No honour remains in the kingdom of sleaze

YEAR OF THE SPORTING SCANDAL: A nightmare journey from `bungs' to drug- taking, financial impropriety and downright cheating Ken Jones experiences a sense of loss and foreboding after so many months of sc andal
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The Independent Online
When the blood, sweat and cheers have been strained through computers and reduced to columns of type, the thoughtful sports historian will have this to say about 1994: it was a year which demonstrated in alarming fashion how far the forces of Mamm on hadadvanced.

It was the year of the hustler, the profiteer. A year of accusation, suspicion, contentious issues and shocking disclosure. A year when "bung" entered the language of English football.

It was a year when England's cricket captain, Mike Atherton, was charged with cheating. A year that saw Diego Maradona thrown out of the World Cup, and the integrity of British athletics called into question.

Outstanding feats - Brian Lara's batting, Manchester United's Double, the sustained supremacy of Linford Christie, Colin Jackson and Sally Gunnell - did not matter, somehow. Not when headlines spoke of sleaze, debasement, the decline of idealism, a fork-tongued philosophy.

Of course, it did not happen upon us suddenly. From a distance, sport may appear to be the shallow end of the social pool; simple adults pursuing children's activities. The same people who like their political reporting to be merciless may turn to the sports pages as a kind of toy department. But sport tells anyone who watches intelligently about the times in which we live: about managed news and corporate politics and the insidious effects of materialism.

The big sports stories of 1994 were at one with values that have undermined faith in our elected representatives. The urge to succeed in sport had become the urge to get rich. What sort of talk did one hear around sport? Talk about performance, to be sure; occasionally good talk that stirred the mind, but all too often one sensed the nearness of a dark abyss.

There is some hope that a process of new learning is taking place. That the fans, bombarded with suggestions of chicanery and proof that cynicism prevails, may rebel, tune out. Gradually, it may be sinking in that nobody knows exactly what is going on out there.

What 1994 brought us was a succession of scandals and demeaning controversy. On at least one day, unavoidably, they consumed the entire back page of this newspaper.

One thing followed another in squalid procession. A vendetta involving the American figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan dominated the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer along with the outrageously xenophobic notion that Britain's resurrected ice dancers, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, fell victims to conspiracy.

If the awful fate that befell Ayrton Senna reaffirmed the perils of motor racing it could not obscure behaviour immediately offensive to former masters of the sport. What price glory when Benetton are found to have tinkered illegally with their machine and Michael Schumacher is suspected of employing a cynical manouevre to deny Damon Hill and secure what was otherwise a deserved drivers' championship?

An oddly shocking and confusing realisation came to me when the United States met Colombia in the World Cup at the Rose Bowl in Pasedena. After about 15 minutes, I knew I was watching a dishonest game. Colombia were among the pre-tournament favourites. They appeared confident, powerful, rising. Pele implored Brazil to take them seriously. That afternoon, amid rumours of death threats delivered by gambling sydicates linked to drug cartels in their homeland, Colombia fell to nothingness. Utte rly devoid of spirit, they had no shape, no purpose. "If the rules allowed it I would have replaced every player," their coach, Manturano, said. Soon afterwards, Andres Escobar, whose own goal sent the US through to the last 16, was murdered on his retur n to Medellin. "You have to understand this," a Colombian said to me one night in Los Angeles. "In my country, death threats are taken seriously. They are meant."

Predictably, in view of the importance attached to the progress of the US in the tournament, a place in the second phase more or less guaranteeing that the World Cup would be a huge commercial success, Fifa chose not to investigate.

It was a foolish but understandable error to suppose that Maradona was not deceiving us. If no great truth could be gleaned from his return to Argentina's colours, he was, unquestionably, their inspiration. Then he tested positive for drugs. Significantly, in this seamy year, Maradona assumed a sad posture of cynicism that he seemed to believe fashionable. Soon, accompanied by a surly entourage, he was covering the World Cup for television. In the pursuit of greater glory, Maradona had betrayed his game .

The corruption of sports performers does not happen overnight or in a vacuum. Usually, it is subliminal. Today's corporate intensity influences their thinking. In a world of wheeling, dealing and selling, they get to believe that the wheeling, dealing and selling themselves are the real game.

Stimulant suspensions imposed on Diane Modahl, Solomon Wariso and Paul Edwards brought British athletics up sharply, putting paid to a blithe assumption of cleanliness. Testers finally caught up with the Chinese, exposing much of their remarkable advancement as a sham.

When news of Bruce Grobelaar's alleged confession to match rigging reached me in California, it was difficult to take in. The details were hazy, inconclusive but another dark shadow had crossed the sporting year.

Illegal payments were implicit in the deduction of six points from Tottenham Hotspur together with a ban from the FA Cup, but it did not end there. The club's abrasive chairman, Alan Sugar, triumphed in arbitration, leaving us to dwell on the ineffectiveness of football government.

Another scandal quickly followed. A number of unsavoury incidents, especially the jailing of their captain, Tony Adams, had previously dented Arsenal's reputation for moral rectitude and it took another fearful battering when the England international Paul Merson admitted to drug addiction.

Arsenal stood by Merson and soon they were being required to support their manager. Arsenal's football under George Graham was unlikely to be mistaken for light entertainment, but only Herbert Chapman had brought them more success and his integrity appeared to be beyond question. A book published in Denmark raised the suspicion that a number of English-based managers had illegally benefited from deals struck by a Norwegian agent, Astonishingly, Graham's reported response to the chilling allegation that he received £285,000 on completing the purchase of a Danish international, John Jensen, was that realising it was not a gift, he had handed the money to his employers.

Nobody has ever been able to lay down rules determining attitudes in sport, but if 1994 proved anything it is that honour has become a redundant principle.