Review of the Year 2009: Sport

Sold short in year of the scoundrel
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The Independent Online

A character in Steve Toltz's acclaimed comic novel A Fraction of the Whole wins the heart of Australia while bumping off leading sportsmen who he considers to be somewhat less than their public profile. It's a harsh reaction and certainly not one to encourage at the end of what is likely to be remembered in some fevered quarters as the year of the sporting scoundrel.

It certainly provokes the hope that unmasked adulterer Tiger Woods and the exposed cheats footballer Thierry Henry, Harlequins winger Tom Williams and Formula One driver Nelson Piquet Jr, have been selective in their Christmas reading. They have enough angst already without the onset of vigilantism.

But then we also have something of a problem in the entirely unrealistic belief that it is possible to heap upon our leading sportsmen vast amounts of money and an equal measure of celebrity worship while expecting them to always behave as though they have graduated from a monastic order.

Indeed, there may have been at least one upside in the past few depressing weeks since Henry decided that being caught out in an outrageous act of deception on the field was a price he was prepared to pay for his passage to the World Cup finals in South Africa. It might become part of the debate about what can be reasonably expected of our demi-gods of sport.

There's nothing new about this discussion. The issue has been raised throughout the course of organised professional sport and not without passion back in the Eighties when Bob Welch, the pitching star of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, fell off the mound with revelations that he was experiencing drink and drug use problems.

Much of the public and media reaction was apocalyptic. It was fuelled by the belief that Welch was much more than an individual mired in a personal crisis. He was cast as the great betrayer of American youth in his squandering of fame and glory. How could a man who had gifts that enabled him to strike out the legendary Reggie "Mr October" Jackson in a World Series game, throw it all away? Did he realise what a disgraceful example he was setting for all those American youngsters who had come to revere his name?

Marvin Miller, head of the baseball players union,retaliated with a withering reply. He said it was absurd that American parents expected players to help shape the characters of their children. Baseball stars, like movie stars, were not paid to be leaders of society, glittering examples for all those who chose to look up to them.

"American society is not shaped on the ballpark but in the home. That's where the kids should get values that arm them for a good life. Passing on the responsibility to someone like Bob Welch is nothing but a cop-out. It is stepping back from the real world, where someone like Bob is required to operate with big rewards, yes, but also big pressures. No-one expects movie stars to lead perfect lives," added Miller.

Putting a sharp edge on the Welch debate was that at that time – before the mega-sponsorships that made Woods the richest sportsman in history – the pitcher was earning a salary that could not have been imagined a few years earlier. When he retired nearly 20 years ago, Welch's career earnings directly from the game were estimated at around $20m (£12.3m). Such a figure is dwarfed by the reported starting offer in what we have been led to believe is the spectacularly re-drawn pre-nuptial agreement between Woods and his serially wronged wife. It is, perhaps, some kind of measurement of the increased expectations, both of the public and the sponsors.

The strangest aspect of Woods' sudden categorisation as an unfaithful husband and apparently relentless sexual athlete, though, is the widespread belief that what has crumbled most profoundly is his own effort to present himself as a citizen above almost any kind of suspicion. This is a parody of the reality that Woods has inhabited without any pretence of being reluctant to enjoy the benefits of his fame and wealth. His gambling trips in Las Vegas have long been famous for both their scale and their enthusiasm, while his desire for success on the golf course and his contempt for many of his opponents has scarcely been concealed.

His agents, the International Management Group and his principal sponsor, Nike, have made it their duty to invent a persona guaranteed to bring maximum marketing results. It is their business plan rather than his elected style of life.

So now that it has become public knowledge his sexual appetite can be as fierce as his desire to shoot the lights out of a golf course, or turn a winning hand at the blackjack table, the picture being painted is increasingly one of a personality in meltdown.

But the truth is somewhat different, despite the fact that Woods has from time to time found himself obliged to conform to the corporate image. All that has happened, when we really get down to it, is that Woods, like the most visible sportsman the world has ever known, Muhammad Ali, has in the end failed to conceal the fact that he has a sex drive not easily contained within the boundaries of marriage. He is 33, of huge wealth and profile, is frequently away from home and generally operates at a competitive edge that can hardly be imagined by most of those now sitting in judgement. His behaviour is far from exemplary, but then it is hardly unique, as perhaps the level of prurience it is beginning to attract is threatening to become.

What has certainly emerged more clearly with each new revelation is that from the start of his professional life Woods was aware of the dangers he faced whenever he was tempted to disturb the impression of a clear-eyed, single minded conqueror of the golf course. As a 21-year-old he complained to the iconic Arnold Palmer – who is widely credited with creating for his game the flood of wealth that began to transform it in the Sixties – that he felt desperately inhibited by the scrutiny under which he now had to conduct his life.

Woods told Palmer, who was long rumoured to be something of a Lothario himself, that his life was so much more difficult than that of those who had gone before him. "That's true to a degree," said Palmer, "but it isn't totally the answer. My first contract was for $5,000. His was $50m. You think about that a little, but maybe it cuts both ways. You know I talk to Tiger and I'm not going to tell you all the things we talk about but you can, if you wish – and I've done it, I know – have your private life. And I don't care if you're the president of the United States there is a way and a time to have your private life."

It may have been true in the Eisenhower years when Palmer first burst upon golf and the consciousness of white, middle-class America. But for Woods – the author of that desperate call to the mobile phone of the first of his conquests to break through the cordon of privacy – he would no doubt say that today it has become no more than a Casanova's wishful thinking.

This reality recalls a line from the classic film of political corruption, All the King's Men. A young reporter calls his editor and tells him that after weeks of digging he has concluded that a populist politician is clean. The old editor replies laconically, "Keep digging – nobody is clean."

Where this leaves the playpen of sport at the end of a year that also saw the scandal of Williams faking an injury in what became known as rugby's "Bloodgate" and the revelation of racing driver Piquet deliberately crashing his car at the Singapore Grand Prix, remains a matter of some anxious speculation.

That part of it that centres on Woods' affairs does, however, seems here much less threatening to the long-term health of sport than the spread of systematic cheating. Woods remains a phenomenal golfer and the drama of his pursuit of more major titles than anyone in history, you have to believe, is likely to outlast the current fascination with the scale of his libido. Either way, it does not touch upon the foundations of sport.

This is not so with the repercussions of Bloodgate, Crashgate and the cynicism of Henry's handball, which was so instantly apparent to all but the referee and his linesmen. Here, the demand must not be for unattainable perfect behaviour, some magical creation of a collective purity of spirit, but for vigorous supervision, in the case of the Henry incident, with the help of the all-seeing television eye.

When organised cheating reaches the level it did in rugby union and motor racing, the public has every right to call for stringent punishment and heightened levels of detection.

Ironically enough, it is in Woods' game where standards of honesty are most zealously enforced. When you consider the prizes at stake, the results are mostly positive in how they define levels of both ambition and sportsmanship.

We saw that during the summer when the 59-year-old multiple champion Tom Watson came so heart-stoppingly close to winning the Open at a windswept Turnberry and pulling off one of the most astounding achievements in the history of his or any other sport.

Watson, whose own private life has not been without upheaval, gave us a stunning look at the breadth and depth of a truly competitive nature. He told us that sport can still be separate from the money and the celebrity and the odd presumption that your life will always be as ordered and as smooth as a perfect golf swing. We know this a little better now.

Tiger Woods, it is fair to guess, will be working through the knowledge for some considerable time.