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Issue #1570      24 October 2012

Culture & Life

Winners and losers

Charley Brown, in the comic strip Peanuts, was once admonishing his baseball team that they had to win because “no one remembers the runners up”, at which point Linus (ever a thorn in his side) pipes up, saying “I do Charley Brown”. He then goes on to list, going backwards from that year, all the teams that filled the minor placings in the League. Poor Charley Brown, who can never catch a break, just stares at Linus, muttering “Good Grief” under his breath.

Lance Armstrong.

It’s one of the great contradictions of modern life: When I was a kid, we were admonished all the time that what was important was not winning but competing to the best of your ability. But however much we believed it, life regularly proved it to be untrue. It was the person who won the race who got the ribbon, the person who won the boxing match who was given the purse, the football team that won that received the trophy, etc etc.

Above all, it was the winners who had their names inscribed in gilt lettering on the School Honour Board, who got their picture in the paper, who were given expensive presents by grateful authorities. When the artificial distinction between amateur and professional sport was finally swept away, sponsors in capitalist countries became free to plaster their brand names all over selected sporting figures, and to use these winners to promote their products or services on television in particular.

Socialist countries gave their sports stars awards and honours as well as public recognition. But they did not (indeed could not) compete with the level of remuneration on offer from the advertising industry for prominent sporting figures. There were very rich pickings indeed to be made from celebrity endorsements, if you won. Charley Brown had it wrong: it wasn’t that no one remembered the runners up, it was that no one was prepared to pay big money to them. That went to the winners.

The difference between first and second might be measured in hundredths of a second these days, but the difference in earnings from endorsements can be huge. With so much literally riding on whether an athlete comes first or second, is it any wonder that so many resort to “performance enhancing drugs”? Add to that the prevailing (and all-pervading) cynicism of capitalism which confidently asserts that “everybody does it!”, and it becomes a wonder that in fact there are some who don’t.

Then, on top of all that, add in capitalism’s dominant ethic that wealth excuses everything, and you have a moral universe in which seemingly only a fool would refuse to accept chemical help or take other unethical measures to artificially enhance his or her chances of winning.

At this point I had better say that I am not suggesting for a moment that cheating is restricted solely to sports practitioners from capitalist countries. That would be an absurd claim: some coaches in the GDR dispensed performance-enhancing drugs like they were lollies, no doubt telling themselves that teams from other countries were doing it, so why shouldn’t they? There was the notorious case of the champion Soviet fencer who rigged his foil so that it showed a hit when he had not even touched his opponent. He was doing it for fame, prestige and glory. Eventually caught out when he became overconfident, he was sent home in disgrace and stripped of all his victories and awards.

If some cannot resist the temptation to cheat when the only reward is honour and glory, what must be the temptation when riches are added as an inducement?

One of the saddest sights on television recently was the pitiful face of Phil Liggett, doyen of cycling commentators, as he tried to hide his dismay at the revelations about Lance Armstrong, seven times winner of the Tour de France and now confirmed drug cheat.

What must have rankled with Phil Liggett would have been the memory of the number of times he had ecstatically reported on Armstrong’s victories. He still found it hard to believe that his idol had feet of clay. At the same time, he would surely have been dismayed to discover the extent of the problem, the way the culture of cheating extended into the top echelons of his beloved sport of cycling. Not only was it known to the top officials of the sport, it was actually encouraged and connived at, and most importantly, covered up.

Now, sports officials are having to consider what comes next? They can blame it all on “a few bad apples” and carry on as before, but top performers will be forever suspect. Or they can accept “the reality of drug use” and allow sports persons to use any and all chemical aids they wish. This has been proposed over the years by people who think sport is just about winning and who don’t care about any wider ramifications.

The third alternative is one which capitalism in particular would have trouble adopting: stop sport being used as a commodity and an adjunct of the advertising industry. When athletes have a guaranteed job and are paid a wage like other people, there will – as we have seen – still be instances where athletes will cheat in desperate attempts to secure honour and prestige. But if big money is removed from the equation, there will be a lot less motivation and consequently fewer instances of unsportsmanlike behaviour.

But for that to happen, the advertising industry would have to be brought under social control, along with the rest of big business. Another compelling reason to support socialism!  

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