I no longer believe anything I see when watching sport

Sport may be a glorious irrelevance, but it matters to people way beyond any tribal or partisan allegiance. At its best, it is an art form

Simon Kelner
Wednesday 20 January 2016 18:41
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Fernando Verdasco commiserates with Rafa Nadal after his surprise victory over the 14-time Grand Slam winner
Fernando Verdasco commiserates with Rafa Nadal after his surprise victory over the 14-time Grand Slam winner

I can’t have been the only one who had an uncharitable thought on hearing the news that Rafael Nadal had been knocked out in the first round of the Australian Open. Was it fixed? Did Rafa throw the match? Of course it wasn’t fixed: the ultra-competitive Spaniard would be horrified at the very suggestion. And that aside, this is a Grand Slam event – no one would throw a match of such importance, and certainly not when tennis is under so much scrutiny. So we can assume that Fernando Verdasco’s victory over Nadal – a man who had beaten him 14 times in their previous 16 encounters – was exactly as presented: a surprise result.

The trouble is that once a cloud of suspicion hangs over a sport – in the case of tennis, an investigation into match-fixing undertaken by those unlikely journalistic bedfellows, the BBC and BuzzFeed – it becomes impossible to have a clear view of what is happening on the field of combat.

As soon as he came off court this week, Verdasco was forced to address questions about betting patterns in some of his recent matches. “[It] is impossible to control everyone,” he said. “But we are trying – if it was up to me, I would take out the betting.” This may solve the problem in the short term, but it is unworkable and simplistic. As Matthew Norman pointed out in these pages yesterday, there will always be dodgy elements who attach themselves to sport, and we might as well just accept that and get on with it. Nevertheless, the revelation that even tennis – a tranquil, well-mannered pastime – may not be as clean as we believed has discomfited those of us who love sport.

We have become used to the fact that very little in the world of athletics or cycling is as it seems, while football, snooker and cricket – games which attract an inordinate amount of gambling – have lived through their own match-fixing scandals. Sport may be a glorious irrelevance, but it matters to people way beyond any tribal or partisan allegiance. At its best, it is an art form. Who can say there isn’t anything poetic about Lionel Messi? Or Roger Federer? Sport can define cultural and national identity. It can give meaning to lives that have none. At the heart of it all, however, is trust, the trust that everything you see, every game you play, every contest you have, is real. Once that is taken away, there is hardly anything left to believe in.

We know the governing bodies of some world sports have been riddled with corruption. That much is proven. But we don’t really care. Not really. These men can line their pockets, and give the World Cup to the most unsuitable country on earth, as long as the simple integrity of what takes place on the field is not undermined. In the end, the purity of the action, the fact that the naked eye can see everything that’s happening, is the only thing we care about. And the damage to tennis of a climate in which we see a forehand and think of a backhander is incalculable.

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