Calling a sports event the best in the world is not a birthright. Wimbledon knows this. Aintree, apparently, did not. Harsh though it may be on honest men who try hard to do a responsible job, the fact remains that the high-tech world of modern sports promotion has passed the part-timer by. Aintree's black comedy last week was the last bale of hay. Primitive planning left men of straw face down in the mud along with their unfluttering flags, tangled starting tape and bowler hats.
It is no use searching for individual scapegoats. Whether one man with a flag could see a colleague as a hundred hooves thundered towards him is not the point. That technology was available to Ben Hur. In an age that offers live television coverage from the cockpit of Ayrton Senna's car, allows journalists to watch all 17 courts at the French Open from their press-room seat by pushing a button and, of course, has the ability to beam a racehorse live from Liverpool to Hong Kong, what are we doing with flags?
Even cricket, which lags behind the leading professional sports by more than a furlong or two, has joined the modern age by using cameras to determine a run-out. That, at least, is a step towards recognising that there is no longer any excuse for not utilising what is available technologically at events which draw huge income from attendances and television rights.
Yet a wide variety of sports, from cricket to athletics, rugby and football are still afflicted by the amateurs' suspicion of change and of the part-time officials' desperate fear of losing control. None will meet the challenges posed by a rapidly growing global public unless they are run by people with professional experience. And that nearly always means players.
It is no coincidence that professional tennis has become one of the great success stories in sport. Apart from the fact that the game is so telegenic, tennis has emerged from two decades of political in- fighting with the players where they should be - in charge. All the world's leading men's events, with the exception of the four Grand Slams, are run by the ATP Tour, whose governing board is made up of three players and three tournament directors.
Although the Grand Slams set their own rules, they are almost identical to those of the Tour and it would be impossible now for the International Tennis Federation to implement law changes without the players' approval. Nothing annoys a professional athlete more than the knowledge that a decision affecting his career and pocket-book is being made by someone who can return to their real job on Monday morning.
While the struggle for control continued through the Seventies, the ITF were fortunate that two of the world's most prestigious tournaments, Wimbledon and the French Open, were being guided by people who, if not professionals themselves, quickly adopted professional attitudes.
There is a parallel here with golf. This weekend the world is being given another close-up view of how a great championship should be run. Like Wimbledon, Augusta is administered by people deeply involved with the welfare of their club but who are not afraid to seek expert advice.
Spared much of the internal strife that afflicted tennis, golf professionalised itself in the United States before television poked its nose on to every green and, consequently, was well prepared to reap the rewards once men of vision like Mark McCormack and his first client, Arnold Palmer, had done the ground work.
The world of track and field, meanwhile, is stuck in a time warp that Rod Laver and his generation of tennis players would recognise. No wonder there are rumblings of discontent among athletes whose lives are still run by an amateur federation. The absurdity of professionals like Carl Lewis and Linford Christie still being tied to any kind of legislation laid down originally for amateurs is something that cannot last. It remains to be seen whether Christie and his colleagues have the will to exert the kind of player power that unshackled the tennis players 20 years ago, but in the meantime some athletes seem to be lapping up the crumbs thrown them by the IAAF with demeaning gratitude.
Designated athletes sent by their national associations to compete in the world championships in Stuttgart in August will now receive the princely sum of dollars 1,000 from the IAAF. The rest of the proceeds from sell-out crowds and global television will, presumably, go into 'development' - that all- embracing term which covers the development of the amateur official's travelling lifestyle.
Rugby, of course, is so enmeshed in the problems of amateurism that there is no obvious solution in sight, although, here again, the only logical route forward is through the first-hand expertise of the modern player.
It is amazing how dismissive officials can be of a player's ability to think and to articulate that thought process for the advancement of their sport. Until Sky Sports came along and allowed footballers a proper forum - such as the Footballer's Football Show - in which to air their views, the media-processed notion was that their vocabulary extended no further than being as sick as a parrot.
Now players like Andy Gray, Ray Wilkins, Alan Hansen and even youngsters like John Salako have revealed sharp intellects that must be put to proper use in the future running of the sport if football is to prosper. Here again, the PFA must take courage from what the ATP achieved and insist that the players' voice be heard far more than it is at present. How can players sit back and allow others to contemplate kick-ins?
Millions of dedicated souls contribute their expertise to the running of all manner of sports all over the world and long may they do so. But not at Grand National, Test match or world championship level. This is the age of the professional. There is too much at stake for it to be otherwise.
Many years ago, I was interviewing Sean Connery and Richard Harris, a couple of real pros in the acting business, on location in Pennsylvania. A Hollywood agent turned up, and finding some local piece of organisation to his disliking turned round and snapped, 'What do you think this is, amateur night?' I have never forgotten the derision with which he laced the word 'amateur'. Tough, as I said, on those who do their best. But at the top, there is no longer room for the gent with the bowler hat.
The author is a former communications director of the Association of Tennis Professionals.Reuse content