The good news is that sport is bad for us

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The Independent Online

When I was at school I regularly used to be hurled to the ground by boys much larger than myself. My face would be mashed into an icy compound of mud and grit, my shins kicked, and my clothes torn. And the teachers did not merely condone this brutality, they looked on approvingly and yelled incitements until they were red in the face.

When I was at school I regularly used to be hurled to the ground by boys much larger than myself. My face would be mashed into an icy compound of mud and grit, my shins kicked, and my clothes torn. And the teachers did not merely condone this brutality, they looked on approvingly and yelled incitements until they were red in the face.

This was because somewhere in the vicinity - as far away from me as I could contrive - a slippery oval ball was being fought for with a fury that would give check to an anarchist mob. To add to the general torment, the offal rendering plant located next to the school playing fields ensured that what we sucked into our racked lungs was as distant from good fresh air as was compatible with the languid Health and Safety regulations.

But it wasn't the stench or the physical discomfort I minded most. It wasn't even the scorn and contempt regularly visited on sporting inadequates. It was the repeated insistence that this unpleasant ordeal was actually morally improving.

So, when I say that I greet every new revelation of sporting corruption and malpractice with an inner whoop of glee I hope you'll understand that this isn't simply a demonic exaltation at the triumph of vice. What makes me want to sing and skip is the delicious sound of another nail being hammered into the coffin of a tyrant - the bullying fallacy that sport can tone up the ethical muscles. If it isn't quite dead yet, the notion is surely in a vegetative coma.

On one side the captain of the South African cricket team, a paragon of sportsmanship, admits to lying and is accused of worse. The International Cricket Council meets to inquire into match-fixing. Scottish and Welsh rugby players fudge their ancestry to play on the national teams (your grandfather once bought a bag of Edinburgh rock? Oh, that'll do) and the Tour de France buckles under the weight of illegal drugs. Premier League football clubs strip their supporters of cash like ants milking aphids. Everywhere a landscape of rules broken, corners cut, justice defaced and reputation traded for cash.

You could argue - and they do - that this has nothing to do with sport. What we're seeing, they say, is the canker of money eating into an essentially noble ideal. There are two answers to that. The first is that the true sportsman doesn't need a financial incentive to cheat. Just think of the scandals that regularly erupt in the humble worlds of skittles and pub darts, where there is often nothing more at stake than village pride.

The second is that, if the basic argument has any value at all, sportsmen and women should be even better armoured against temptation than ordinary mortals, annealed by their efforts into a stainless rectitude.

It isn't as if these are complicated or ambiguous rules either - businessmen may justifiably argue that it's sometimes difficult to see where aggressive competition turns into something less reputable, but in sport the sidelines couldn't be more clearly marked.

The truth is, though, that most top sportsman aren't slightly better people than the rest of us, they're slightly worse - because their definition of "winning at all costs" will always be broader and more ruthless. And sport rewards ruthlessness since it is a zero-sum game - for someone to win another person must lose. "Nice guys finish last," as the American baseball coach, Leo Durocher famously put it. Because of this sport will always be morally vulnerable; like water on limestone, money simply finds its natural weakness and inexorably opens it up.

Of course there are things to be said for sport. Yes, it can provide examples of human transcendence and moments of great beauty. It can even, I have discovered, be fun. But as a moral tutor you'd have to admit it's an absolute loser.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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