Sport: Comment - Watchdog must put legal eagles to flight

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The Independent Online
God save us from politicians, lawyers and the International Olympic Committee, not necessarily in that order. If ever sport needed such a prayer it is now when the very foundations of our sporting lives are shaking from a series of blows aimed from outside by a succession of legal heavyweights and from within by flawed bodies like the IOC, about whose moral shortcomings we have yet to hear the end.

It has been embarrassingly clear for some time that the way most governing bodies operate is in serious need of reformation and it is in the interests of the sports concerned that they tackle the job themselves - painful as it surely will be - and do so quickly. The alternative is to remain prey to legal predators, whose services our wealthy sportsmen can afford to hire.

The days when these authorities could rule with an iron fist have long gone. Now they are saddled with old and creaking constitutions interpreted by old and creaking administrators and are vulnerable to challenge like never before.

In the last few days we have seen this weakness exposed twice. In Australia on Thursday an attempt by the International Cricket Council to discipline Sri Lanka's controversial captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, for his conduct in last weekend's one-day international against England in Adelaide produced a ludicrously tame result when the player received a suspended sentence and a fine of pounds 60.

The quality of the ICC's mercy was a touch strained by the presence at the hearing of two hot-shot Australian lawyers representing Sri Lanka. Although the ICC had two lawyers of their own, it is felt that they were severely compromised by the legal armoury drawn up against them and the punishment reflected their fear that several large holes could be shot through their code of conduct if they'd been tougher.

On Friday, the Czech tennis star Petr Korda achieved a legal victory in the High Court in London when the International Tennis Federation failed to get permission to challenge a decision made by their own appeals board to treat Korda leniently after he failed a drug test at last year's Wimbledon Championships. The ITF maintained that under their rules Korda should have been suspended and wanted leave to take the matter further. The judge, however, agreed with Korda's QC that the decision was legal and binding and that the player should not be required to defend himself twice.

While those two cases were proceeding, legal storm clouds were gathering over the drug-test failure of Britain's European 200m champion Dougie Walker in whose out-of-competition sample were found traces of the banned steroid nandrolone. Since this disclosure, Walker has acquired legal representatives who will help him fight against suspension on the grounds that he has taken nothing but a muscle supplement which, as yet, is not banned. Suddenly the waters are even more clouded than his urine.

With the Diane Modhal farce still ringing in their ears, athletics officials are understandably concerned, if not petrified.

No one would question the right of sportsmen and women to defend themselves against any charge but the call to the lawyer has become almost a reflex action. Having lawyers run our lives is almost as bad as having them run by accountants, and a damn sight dearer, so it is important that sport tightens up its rule books and raises the competency levels of those in charge.

If they can recover any credibility from the bribes debacle, the IOC could give a lead in this. In Lausanne this week they will attempt to make a start at the World Conference on Doping by introducing proposals to dilute the punishment for drug offences. By imposing bans that would keep athletes out of the bigger competitions but still allow them to earn a living in minor events the IOC would hope to take the sting out of legal actions for restraint of trade.

There has long been a need for a more enlightened approach to the drugs problem in sport and if this is the beginning of a switch from Draconian sentencing to a more persuasive deterrent system it is likely to be more successful.

Far more encouragement, however, came from the news that the Government are to set up a new watchdog body to monitor the running of sport. Intended to cover both sport and the arts, the body, to be called Quest, will report directly to Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Sport will be its first priority initially and Smith admits that the Government are dismayed at the chaos that clouds the administration of many of our major games and that Quest will be available to help broker solutions.

It so happens that I have been calling for such a body for years, not because I welcome government interference but because there is an increasing need for a superior influence to be on hand when our sporting organisers reach the sort of impasse we've witnessed lately.

Part of the reason that sport finds itself involved in expensive visits to the law courts is that there is nowhere else that disputes can be referred. And the fact has to be faced that our national games are not being well directed and that some problems, drugs being one, do need a more powerful hand.

What we don't need are busy-bodies from Whitehall sticking their noses in when it suits them. The worst example of government cheek came after the 1996 Olympics when the British Olympic chief was called in by Downing Street to explain our poor medal tally. This impudence was from a Government under whom sports funding had practically disappeared. What transpired was the glittering promise of a British Academy of Sport which, of course, never transpired.

Some may argue that with a highly vocal Minister for Sport, the Football Task Force and the present court action by the Office of Fair Trading against the Premier League's television deal with Sky, the Government are in too deep already. I would defend neither the Sports Minister nor the Task Force and when the leaders of Quest are announced I trust the names of Tony Banks and David Mellor will be absent. But someone has to assist in knocking our sports organisations into shape for the future and Quest could well be the answer.

In his already notorious interview with the Times yesterday the England coach Glenn Hoddle spoke of having been given "two hands, two legs and a half-decent brain". It's the other half we're worried about because therein seems to reside an impulse to do and say the wrong thing; although, wrong is hardly an adequate word to describe his views on the disabled.

One can only wince at the thought of how thousands of sick and disabled young football fans would have reacted to hearing a man they should revere add damnation to their condition. Hoddle claims, pathetically, that his comments were taken out of context. A Football Association spokesman pointed out the good work the coach has done among the disabled, which was equally pathetic, but FA spokesmen have to dig their leaders out of the crap so often these days they deserve our sympathy.

Hoddle's beliefs ought not to affect our faith in his coaching ability but they do reflect on his judgement. What will happen to him? Well, if we care to accept the weird philosophy that has him in its grasp, his next worldly appearance will be in a wheelchair. "What you sow, you have to reap," he says. But I doubt if Hoddle will have to wait until the next life for his harvest.