When sport needs a higher authority

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The Independent Online
NOW that Lord Nolan has put Parliament in its place by introducing to its members a code of conduct that will help them to concentrate on running the country and to avoid, to quote a popular sporting phrase, "bringing the game into disrepute", it may be an opportune time to consider if some sort of official eye needs to be focused on the governing of sport, particularly where international teams are involved.

Events of the past week have added alarming evidence that the pressures of running our traditional sports in an increasingly commercial atmosphere can drive the most balanced administrators far enough around the bend to imperil the national interest.

Can we not assist these unfortunates with guidance as to their responsibilities and, perhaps, provide a strong and helpful hand when they finally flip? The Nolan Committee recommended that the holders of public office should abide by seven principles: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

It may be argued that those controlling our various sports are not exactly in public office since the public haven't elected them. But most of them were elected by someone somewhere - although not always, I fear, by procedures a democrat would admire - and undoubtedly they have a responsibility, if no accountability, to a large section of the public who would be a lot happier if the Nolan principles were foremost in their minds.

Those blessed with the stewardship of our games tend, alas, to be a law unto themselves and, whether selling their entire game to some foreign potentate or sacking the captain because they suddenly don't like his choice of expression, follow principles peculiar to their own philosophy and not to those they are supposed to represent.

This is not a suggestion that the Government should play any part in the running of sport. One of the few welcome aspects of the sorry affair between the Rugby Football Union and Will Carling was that it took place while Parliament was in recess and we were spared the usual opportunist posturings. However much of a tangle the leaders of our national games get themselves into, there is no sporting situation of any description that can't be worsened by the intervention of MPs.

They were kept at bay on this occasion because the farce took place with bewildering swiftness while they were all away for the Bank Holiday. Not that a valiant effort to get involved wasn't made by those honourable members who can hear a bandwagon revving up from 300 miles away. Newspapers had already been advised that questions were to be tabled for a Commons slanging match when the lightning rapprochement between Carling and the RFU president Dennis Easby was achieved on Monday.

The will of the people had won long before their elected representatives could take the field. The genuine public outcry had been enough to shake the RFU into conciliatory mood. Had the issue not been so speedily resolved and become the subject of a Commons debate, it would have been interesting to see how much support the RFU would have had from the Government benches. We have remarked before that if the Church of England is the Conservative Party at prayer, the RFU is the Conservative Party with boots on.

To be fair, not all public opinion was in Carling's favour. Some felt, and still feel, that his words were due a punitive response. Indeed, had such sentiments been expressed more forcibly, Easby might have been persuaded to stay astride the high horse on to which he and his colleagues had clambered.

However satisfactorily we think the incident was settled, it still leaves an air of considerable disquiet. Here was a sport committing a petulant act of far-reaching potential and it was stopped only by a wall of public opinion. If the sport and the personalities concerned were of much lower profile, it might have passed by unnoticed.

Admittedly, we always have Parliament in which such matters can be raised but although the chamber welcomes the chance to air sporting topics, it is very rarely that such exchanges lead to action. The Minister for Sport does his best, but his powers are limited. The National Heritage Select Committee did well to denounce rugby union's discrimination policy recently but further than that it could not go. When rugby league announced their sell-out to Rupert Murdoch, calls were made for the deal to be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission but it wasn't within that body's scope.

It was only the threat of legal action from some of the clubs that forced some compromise out of the RFL although the situation is still far from satisfactory. The courts are not the proper place for sport's controversies to be settled but those tardy and expensive places are increasingly becoming the only recourse for complainants against any alleged wrongs imposed by governing bodies.

Sport needs a supervisory and adjudicatory authority with the power to intercede when requested and to be able to ask questions when obvious anomalies occur, particularly when national teams are concerned. The sports are rightly jealous of their autonomy but they don't own the country. It might be their RFU but it's not their England. The copyright on the country, the flag under which they play and the anthem to which they dutifully stand to attention before internationals continues, I believe, to be the property of HM The Queen and, through her, of the people.

Sport not only provides a livelihood for a large number of people that has increased dramatically over recent years but is a thriving part of the economy and occupies a principal part of the nation's leisure interests. It is time we ensured that it is conducted in the best possible manner.

THERE is not a horse-racing punter worth his salt - although he may not be worth much else - who doesn't realise that when he places his money he is gambling on more than just the speed of a horse and the skill of a jockey.

Action taken last week by the Jockey Club against the connections of two horses who were judged not to have tried their best, plus the anonymous evidence on the subject supplied to the Channel 4 programme Fair Game on Thursday night, has drawn attention to a problem that weary punters have learnt to live with.

Most people who back a horse do so with the suspicion that out of a race of, say, 15 horses, five are there only so that the owner's wife can wear her new hat in the paddock, three need the race as part of their training programme, three are working on lowering their handicap and raising the price, three will be whipped to the line with gusto and one is being ridden by a binging jockey who has recently brought up steak, onions and chips and two portions of Black Forest gateau.

Your guess as to which is which is as good as anyone's except the bookmakers'. Apart from Peter Francisco, I've never heard the bookies complain about a non- trier. Is it because they benefit so much from them? Certainly, they seem to have some exceedingly good information on the subject, often knowing which horse is not trying even before the horse does.