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Sport offers us a tumultuous time of ethical highs and lows

Sport provides two types of clarity often denied to us in life. There is a clarity of purpose in the attempt to cross the finish line before your opponents, and there is clarity of outcome: either victory or defeat. However, an ethical reflection on sport resists such clarity. For cheating and corruption can at once reveal ethical failure in victors, courage in whistleblowers, and progress (or otherwise) in sports governance. There can be no easy classification of the ethical highs and lows. But as we start 2017, are we at least putting into place the pieces that might make this year more peaks than troughs?

These days every year begins with an update to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA’s) list of prohibited substances and methods. In 2016, the inclusion of meldonium – a treatment which improves blood flow – precipitated many failed tests across many sports and one high profile casualty: tennis star Maria Sharapova, who claimed use of meldonium for health reasons and blamed an oversight its continued use after the ban. Her case served as yet another example that the problem of potential doping extends right up to the very pinnacle of sport. Nevertheless, we can take heart from the fact that the highest paid female athlete in the world was not deemed too big to fail.

Sharapova feels the heat at a March 2016 press conference. EPA/MIKE NELSON

Russian dilemma

The doping theme remained prominent as the year progressed with Richard McLaren’s two-part report that accused Russia of state-sponsored doping on an unprecedented scale. The timing of the first part of the report, just weeks prior to the start of the Rio Olympics and the Paralympics, threw the games into disarray. Should Russian athletes be allowed to compete? Should all Russian athletes be excluded or only those who trained in Russia? Who should decide the issue anyway: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or individual sporting governing bodies?

The IOC seemed uncertain about whether they had the power to take the kind of action for which journalists, sports administrators, and the general public clamoured: an outright ban on all Russian athletes.

Eventually, the matter was decided, somehow, between international federations and a small IOC sub-committee. Not all Russian sportsmen and women were excluded in the end, but Yuliya Stepanova, the whistleblower whose testimony sparked the McLaren investigation, paid the price for her courage, as she was banned from the games. It was sports governance on the hoof, and it brought scant consolation to existing or potential whistleblowers.

Whistleblower: Yuliya Stepanova at the 2016 European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam. EPA/MICHAEL KAPPELER

With the Paralympic Games taking place after the Olympics, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) had more time to deliberate. They decided to ban the entire Russian contingent. One might admire the IPC’s tough stance in the interests of clean competition or bemoan the injustice to honest athletes who happened to be Russian. Again, ethical highs and lows are not so easily parsed.

The Russians protested, not without some merit, that the McLaren Report relied on one-sided whistleblowing and afforded them no adequate opportunity to reply to the allegations made. Part two of the report, however, substantiated many of the allegations and provided evidence that Russian doping was both systematic and widespread. It asserted that between 2011 and 2015 more than 1,000 Russian athletes were:

Involved in or benefited from [a] systematic and centralised cover up and manipulation of the doping control process.

Shining in the gloom

Amid cheating, reporting, and punishing in 2016, a handful of athletes proved that sportsmanship is not dead (just yet). One of the highlights of the Olympics came in the women’s 5,000 metres, where New Zealander Nikki Hamblin and US runner Abbey D’Agostino collided after Hamblin tripped four laps from the end of their heat.

D'Agostino and Hamblin at the finish of their race. EPA/SRDJAN SUKI

D’Agostino quickly got to her feet, and seeing that Hamblin still lay on the track, helped her up. Both athletes then continued to run, but within a few yards, roles were reversed when it became clear that D’Agostino had injured her right ankle from the fall. Hamblin was then the one to stop and attend to her injured opponent. The two embraced at the finish line and, despite not meeting the qualifying time, were rewarded with a place in the final.

A similar story can be told of the Brownlee brothers in the World Triathlon Series in Mexico. Alistair gave up his chance to win the race so that he could help his brother, Jonny, suffering from severe dehydration, over the finishing line. Common humanity need not be lost in the heat of competition.

The year drew to a close with another whistleblower, Andy Woodward, waiving his right to anonymity to speak publicly about the sexual abuse he endured as a young footballer at the hands of his then coach, Barry Bennell. This encouraged many others to come forward to speak of the abuse they too had suffered in English football during the 70s, 80s and 90s. Despite global developments to protect and safeguard children and youths in sport, the sheer scale of the case has shocked the football establishment, and the police investigation now involves more than 400 victims and 150 potential suspects. The bravery of some sports people – Stepanova and Woodward notably in 2016 – ensures we are at least fighting the right battles.

And we should celebrate some institutional ethical progress too. In the past year, the international governing bodies for both tennis (ITF) and ice-hockey (IIHF) have established ethics and integrity committees, adding to those already in place within athletics (IAAF), football (FIFA), and the Olympic movement (IOC).

In addition, the European Commission recently awarded €3m to a consortium of universities, including Swansea, to develop a new role of sports ethics and integrity officers" within sports administration and governance. These developments signal that both government and governing bodies are finally getting serious about cheating and corruption in sport. Even if clarity about the need for these developments was achieved only in the midst of crisis, sports governance may finally come of age in 2017.

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