Sport right now has the taint of being corrupt and rotten: from the Australian Crime Commission’s inquiry to cycling’s ongoing doping problem and Europol’s investigation into football match-fixing (300 games and counting).

And while we can argue over whether the extent of wrongdoing in sport is really a problem or not, what is sure is the shrill panic around the integrity of sport can only lead to one place — increased scrutiny, investigation, regulation and legal attention. Inevitably the response, not unlike the response to the “war on terror”, will be out of all proportion to the actual threat and damage. We have seen this already in the government’s moves to introduce further investigative powers for ASADA.

The establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency is instructive as to the likely outcome of the global panic. WADA came about a little over a decade ago as a response to the perceived threat doping in sport represented to the integrity of the competition. This is, of course, code for the ability to make money from sport via sponsorship and rights. The world, via UN conventions, was then lumped with a global organisation responsible for regulating doping in sport, via the nationally affiliated doping agencies (ASADA here, USADA in the USA).

The monopoly control of sport, exhibited by bodies like FIFA, IOC and ICC, compelled national governments to cede all sovereignty on the issue of doping in sport. Effectively if you want to be in the Olympics, you must play by WADA’s rules, irrespective of your national views on drugs and regulation. The AFL deserves recognition here for trying to resist the World Anti-Doping Code and to go it alone, with health and rehabilitation as the priority rather than punishment. Sadly the promise (or threat of loss) of federal funding has forced their further compliance.

The obvious next step is a World Agency for Sport Integrity (WASI), tasked with ensuring there is no threat to the financial viability of elite sport. This body will take control of regulating, investigating and enforcing the “fairness” of sport so that sponsors, betting agencies and, lastly, fans can use/enjoy the product. Countries will be compelled to cede national sovereignty to WASI police investigators. Information sharing will be compulsory. The punishments, if we judge by the current penalties for doping, will be arbitrary, harsh and hurt the most powerless in elite sport: the athlete.

All of this for a crime that does not kill anyone, that does not destroy anything — except threaten sponsor dollars. Athletes, already subject to the worst surveillance regime in history, will be further marginalised and criminalised — guilt and malfeasance assumed. All of this for sport.

Given the sad, continuous litany of cheating, bribery, diving, fixing exhibited by so many in sport, we must wonder — why is the reality of sport so far from the ideal? Some will decry commercialisation as the problem, yet we had the same issues when sport was poor and “amateur”. Or perhaps it is celebrity and the modern news cycles that require ever more debased grist for the shocking mill — but if there was no malfeasance, they could not report it.

The simpler answer is that we hold sport, in particular professional and elite, up as something special and supposedly beyond the foibles of mere mortals who struggle from the couch to the fridge and back. Sport is not special or spiritual — it is just like the rest of the things we do. The attempts to hold sport to a saintly standard just illuminates the sins. Perhaps we should see sport for what it is, and not what we wish it to be. And we should certainly not allow further investigative bodies, beyond national control, to police sport.

*Dr James Connor researches sport in the School of Business, University of NSW, Canberra. The idea and critique of WASI is a result of collaborative research with UNSW colleagues Drs Mazanov and Huybers, recently presented at an AIS Smart Talk presentation.

Peter Fray

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