Saturday 22 September 2018

Ewan MacKenna: Blaming Sharapova, Grobler or Froome for state of sport today is a cop out - it is your own fault

Maria Sharapova (left), Gerbrandt Grobler (centre) and Chris Froome (right).
Maria Sharapova (left), Gerbrandt Grobler (centre) and Chris Froome (right).
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Last week, with defending champion Serena Williams unavailable, the honour of carrying the trophy into the Australian Open draw was handed to Maria Sharapova.

It was her first appearance at the event since she failed a drugs test there in 2016, meaning she'd cheated the tournament, the sport, and all those she'd faced on a run to the quarter-finals with meldonium in her body.

Now she was quite literally being celebrated and rewarded after she had shown no remorse.

At face value it came across as one of those bizarre decisions by a major business that you need to take in for a minute and consider the process that brought it about. Craig Tiley, the tournament director and head of Australian tennis, was quick to defend it but, looking in from the outside, it was easy to imagine a lot of well-paid and relatively powerful sports administrators sat around a table and somehow thinking this was a good idea, before heading out to a steak-and-wine lunch. You wanted to shout out at them to cut the crap and to stop treating their customers like idiots, but then it dawned. Why should or would they?

Those behind the call, like Sharapova, clearly have a healthy disrespect for the punters that watch the ads and buy the merchandise and snap up the tickets no matter what. Indeed by Tuesday, when the Russian took to court number two in her return to the scene of her crime, the crowd cheered as she entered without a tinge of irony to Taylor Swift's 'Look What You Made Me Do'. After an easy win, commentator Rennae Stubbs talked Sharapova up too, as part of a love-in written with a nonsense script.

"The reaction from Maria Sharapova just tells you something about what it means to be back at the Australian Open. Just acknowledging the applause. A former champion, a five-time Grand Slam winner, a former number one in the world. The desire is there."

In listing her past in neat numbers though, there was nothing about the prescription she used to get that comprised of 30 different medications to put into her body as if we are to believe that was somehow normal.

In the time that Sharapova was away, few asked and nobody got satisfactory answers to a list of obvious but integral questions:

Why was there previously no mention of the heart condition she used as a defence?

How could she play at the top level with such a problem?

How, running a €30m-a-year business, could no one on her team work out that something she was on had been put on the banned list with loud forewarning and huge flag waving?

Why was she taking a drug recommended for four-to-six weeks for many years?

Why, as a US resident, was she on medication that isn't licenced there?

But how many cared as, if they say you get the politics you deserve, then that applies to elite sport too.

It isn't just tennis or Sharapova, as there are endless examples.

It could be Chris Froome sinking ever lower into the barrel of pathetic excuses as his defence explores whether his kidneys could have malfunctioned, storing up salbutamol only to release a large quantity for his failed test.

It could be the chair of UK Sport Katherine Grainger wanting a blanket ban on all Russians from the Olympics after her own nation came a tell-tale second in the Rio de Janeiro medal table.

It could be IRFU chief Philip Browne speaking out of both sides of his mouth while saying cheat Gerbrandt Grobler deserves a second chance at Munster, although adding they'll still review their strategy.

A whole lot of elite sport is clogged up via mass amounts of bullshit coming from those cashing in on it from above. Ultimately though, that is fans' fault.

In cycling, from post-Festina in 1998 to post-Puerto in 2006 to post-Rasmussen and Vinokourov in 2007 to post-Lance in 2012, we are now onto the fourth new dawn and still people make excuses and defend the indefensible.

In Britain, they meet their Games' heroes with a sort of red-faced jingoism many met Brexit with, but who are we to point after 30 years of pretending our dodgy characters were made of better stuff?

In fact, in our rugby we address body shapes with a shrug and reiterate they are all merely a different species due to a work ethic.

There was a time when, maybe through wishful thinking, sport seemed different to much entertainment in that it wasn't synthetic and scripted. Now though it's about as real as reality TV. With a big name or famous face, we don't ask how they got that star power or what they are doing with it, as sportspeople merely fall into the realm of celebrity that leaves the public in blank-faced and blank-minded awe like zombies. As if a carrot before a donkey or a bottle of whiskey before Fr Jack, we lazily go down the path of least resistance which is usually to pay up and quickly shut up.

The Jewish political scientist Norman Finkelstein, whose parents survived the Holocaust, regularly recalls how he was brought up in an environment where Israel was always right, but years later his own research brought him to a very different and troubling conclusion regarding Palestine. It left him in bed for three weeks suffering depression. Of course sport is trivial beside this, but the point is to change an entire belief system is a painful and brutal experience. So most don't bother.

Humans ultimately want to believe in good surviving, heroes thriving, in the right outcome happening. It's easier than an about-turn and it's easier to keep sport as a form of escapism from our daily lives. Thus, those over such sports take advantage of human nature and societal stupidity, although they are by no means mutually exclusive.

If organisers aren't held to account then, why should they hold themselves to account? Is it not likely FIFA have looked at cycling over the last 20 years and gone 'no way' when it comes to an internal doping audit around their best earners?

If they didn't, they shouldn't be in this game. Morals don't matter and it's bad for business so who would sabotage their own product?

As for the few trying to tear down the curtain and show the reality - those who have thought about the ethics and who make demands of athletes and governing bodies – they aren't representative of the majority. It reminds of a line from comedian Tim Minchin during a graduation speech where he mentions “two entirely different sets of assumptions like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.” The Guardian's Sean Ingle proved as much in an article this week when delving into academic studies that show, despite doping, people come back wide-eyed, slack-jawed and begging for more.

As a friend equated it to recently, “It's like the DC inside-the-beltway political geeks parsing every nuance of Republican and Democratic legislative strategy as if the world depends on it, while Cleetus McCoalminer in West Virginia just wants to know if he's making his car payment this month. He's no idea how he's being f**ked, and trying to explain won't make a whit of difference.”

Many years ago when Richard Dawkins appeared on The Late Late Show, an audience member asked where evolution would take us in 50 or 100 years. He said we'd entered an era of devolution and to see if he was right, just take a look around. At society. At sport. It means the show will go on, but it will stay screwed as where there's no real will, there's no real way. Call it purposeful ignorance or out-and-out idiocy, but that's the public wave that sport, like so many other big businesses, ride on and profit from.

If hope is the last thing to die, then blaming Tidey and Sharapova and Froome and Grobler is again the easy way out. But all of this is mostly on the sports fan. All of this is mostly on you.

Online Editors

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