What goes on tour no longer always stay on tour

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009

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The romantic idea that sport builds character leads on to the entirely nonsensical theory that the better performed the sportsperson, the better the person.

Traction for that theory was seriously lost when details of the Manchester United football team's Christmas bash emerged.

A claim of rape was eventually dropped, but nobody has challenged the fact that, after a lazy $NZ9700 was lobbed in by each player, a party at a Manchester hotel was arranged and about 100 young women were invited to join the 40 or so men, wives and girlfriends strictly banned.

A long list of questions cross the mind, but the most pressing is simply this. What the hell were they all (players, management, wives and girlfriends) thinking?

Anyone who thought the party girls were there to discuss interesting aspects of pop culture or midfield defence, must also believe Tom Cruise is tall and Elvis never took drugs.

But as distasteful as young, extraordinarily paid men revelling in such grand-scale Bacchanalia may feel, it would be very wrong to suggest that only the new breed of British-based soccer players would behave in such a chauvinistic way.

It's a charming public fallacy that a group of extremely fit sportsmen, with testosterone levels at a lifelong peak, are likely to remain celibate for weeks on end, especially when on tour. And that isn't a reflection on loose modern morals.

In Warwick Roger's book on the 1956 Springbok tour, Old Heroes, one of the Springboks, Wilf Rosenberg, told Roger the New Zealand Rugby Union made sure that socially there were always women available, usually two to every Springbok.

The team's sex life was so active that in Masterton, said Rosenberg, the team tour committee called a meeting after virtually every player had a local woman in his room overnight and told the players they never again wanted to see a hotel turned into a brothel.

At the Olympics, free condoms have quietly been provided since 1992. At the Sydney Games in 2000, organisers distributed 70,000.

One of the most bizarre untold stories from a Commonwealth Games involved a fit, but very slim, New Zealand woman who had to call for her team-mates' help when a 120kg British field athlete fell asleep on top of her, posing the threat of asphyxiation.

But the public discussion of the issue of sex and sport has never been extensive: it takes something as extravagant as the Manchester United party to put it into the spotlight.

Most teams live by the mantra that what goes on tour, stays on tour. One of the few to break ranks was All Black Chris Laidlaw, who wrote in 1973 that unlike beer, women on a rugby tour were not compulsory. Sometimes taken, sometimes left, they were seen as a commodity to be used if they were readily available and free, which they usually are. The only revelation to enrage former team-mates as much was that players had been known to return from tour with five or six watches up their sleeves to avoid paying import duty.

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Oddly, as social separation between sportspeople, in particular the All Blacks, and the media grows greater, the risk of sexual profligacy being exposed increases.

Personal friendships no longer act as a form of censorship. What once might have been the topic of private gossip, is now likely to be staring back at you from the morning paper. Just ask Rio Ferdinand.


- Sunday Star Times

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