Time to blow the whistle on the jobsworths of sport

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The Independent Online
At its highest level British sport is now at its lowest ebb, bottom of the league in international cricket and struggling to qualify for the European football championship internationally, while any club success is largely generated by a colony of foreigners.

So it is with less than exquisite timing that the movers and shakers of sport have demanded a showdown with the Government. The leaders of the major spectator sports say it is about time that Tony Blair and his team put their muscles where their mouths are and keep their manifesto promises to make Britain great again in the games we play. How ironic, then, that this cheeky challenge should be thrown down in a week when sport's own leadership is found seriously wanting.

The joint communique to Westminster by seven sports bosses - an all too rare show of unity - was issued just 24 hours after a decision by one of those bodies involved, the Rugby Football Union, just to slap the wrist of the former England rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio when many think he should have been banished for some time from the game that he admitted bringing into disrepute.

It may have been coincidence but the chief executive of the RFU did not attend the launch of sport's latest blueprint for salvation on Thursday, even though he was a signatory to the document and also to the letter to the Times which preceded it. Perhaps he feared that the fallout of the Dallaglio affair might have provoked some serious questioning of sport's fitness to administer itself - something to which the Government has apparently been giving some thought.

British sport, we are told, is riddled with drugs; it is also infested with hypocrisy. Dallaglio gets away without a ban largely because English rugby does not want to lose a player of his ability and experience for the forthcoming World Cup. His country needs him, even though his boasting about taking drugs and various other sordid peccadilloes in the belief it would help him obtain a lucrative sponsorship deal besmirched the sport and implicated his colleagues. Dallaglio's lies certainly had Twickers in a twist, but had he been just a humble rugger bugger scrumming down for a parks club, he'd probably have had the book thrown at him. Yet instead of imposing a period of exile from the game, the authorities seem to have been scared of his status, imposing a sentence of convenience in the form of a hefty fine. Whether the punishment fits the crime is open to doubt. But it is one that has caused even the stiffest of upper lips to curl in cynicism.

Yet this is no more than we should expect in days when the anti-hero rules, and it is doubtful whether those who follow sport would wish it any other way - if, indeed, they actually care. Winners, or even would- be winners, seem to get away with virtually anything. Dallaglio is just one example. Sir Alex Ferguson is another. After sealing an historic treble with the European Cup, which secured his knighthood, the Manchester United manager has become one of sport's untouchables. Whatever he says or does - even when he slags off rival managers with damaging comments in his biography - the jobsworths at the Football Association would hardly dare put him on a charge. He is too big for them now.

Whether it is dope-taking athletes or rule-bending bosses, those at the top have the authorities running scared - scared of their reputations, scared of losing their talent, scared of public reaction and, most significantly, scared of the expensive litigation that sporting superstars can now bring, with the calling cards of expensive lawyers tucked in their wallets. Some believe they are above the laws of their game. Some even seem to think they are above the laws of the land. And they are often aided and abetted by the weakness of administrators.

Attitudes towards aberrations by the more charismatic sports personalities have always been fickle. Fags, booze and birds have long been a familiar recipe for sporting appetites. When the lads are winning, it is all a bit of a frolic: harmless high spirits to which a blind eye can be turned - as it can to a bit of lawbreaking, as long as it stops short of murder or child-molesting. But in sport, one day's winner is the next day's wally; glory is ephemeral and judgment far harsher when the boys are no longer bringing home the trophies.

After last weekend's Test cricket debacle England players were lambasted for taking a drink or two instead of slinking off in disgrace. One senior sports administrator was heard to lament that in the days of Denis Compton and Co the boys always enjoyed a drink and a lark and no one said a word. That, of course, was because in the Compton era English cricket teams won considerably more frequently than they do now; and compared with today the players were paid a pittance. Also the media spotlight was shone on them prudently rather than piercingly.

When Paul Gascoigne was England's favourite football son, it was good- on-yer Gazza as he swilled back the lager or spewed up over the party host. Now, with legs and reputation gone, he's that fat boy boozer and we laugh at him rather than with him. Such is fame, or rather the evaporation of success.

There are hopeful signs of improvement in athletics, and medals continue to clank into the bucket in middle-range sports like swimming, rowing and canoeing. Soon the much-vaunted Institute of Sport will be up and running, thanks to government investment. Most of the few triumphs we have are now being bought by lottery money, but before meeting the latest demands for even more cash the Government will surely want some assurance that sport itself and those who run it are playing the game.

It is time that those who supposedly call the shots took a hard look at themselves. It can be argued that the mess in which sport finds itself is as much due to their years of maladministration as to any under-funding by successive governments. Money, as we know, can buy success; but should there be a price tag on principles?