Greed, money at the root of all sport's evils

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 16/02/2013
Sonny Bill Williams and Francois Botha
Getty Images
FARCICAL: Sonny Bill Williams bout with Francois Botha was no world title fight.

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OPINION: All around the sporting world lunatics seem to be running the asylum.

Everywhere we look, sport is riven by match fixing and drug taking allegations and rampant manifestations of hubris.

Football - the world's No 1 sport - is no longer the beautiful game. Not since the European Union's police division, Europol, confirmed it was investigating 680 suspicious football games throughout the world, 380 of them in Europe.

Europol's probe has extended to 50 countries. Fifa reckons match fixing reaps around $20 billion a year for sophisticated organised crime syndicates.

Fifa knows a thing or two about corruption. A legal document last year revealed two former senior Fifa officials, ex-president Joao Havelange and his former son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira pocketed more than $25 million in bribes from a marketing company awarded the television rights for two World Cup tournaments.

International Centre for Sport Security deputy director Chris Eaton told London's Daily Mail this week that football is in "a disastrous state".

"Fixing of matches for criminal gambling fraud purposes is absolutely endemic worldwide ... arrogantly happening daily."

The fixers are "real criminals - Italian mafia, Chinese gangs, Russian mafia," said Sylvia Schenk, from corruption watchdog group Transparency International.

Then we have the Lance Armstrong cycling scandal. Stripped of seven Tour de France titles and an Olympic Games bronze medal, the disgraced drugs cheat was still annoyingly opaque in his "tell-all" TV interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Closer to home, the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) has slammed the rising use of illegal substances in professional sport and accused coaches, sports scientists, support staff and "complicit general practitioners" of orchestrating or condoning the use.

The ACC also found organised crime groups were involved in distributing the banned substances.

A year-long ACC probe concluded "multiple players across some sporting codes and at specific clubs" were suspected of using, or having had used, illegal performance or image-enhancing drugs, including peptide and hormones. Many were injecting themselves with the substances.

The Australian Rugby Union banned one state club rugby competition for four years for trafficking a banned substance and sidelined another for two years for possession.

That's hardly surprising considering the long culture among rugby players here and abroad of gobbling copious quantities of creatine, a muscle-building supplement, on the grounds it's a naturally-occurring substance.

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Rugby league and Australian rules football are also in the gun with the ACC.

Fingers have been pointed at a former sports scientist at the Essendon Bombers. But Stephen Dank has claimed the substances he administered to players weren't illegal and the Melbourne AFL club's coach knew about the supplements programme.

The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Association (ASADA) called six National Rugby League clubs, Manly, Cronulla, Newcastle, North Queensland, Penrith and Canberra, to a please-explain meeting. Manly, the 2011 champions, claimed they had been cleared of doping. Other outfits have protested their innocence.

But it's the last thing the NRL - Australia's top sports competition - needs on the eve of the 2013 season. Don't forget the current NRL champions are the Melbourne Storm, who were stripped of two titles for massively rorting the salary cap yet are still benefiting because they still have superstars Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk on their books.

Least we get too smug this side of the Tasman, New Zealand sport's credibility has taken a hammering with the ham-fistedness of former Black Caps cricket captain Ross Taylor's sacking and the incredulous elasticity of the truth around Sonny Bill Williams' alleged "world" heavyweight title fight with South African has-been Francois Botha.

Enough has been said about Taylor's toppling. The inter-regnum has been rocky for new skipper Brendon McCallum but he'll soon win acceptance if he belts out more innings like his match-winner against England in Hamilton the other night. Time's the ultimate healer.

The cricket kneecapping also seems small beer compared with match fixing and drug taking.

But the Sonny Bill brouhaha is an absolute farce. First we had the risible situation of a 12-round title fight being reduced to 10. Now, we're subjected to daily tit-for-tat claims and counter-claims by Botha and Williams' agent provocateur Khoder Nasser (who is rivalling Richard Prosser, the misguided New Zealand First MP, for the most outrageous outburst of the year).

The ACC or Australia's federal police should investigate Botha's claim Nasser offered him $A150,000 to throw the fight in Brisbane.

We can't totally blame Nasser or his unwitting dupe, Sonny Bill, or the bilious Botha for this can of worms. Nor can the finger be pointed at Sky Television because the fight didn't go 12 rounds.

The buck stops with us - as viewers and sporting consumers.

Who in their right mind in these recessionary times would squander 40 bucks to watch a gifted rugby player duke it out with a washed-up 44-year-old pug?

Not anyone brought up in the 1970s, heavyweight boxing's golden era graced by true champions like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman and genuine contenders of the calibre of Ken Norton.

So, we can blame ourselves. It wasn't as if the SBW fight was on taxpayer-funded free-to-air TV. No-one forced us to watch it.

We could have sent our 40 bucks for to the City Mission or gifted a gardening kit or piglet to poor people in Papua New Guinea through Oxfam's outreach fund.

How can a scrap between a bloke, who should only really be competing in Fight for Life, be billed as a genuine "world" heavyweight title contest?

How could a reputable promoter say, as Dean Lonergan did, that Sonny Bill should now take on David Tua?

Tua may be almost as old as Botha but he once won an Olympic Games bronze medal and went the whole distance with a true world champion, Lennox Lewis. The Rooster would be plucked if he fought Sonny Bill. Look what happened to Shane Cameron.

We may admire Williams as arguably the most naturally gifted rugby player from either code in New Zealand history. The superb athlete may well have made a great boxer had he taken it up at 10 in some gnarly trainer's gym in south Auckland.

And never forget he donated $100,000 from a 2012 fight to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Fund, arguably the most altruistic act by an individual sportsperson we've seen since the quakes.

But has Williams made as successful transition to boxing as Olympic rowing champions Mahe Drysdale and Joe Sullivan did to multisport in completing last weekend's Coast to Coast? Not on your life.

We in the media can't wring our hands about the SBW fight fiasco. We're the ones that created the monster. We fell for the hype generated by his promoters, instead of laughing and saying: "No Sir, Mr Nasser".

How can a part-time pug get more publicity from one stage-managed bout than amateur boxing garners in an entire year? The answer's quite simple. We're obsessed with celebrity. Our critical faculties are suspended. Truth goes out the window.

The more I go on in this gig the more I seriously doubt whether professional sport has any merit other than enriching its participants.

We shouldn't begrudge young people making the most of their talents. But the the game changes once one is paid to play. The stakes get higher, especially with sports betting (legal and illicit) now running rampant.

All the current cancers in world sport, match-fixing and drug-taking in particular, can be linked to a common denominator - money.

The Europol and ACC probes are the tip of an iceberg. It's only going to get worse.

It'd be easy to give up on sport in despair, but games can still provide magical, mitigating moments.

We had two of them in Christchurch last weekend with Lydia Ko winning the New Zealand Open women's golf title and Braden Currie becoming the new Coast to Coast champion.

Ko - is a 15-year-old amateur outplaying professionals. Currie is a semi-pro, who earned prize money of $30,000 last year from 15 adventure racing and multisport events.

Perhaps there's a lesson there somewhere.

- The Press

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