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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Corruption in sport: society or sport itself? (Part 1)

Yesterday, Russian President, Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Russian sport was affected by widespread doping, but that the Russian state had nothing to do with it. Not a surprising statement on its face. Even less surprising when we hear that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) mission to Moscow was satisfied with what it found during this last week. For those who don’t know, a WADA technical mission arrived in Moscow on 17 December to retrieve the raw data of the Russian laboratory that was heavily implicated in that country’s doping scandal.

“Satisfied?”- Who was satisfied? Well, the Russian Sports Minister! We’ll see what WADA has to say. But this particular event raises a deeper issue. Thinking about corrupt behaviour generally, if a person is corrupt and knows it (as the McLaren Reports clearly demonstrated was the case of Russia) that person will make sure evidence of such corruption is not voluntarily disclosed. In corruption cases, therefore, incriminating data often ‘disappear’ or is found to have been manipulated to hide the truth.

In these kinds of cases, the authorities are often powerless to then do anything about it unless vigorously supported by a legal system and governance that will apply the system. This then goes to the question of what incentives are on governance institutions to apply their own rules.

Amongst a slew of current reports that reflect badly on sport integrity, the Independent Review of Integrity in Tennis today announced that “tennis faces a serious integrity problem”. Thinking then about corrupt behaviour, an interesting factoid from the report goes to show how systems create or reinforce unintended incentives. The report states “Only the top 250 to 350 players earn enough money to break even. Yet there are nominally approximately 14,000 'professional' players. The imbalance between prizemoney and the cost of competing, places players in an invidious position by tempting them to contrive matches for financial reward.”

Corruption is a product of people acting rationally when the incentive to cheat outweighs the consequences. Put simply, when the likelihood of being caught is vanishingly small and the rewards of success are high – what should we expect?

The answer to that question should be: “much better than what we get.” In my fifty years of coaching, however, I have seen little evidence of sport spending the time on sport ethics as it does on the technical, tactical and physical aspects of performance. And as for the mental side of preparation; do we spend it on thinking ethically? Not much. It’s focused on feeding the performance.

The philosopher Machiavelli, argued that those who rule the country needed to develop qualities of ruthlessness that were inappropriate for citizens, or what he called “common morality”. In 1967, Harvard scholar Joseph Nye, wrote “Corruption is the abuse of power by a public official for private gain”. Nye’s definition, whilst commonly used, needs expansion to help us understand corruption in sport. At its core, corruption is a matter of morality, and that is how when should view it as athletes, coaches, administrators, parents - indeed as citizens. My next series of posts will dig deep into how we might think differently about sport to address what appears to be endemic corruption.

(photo source - Daily Express)

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