Corruption results from the transformed cultural and economic position that these global events have come to occupy

The summer, of course, is the high noon of sport. The World Cup, the European Athletics Championships, Wimbledon, the Tour de France and the British Open are among the highlights. Over the last 10 years, the prominence that sport occupies in global culture has been transformed. It has become one of the key components of the global entertainment industry: great sporting occasions can be accessed by the press of a button in our living rooms, television sports rights have become hugely valuable, sports stars are global icons and role models, commanding millions in both income and sponsorship deals.

While the popularity and centrality of politics has declined, that of sport has risen in inverse proportion. If once sport was an appendage of politics and economics, the relationship has changed, at times to the point of being reversed. Sport is big business in its own right, and sport is where some great social issues are played out, as the still somewhat mysterious events surrounding the Zidane chest-butt illustrate. Where else are issues of race exposed so openly to public view?

But this summer some dark and ominous clouds have appeared on the horizon that could well come to threaten the seemingly irresistible rise of sport. Its appeal as a great spectacle depends on its credibility, the belief that what we think is true is in fact – more or less – true: that, in the now ubiquitous phrase, borrowed from sport, sporting contests are conducted on a level playing field.

This summer, alas, has provided growing reason to doubt this. Just prior to the World Cup, we learned that the top Italian football teams, most notably Juventus, were involved in a conspiracy to ensure that the referees chosen to officiate their matches were on their payroll and biased in their favour. The tentacles of this malfeasance reached beyond Serie A into European games, and so this cannot be dismissed as a purely Italian matter: the European championships themselves have been debased. As I watched the World Cup, I found myself wondering just how many matches were being officiated by bent referees in the pay of one or other of the teams. Once that thought occurs, and becomes widespread enough, then the place that football occupies in the hearts and minds of millions is inevitably brought into question.

Or take the Tour de France. The fact that cyclists were busy doping themselves with the connivance and encouragement of the teams, with the team doctors handing out the syringes and the pads, is hardly new. But this year, on the eve of the race, two favourites were banned for suspected drug-taking, and the “winner”, Floyd Landis, after a “superhuman” performance on stage 17 – subsequently found to have been drug-induced – faces being deprived of his victory and banned. All this after the widespread but unproven suspicions about the recently-retired, seven-times winner Lance Armstrong. This is a race that has lost all credibility. Why would anyone want to watch or sponsor it? It is irredeemably tainted. One can only assume that virtually all – perhaps all indeed – of the riders are taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Or take athletics. One of the world’s top sprinters, Justin Gatlin, recently failed a drugs test and faces being banned from the sport. During the cold war, the performance of the East German athletes was routinely put down to drugs: little did we know then that American athletes were heavily engaged in similar activities, with the official US bodies perfectly happy to turn a blind eye. Drug-taking has become so widespread that it is now almost impossible to watch the participants in some disciplines without asking: “who is on drugs?”, or even: “are they all on drugs?” It is certainly far more than the numbers actually found guilty, for two reasons: first, the drug witch doctors’ science is well in advance of that of the regulatory bodies, and second, the official bodies – not only in athletics – continue to prefer to live in a state of denial.

All these growing expressions of corruption are products of the transformed cultural and economic position that sport now occupies. The rewards have become so great that the temptation to cheat has grown commensurately. Moreover, the regulatory bodies – the FA being a case in point – are far too impotent, and often incompetent, to govern their sport in the way now required: by taking it by the scruff of the neck, confronting the new and powerful adversaries – be they clubs, businesses, players, television companies or sponsors – and introducing rules to meet new challenges, and implementing them with draconian sanctions. Alas, that has not happened. Sport is increasingly played according to the tune, and rules, of those with the biggest bucks, whether their practices be legal or illegal.

No doubt when the Premiership kicks off today, the idea that English football suffers from any of these ailments will be dismissed as mischievous fantasising. But can we really be sure that one or two of our own referees are not on the take from some wealthy club? After all, corrupt referees are not confined to Italy: prior to the World Cup a German referee was exposed for fixing the results of matches. The Premiership, moreover, is host to one of the most venal expressions of the virus under-mining sport. For the Chelsea phenomenon – the desire of a Russian, whose enormous wealth was obtained by dubious means, to then, in effect, buy the game by using his riches to purchase players at whatever the cost, with the FA looking on like rabbits dazzled by headlights – is one of the best illustrations anywhere of what is wrong.

Sport is no longer a matter of a level playing field but is reduced to the wealth of the highest bidders and their growing willingness (and that of their hirelings) to play fast and loose with the rules.
So what does the future hold for the Age of Sport? Will it lose its new place in global culture? Not impossible, but rather unlikely. Will its huge popularity be accompanied by growing public cynicism? Almost certainly. Could cheating undermine the popularity of some sports? Very likely: both cycling and athletics are in big trouble, and others could follow. If the Age of Sport has been all champagne and roses hitherto, then expect our love affair with its newly-acquired prominence to become increasingly tainted by scandals about cheating. Sport is losing its shine and allure.