Pay up, pay up and maybe then they'll play the game

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The Independent Online

It has been a habit to deplore in this space the commercial momentum that has made the impulse to take up sport very often the impulse to make more money than people get for running countries.

It has been a habit to deplore in this space the commercial momentum that has made the impulse to take up sport very often the impulse to make more money than people get for running countries.

Happily, things have changed a great deal since professional games players were denied the right to be considered like any other star performer and be paid accordingly. More and more, however, the good fortune of sports stars who have sweated their way up to prodigious salaries leaves some of us yearning for a time when reputations were determined solely by performance.

So much of the loot pouring into sport today has become available to the players themselves that the emphasis on remuneration practised with tenacity by newspapers, television and radio is, I suppose, inevitable.

In golf it is unavoidable. Rankings on the European and US tours (together with selection for the Ryder Cup) are based on prize money, which now dwarfs any amounts that the most illustrious of Tiger Woods' predecessors could have imagined.

As a result of his victory in the NEC Invitational Championship last weekend, Woods, in just four years as a professional, took his career earnings (more than $7m this season alone) to $21m worldwide and will soon overtake Greg Norman, the only player ahead of him.

As Woods hurried through gathering darkness to complete Sunday's final round, the pitch of Sky television (and doubtless that of the American host broadcasters) was that he had a busy day on the morrow beginning with a golf clinic organised by one of his sponsors, then a flight westwards to play a challenge match against Sergio Garcia.

Shown here in the early hours of Tuesday morning, it was apparently one of those made-for-television events with both players miked up so that viewers could listen in to conversations about tactics and club selection.

The question to be asked here is: "Why?" It didn't matter who won (Garcia one up) and proved nothing. The answer, of course, is money.

We should remember in trepidation that no decent ethic has evolved to ensure that sport does not fall completely into television's grasp. You only have to ponder the fear for a moment to infer what it implies; a sporting structure so tailored to the needs of an all-devouring eye that it will become unrecognisable.

As I remember it now, before the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, a tentative attempt was made to bring Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett together in a series of races over various middle distances made cosmetically acceptable by a full field of runners. The stirring legitimacy of their Olympic duels, each winning the other's main event, put paid to the idea.

Four years later, a race was shamelessly staged in London to renew the rivalry between Zola Budd and Mary Slaney. A blatant stunt for which they were handsomely rewarded, it flopped, to the satisfaction of athletic purists.

There is nothing new in the sporting stunt. Men against horses, fighters versus wrestlers. Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King patted tennis balls at each other in the biggest floating hustle of all time. Riggs, beneath the banner of male chauvinism, was shot down in flames.

A lot of people took it seriously, though. Larry Merchant wrote: "Before the largest audience ever to witness a tennis match, or a circus, 30,472 in the Houston Astrodome and many millions on television, in thirty six countries - Billie Jean King reduced the oiking Bobby Riggs to a ham sandwich. She ate him up and picked her teeth with his racket".

In whatever shape or form, I am vehemently opposed to a notion of sport that would have immediately appealed to Phineas T Barnum.

The problem is, how do you discourage games players from yielding to lucrative propositions put by sponsors and television companies who are more interested in exposure than the game? In fact, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else, should you try?

Well, back in 1974, an example was set in golf that may have escaped the attention of Woods and Garcia.

When Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller were offered $1m, winner take all, to play over 18 holes they promptly turned it down. To their endless credit, both felt that it was not in the best interests of the game.

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