Don’t blame sports journalists for missing corruption scandal

Sports journalists don’t always have the resources to break major crime stories. AAP/Joe Castro

The cheating scandal that has ostensibly bewildered those in command of Australia’s elite sports could end up being the biggest story involving sport in history.

Yet sport journalists, like the officials they are now reporting on, apparently didn’t see it coming.

Whether it is the use of banned substances to get an unfair advantage or whether it is match fixing or “spot fixing”, the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) confirmed last week that both drugs and corruption fuelled gambling have not only infiltrated Australia, but could be rife amongst the professional ranks of sport in this country.

Yet somehow this multi-million dollar industry – which has been able to function not only in the shadows but also with accomplices inside elite sport, including players – has escaped the attention of the sports media.

So did Australia’s sport journalists drop the ball when it came to investigating cheating in Australian sport? The answer is no.

There’s no doubt sport journalists can be guilty of being sports fans, swept up in the euphoria. Some are even sycophantic, asking “Dorothy dixer” questions or going easy on a sports star because they’ll have to interview them again next week. Others take a pragmatic view of “boosterism”, where the sport journalist is in cahoots with administrators to talk up the drama or importance of an event and turn a blind eye to anything that will damage the sport’s image (think cycling).

Sport journalists may have their faults but they are not to blame for a failure to uncover the infiltration of organised crime syndicates in Australian sport. The ACC has had people under surveillance, tapped phones and marked time for more than 12 months, in the hope of reeling in the ringleaders. There’s only one way for a journalist to know about that information and that’s illegally.

No good cop in his right mind would tip off a journalist that a sports star has been caught up in covert surveillance of organised criminals. If sports organisations did not know about the involvement of gambling syndicates or prohibited drug use, then sport journalists stood little chance of knowing either.

The Age’s investigative duo of Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie broke the corruption story on jockey Damien Oliver because it was a crime story that just happened to involve a sports identity. Baker and McKenzie had the contacts in the world of law enforcement to get the story. The racing writers did not.

People who cheat, whether by using drugs or match-fixing go to great lengths to do so secretly. Drug cheats are just like many other people who take drugs, they lie about it. Ben Johnson, Dean Capobianco, Lance Armstrong and many others, have all lied.

In Paul England’s documentary, The Ben Johnson Story, Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, was asked what his response was when accusations of drug use were levelled at Johnson. “Just what everyone says, to this day: deny, deny, deny.” He was right. Armstrong employed the same tactic 20 years later.

Sports people involved in match-fixing or “spot-fixing” are no more likely than drug takers to admit their involvement. It wasn’t so long ago that sporting administrators were not much better. Preferring to protect the sport’s reputation rather than make public sanctions against their own.

When Shane Warne and Mark Waugh supplied information to Indian bookmakers, they were punished by Cricket Australia, but it took years for that information to be uncovered.

Sport journalists might have their suspicions, they might hear whispers from certain quarters that so-and-so is “on the gear” or selling inside information, but it still takes someone to confirm the story and up until now, that someone was more likely to be from law enforcement than sport.

Thoroughbred racing is an example of a sport that has been frustrated by the inability of police to be permitted to share information with its integrity officials. This is about to change. When it does, the information regarding the dodgy practice of sports cheats will cross over into the realm of sports administrators. Then, sport journalists will be able to pick up the ball and run with it.