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Why sport and sham morality go so well together

When the profits of multinational corporations depend on an aura of Corinthian virtue, expect moral contortions

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

Wimbledon next week. Like the tournament dress code, all sports want their heroes white. In terms of virtue rather than skin colour. Sport demands the appearance of righteousness. Its default position is to pride itself on the moral lessons it teaches the rest of us.

All of which makes sport one of the great hypocrisy opportunities of modern times, lagging behind only religion and politics. A sports star who wants to make serious money must set himself up as a ‘role model’.

So when the great tennis player Andre Agassi was a boy in ‘hot lava’ shorts, he set himself up as a lovable ‘rebel’ who embraced Christian virtues. He spoke of his pride at being a role model. He played under a long-haired fright wig, sometimes terrified that it would fall off at match point, and developed a taste for crystal meth. He knew despair.

Then he rebelled against hypocrisy. He shaved what was left of his hair and made a comeback from 141st in the world. He later released a ghosted autobiography — Open — that told the truth. And sport was appalled. Not because of the bad behaviour and the despair, but because he told us about it. He broke the code of hypocrisy.

Sport is hooked on self-righteousness. This is because modern sport is a living contradiction. It was founded and codified as a tool to teach morality: but it is now a global business. This has created the extraordinary situation in which money-making is intimately connected with the appearance of morality.

Sport was supposed to teach the virtues of sacrificing self to a cause and obedience to authority. It offered fun and taught virtue. That principle remains fossilised in the sports industry. You need the appearance of virtue to make the tills of multinationals ring. This is a standing invitation to hypocrites.

Sepp Blatter set himself up as the apostle of righteous. His line was that a man with a mission for world peace must expect setbacks — and when they came, they made him not angry but sad. Blatter made it clear that opposing Blatter was morally wrong. His enemies by definition operated out of envy, spite, racism, neocolonialism and vindictiveness. ‘Football is one of the few universal tools mankind can use to bridge gaps between nations and people and to symbolise what unites our planet over what divides it.’ Amen.


‘Fifa has to set an example for others to follow,’ Blatter said, and no doubt it has. Hypocrisy is the key — and perhaps the most profound of its pleasures. Not just power and success and money, but at the same time playing all the world for a fool.

It’s a pattern you can find across sport. Juan Antonio Samaranch was for 21 years president of the International Olympic Committee. It’s been suggested that his former Falangista affiliations gave him the opportunity to take lessons in power from Franco.

‘We pursue an ideal, that of bringing people together in peace, irrespective of race, religion and political convictions, for the benefit of mankind,’ Samaranch said. That ideal led to the scandal of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, in which Fifa-esque corruption was exposed. Reform had to come in its wake.

One of sport’s great attractions for older people is that it offers power over the young, and the moral front is a traditional part of it. That’s why today we hold to the absurd belief that top performers in sport have an obligation to be ‘role models’: to act as moral examples. In short, to bring up our children.

We don’t ask that of pop stars, another group traditionally imitated by the young, but a sports star who wishes to maximise his earning potential must be a person of conspicuous virtue — and that makes sport irresistible to a certain kind of hypocrite.

Perhaps the greatest of them all is Lance Armstrong. Read his book It’s Not About the Bike. Armstrong becomes a great cyclist by overcoming adversity, is struck down by testicular cancer, rises again and once more rules the world of sport. He won the Tour de France seven times. Inspiring stuff.

The implication throughout is that he did it by sheer strength of character. Read the book and you want to be like him. You could buy a silicone bracelet bearing the words ‘LIVE STRONG’; it showed your support for the Lance Armstrong Foundation (now the Livestrong Foundation) which supports cancer sufferers. It showed the world you were tough but virtuous.

‘Quite simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honourable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough.’

That’s from Armstrong’s book. He was later revealed as the most successful drugs cheat in sporting history. It wasn’t enough to recover from cancer, it wasn’t enough to be a great athlete, it wasn’t even enough to be a great cheat. He had to make himself a saint as well. That’s what sport can do for people.

Then there is Tiger Woods. He had all the great sponsors because he played the part of role model with such élan. ‘If you are given a chance to be a role model, I think you should always take it because you can influence a person’s life in a positive light, and that’s what I want to do. That’s what it’s all about.’ And all the while he was covering waitresses, of the cocktail and the pancake kind, as fast as they could pull them from underneath him.

We don’t have a 21st-century figure in British sport who can rise to the level of those already mentioned, or if we have he hasn’t been exposed yet. The best we can offer is John Terry, leader and legend, former Dad of the Year and the only man sacked twice as captain of the England football team.

He’s a poor thing by Armstrong standards. His status in national life was summed up when he was fined for parking in a disabled space. Terry, owner of one of the most able bodies in England, helped himself to something that might have been useful to a person less fortunately equipped, because — well, he was entitled to it.

Sport’s association with moral virtue comes from ancient times, but it’s alive and flourishing today and it’s an essential aspect of sport as a business. Many people in sport go along with a little humbug just to keep things moving along, but there are always those prepared to take things a little further.

Sport has created a climate in which hypocrites can flourish and the greatest of them all can have the ride of a lifetime — until they are unmasked. Then the world is appalled and joins in a grand chorus of Won’t Get Fooled Again. And we won’t. Not until the next time.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sports writer for the Times; his books include A Book of Heroes: Or a Sporting Half Century.

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