James Lawton: Relentless stream of untruths and spin stabs average sporting fan in the back

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Martina Hingis swears that she didn't take drugs. Of course she didn't. It is inevitable that we react on another high tide of cynicism, say with a rolling of our eyes, that the troubled "Swiss Miss" is no more guilty than Marion Jones before she was exposed as the ultimately brazen cheat in a sport that lives a relentless lie.

However, Hingis would plainly have drawn no competitive benefit from the cocaine that a positive test suggests she took during Wimbledon. No, the problem with the girl-woman who seems to have worn a haunted expression from the moment the paparazzi flooded an outside court when she made her debut in SW19 is not about performance enhancement but something that has come step by sickening step with its pursuit.

It is concentrated in a question that has to be asked at the end of a week which has seen all the betrayals and bloodlettings which have smeared the image of England's rugby union and cricket teams. It is simple enough. Who in sport can you believe? Who doesn't take the average punter for a simpleton to be fed a diet of lies when plain old platitudes just won't do?

Reports of match-fixing in plutocrat tennis are the latest assault on public confidence. Beside them, Hingis's story is just another instalment in the long and tragic tale of talented kids pushed too hard, too early.

Change the names but you don't change the story. For Hingis today, read Jennifer Capriati's agonising phase of coming to terms with celebrity, one which left her in an early morning motel being read her rights after being found in the possession of drugs. Capriati discovered another way to live her life, but was it good management or pure good luck that she found something in her nature to help make sense of her situation? You wish the same for Hingis, who, like the young Capriati, argued that she could adjust to the life of a schoolgirl tennis phenomenon. She had her house in Switzerland and her horses, and what more could she want?

Capriati was irritated, as was Tracy Austin, when you wondered if she was going too quickly for her own good. No, said Capriati, she did not envy her high-school mates when they gathered around the soda fountain at the local shopping mall. It was her friends who envied her travelling the world and winning the prize-money, but then for how long?

Hingis was named for her mother's heroine, Martina Navratilova. When Hingis emerged Navratilova was asked about the girl's future. "She's a fine talent, no doubt," she said, "but let's put it this way, if she was my daughter I wouldn't want her out there at this time in her life."

When asked about pressure, Austin explained patiently that she had long been used to it; she had been on front page of Sports Illustrated before she reached her teens.

This, of course, has long been tennis's particular problem, but Hingis's plight, coming in this week of all weeks, spills out into a broader picture of a crisis in sport.

Hingis tells us she didn't take cocaine, but she will retire anyway. Meanwhile, Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt, the men who made headlines and book sales out of their withering criticism of the England coach, Brian Ashton, tell us, essentially, that their ghostwriters and the newspapers who serialised their books got it wrong. There was a failure of balance. The perspective was lost. But how to put into perspective the professional assassination of a man they worked with on what much of the nation believed was one of the most inspiring passages in the history of English sport? A knife in the back can only be that, however you spin it.

At least we must give credit to Matthew Hoggard for not insulting everybody's intelligence when he came to discuss the revelation of the former England cricket coach Duncan Fletcher that Freddie Flintoff disgracefully abandoned his responsibilities as captain of England in the appalling Ashes debacle. This is despite Hoggard's assertion that the public could not have cared less about Flintoff's behaviour if any pride in English cricket had not been systematically destroyed in Australia. Hoggard said England's behaviour in Australia was not markedly different from when they swept to a series victory in the West Indies. So what was the fuss about?

It was about the dereliction of duty by one of the nation's favourite professional sportsman. Hoggard's attempt to relate a triumph in the Caribbean over the tragically diminished West Indians to what happened in Australia takes us right back to the centre of the problem. It is the detachment of our leading sportsmen from any sense that, along with their hugely improved rewards, there are certain responsibilities.

A few years ago England's football players threatened to strike on the eve of a vital qualifying game in protest at the suspension of one of their number, Rio Ferdinand, after he failed to take a drug test. The Football Association was said to have let him down. Daniel Levy and his Tottenham directors have recently been caught lying about the dismissal of Martin Jol. David Beckham told us he was going to America to conquer the game's last frontier rather than take profit from the years of celebrity.

All the time we are expected to absorb, untouched, all the levels of falsity. Now poor, haunted Martina Hingis tells us that she did not take cocaine. Maybe she did, maybe she didn't.

Perhaps we have reached the point where we hardly care. If it is so, there is only one explanation for sport's crisis of credibility. It is the harvest you reap when you just can't stop telling lies.

Sports minister should spend less time complaining about other people's wages – and start earning his own

There was no great surprise in the failure of the new Sports Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, to get vital facts right when he launched his attack on the spending policies of Chelsea and the "obscene" rewards of one of the chief beneficiaries, John Terry. It is fast becoming a tradition at the junior ministry. Sutcliffe's predecessor, Richard Caborn, embarrassingly failing a simple test of his knowledge set by broadcaster Clare Balding in his first days in office.

Sutcliffe may draw more support for his charge that Manchester United are exploiting their fans with new ticket policies. However, perhaps a little perspective is also needed here. In a competitive entertainment market, it cannot be said that United are not offering a degree of value of money.

In a perfect world, United would not, of course, be geared to a profit motive. Their owners would be philanthropists rather than businessmen servicing heavy bank loans. Chelsea would also be owned by a fabulously rich version of their great fan Richard Attenborough and not a Russian oligarch who, you never know, might up sticks at any petulant moment.

However, United and Chelsea fans do have certain options. They can take their choice. Neither club raids their pensions or imposes unprecedented levels of stealth tax. The Sports Minister, even if he hadn't got his facts wrong, was throwing stones from a perilous place. Indeed, the sound of shattered glass was as unwelcome as the simplistic preaching.

Onwards now, though, to excited anticipation of a wondrous one-two punch on behalf of the prestige of English sport – a World Cup sequel in 2018 to the triumph of the London Olympics.

No doubt the Sports Minister will be banging this particular drum quite vigorously for a while, but there should be another caution. Rather than make scattergun criticism of football – as opposed to serious suggestions for major and much-needed reform – Sutcliffe should concentrate on making English sport a worthy host to welcome the major events.

Spectacular parties are fine, but they should be a celebration of day-to-day, year-to-year achievement and not a glossy front on years of neglect. If all of England, for example, had as many Olympic-sized swimming pools as, say, Paris – the foiled hosts – some of us might be inclined to jump up and down with more enthusiasm.

Slow-burning Hleb has the hallowed craft to light up the Emirates

It is a shimmering stage set today at the Emirates Stadium for superstars like Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cesc Fabregas, but here is a nagging suspicion.

It is that the show could once again be stolen by the slower-burning but increasingly impressive Alexander Hleb (right), of Belarus.

Last weekend he rescued Arsenal at Anfield by creating a goal of such quality that you were taken back to those great days when the heart of the beautiful game was in midfield.

He reminded us that even in this age of celebrity football and instant reputation, there is still nothing more valuable than pure craft.