate. But each discipline has its strengths and weaknesses, and its value in the developing market place. Players, owners and administrators need to apply realism to an assessment of their standing and to use that knowledge to create organic growth without running the kind of risk - that of total ignominy and potential obliteration - from which British rugby union clubs are struggling to extricate themselves. And to recreate a sense of ethics within that changing framework, to reimpose a sense of right and wrong that does not rely on the ever-fainter memory of Corinthian precepts, represents the biggest challenge in sport.