Every so often, all too frequently these days, I come across stories in sport that indicate the extent of television's pernicious influence. Sadly, the award of a gold medal to Muhammad Ali during the interval of a basketball game involving the ludicrous US Dream Team is one of them.
A famous fact of Ali's monumental career is that, withered by the humiliation of being refused service at a hamburger restaurant after returning to Louisville from the 1960 Rome Olympics, he went to a nearby bridge and cast his gold medal into the river. No sports figure, to my mind, has made a more important social statement.
A fact about the Dream Team in Atlanta is that it was what Americans call a "bust" in the television ratings. Might it not improve things, somebody at NBC suggested, if Ali was put on show to have his medal replaced?
This where it gets cynical. NBC gained the predictable support of the International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, on the strict understanding that the stricken former heavyweight champion changed his story. He did not throw his gold medal away, but lost it. Sweetened by a handsome fee and the joy he obviously gets from fresh adulation, Ali agreed. You may think no harm was done by this, but when television starts tinkering with the truth it is time to worry.
When travelling recently through a remote area of Spain, I came across a bar in which people were applauding a televised repeat of Ali's medal ceremony. History was being altered for them.
Before making that journey a personal vow was that no attempt would be made to remain in touch with current sporting issues. This is easier said than done, but to a large extent I succeeded. It can be slightly disconcerting. I returned not knowing that Newcastle had lost two of three Premiership games, Arsenal had paid off Bruce Rioch and Pakistan proved better than England in proper cricket matches.
By all accounts, some of the tantrums tossed already by footballers and managers have been up to the unappetising standards of last season. The rift with referees appears to be even wider and, as usual, clubs are grumbling about the needs of national teams.
Everywhere, of course, there is the overwhelming smell of money. We have come to accept this as a way of life in sport, but there seemed to be some hope that common sense would prevail as rugby union took on professionalism. Instead, the game is in disarray, riven by internecine strife and mindless greed. When, you have to wonder, will sports performers realise that there are damn sight harder ways to make a living?
Anyone old enough to read this has lived long enough to have witnessed growth in the popularity of sport, particularly football. What we are into now is an age when it matters more than some of us older guys find healthy.
No doubt about it, someone said before last Saturday's rugby match between Saracens and Leicester, sport is hostage to its paymasters. He was thinking mainly about television.
Interestingly, then, last Monday's match between the Premiership leaders, Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester City, put out live by the Sky network, drew barely more than 17,000 spectators to Hillsborough.
In the past week, I have dared to wonder what sport will look like in the next millennium. Will it enjoy the fruits of technical improvement or succumb to pervasive greed? By then people may have put their heads together and come to the conclusion that nothing is for ever.
The belief in progress is certainly a stimulant to achieve but it disguises from us the truth that no game is guaranteed to remain as fashionable as football is presently.
And what is this national pride people keep going on about? To my mind, nothing more ridiculous has been put forth recently in sport than the idea of playing tapes of Winston Churchill's most stirring speeches to England's cricketers. Maybe I have got this wrong, but I thought it was batting, bowling and fielding that mattered, not pumped-up patriotism.
- More about:
- International Olympic Committee - IOC
- Leicester City
- Sheffield Wednesday
- Sir Winston Churchill