NYTimes Re-post: “A Reasonable Expectation of Honesty”

“But the reason that sport has the capacity to wield such power lies in the belief that it is what it seems — a visibly honest contest. Once that changes, the game is diminished, for player and spectator alike.” – Alan Cowell

Yesterday I read an article from the NYTimes’ Alan Cowell, and rather than recap, I honestly just have to cheat and re-post because it expresses my sentiments so clearly.  The moral make-up of our sportsmen and women is as essential to their game as a great jumpshot or a powerful backhand spring.  It’s why most of us prefer to follow college basketball rather than the antics of the NBA.  Olympians, probably more than any other class of athletes, are held to the highest ethical standard because they are (supposed to be) competing for things like honor and pride, words that have been long-erased from the vocabularies of our previous heroes, politicians and our leaders of industry.  Below Alan Cowell makes a good case for why current athletes, mired in doping scandals and money matters, should look to heroes of the past to inform their present:

A Reasonable Expectation of Honesty


BERLIN — In this once-divided, once-imperial city, there are many monuments and memorials. Among the more modest is the Jesse Owens Allee, a street near the Olympic Stadium where the black U.S. athlete won four gold medals at the 1936 Games, providing an emphatic and enduring rejoinder to Hitler’s views on racial supremacy.

And, at a time when global sport is so often beset by charges of malfeasance and corruption, the street, a short, leafy and tranquil thoroughfare, somehow seems a fitting place to ponder the striving for excellence that Owens symbolized.

In their youth, people play games and compete for the love of it, for the display of skill, for the hope of glory, for the sheer exhilaration of pushing themselves beyond pain to perfection. They play to win and to be seen to win — in the boxing ring or on the soccer field, at the wheel of a car, on track and field, on the grass and clay and composite of tennis courts. As professionals, too, they play for money.

Then, in more advanced years, or perhaps because they are inspired by the fray, people pay to sit in the stadiums and tune to satellite television to watch and cheer on their champions, believing that what they see before them is true.

Sport, in other words, answers our yearnings for heroines and heroes who reach out from the track or the arena and draw us to them.

“It was not just the four gold medals in Berlin, not just the aesthetic, wonderful style with which he ran and jumped,” Willi Daume, the now-deceased president of the West German Olympic Committee, said when Stadium Allee in what was then West Berlin was renamed in 1984, four years after Owens’s death at 66. “It was the fascination of Jesse Owens’s personality that won people’s hearts.”

Yet, after his Olympic victories, there were no book deals, no TV contracts for this great U.S. athlete. Back home, he worked as a playground janitor. Hitler had snubbed him publicly in Berlin, but there was no laudatory invitation to the White House, either. When his amateur career ended, he was paid to run exhibition races against cars, trucks, motorcycles, horses and dogs, according to his obituary in The New York Times. Gold medals alone, he said, did not put food on the table. “Sure, it bothered me,” he said. “But at least it was an honest living. I had to eat.”

Only later did be become a well-paid inspirational speaker on tour.

Of course, no one would pretend that sport has simply been about competition in the way the original Olympians envisaged it. Money has enhanced it, raised standards. The practitioners of politics have found and exploited sporting emblems — consider the boycotts of South African teams in the apartheid era, followed by Nelson Mandela’s embrace of the Springbok rugby squad, once reviled as the very soul of white exclusivism.

But the reason that sport has the capacity to wield such power lies in the belief that it is what it seems — a visibly honest contest. Once that changes, the game is diminished, for player and spectator alike.

It would be naïve to deny the crookery — boxers throwing fights; cyclists and shot-putters stuffed with steroids; betting scams in cricket; rigged wrestling; bribed jockeys; the 1998 corruption scandal in the bidding for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The bigger the budgets, the greater the temptation.

Money floods through top-level sports, lofting star players on a glittery tide of opulence. But in return for their wealth, we expect honesty. We can tolerate the vast sums paid to soccer heroes if they score beautiful goals. The whiff of malfeasance, of expediency, breaks the unspoken covenant.

And, looking at recent events — particularly the maneuvers leading to the election of Sepp Blatter to a fourth term as president of FIFA, the world soccer organization — it is hard to keep the faith.

Mr. Blatter, 75, was the sole candidate. His only potential challenger on FIFA’s executive committee had been suspended days before the vote along with another executive committee member as charges of corruption swirled around the body’s highest figures.

“FIFA’s reputation is now at an all-time low and obviously the election with just one candidate was something of a farce,” Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain declared in Parliament.

Across Europe, pundits and analysts reached for analogies to describe the rich, closed world of the global soccer administrators and came up with comparisons to the mafia, Josef Stalin, the North Korean dictatorship and the wiles of Machiavelli.

At a time when the Arab world is rising up in quest of democracy, said the columnist Stephen King in The Irish Examiner, “has FIFA caught itself on the wrong side of history?”

In his years as FIFA president, said Oliver Fritsch in the German weekly Die Zeit, Mr. Blatter has “made soccer rich.” But he has led the global game into “moral penury.” Just this week, not directly related to FIFA, match-fixing suspicions surfaced anew in Finland and South Africa.

Unlike in Owens’s day, sports are run as businesses by closed coteries of administrators and entrepreneurs who devise their own rules. Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and would most likely remain so whoever ran it. That gives its global administrators the easiest of products to market to the greatest number of people.

The sport, said Hajo Schumacher in the newspaper Die Welt, “produces so much enjoyment and advancement, so much achievement and creativity, so much global mythology and togetherness.” Yet it is run by “a gerontocracy whose behavior exemplifies the complete opposite.”

Strolling on Jesse Owens Allee, I recalled a remark attributed to the athlete during his post-Olympian speaking career. “How many meals can a man eat? How many cars can he drive? In how many beds can he sleep?” he said. “All of life’s wonders are not reflected in material wealth.”

Maybe they are not and maybe they should not be. But his point is harder to make now than it was in his day, when material reward came second to honoring his own land and shaming a dictator.


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