Category Archives: Sport


Maracana Stadium

Q: A contagious disease, the threat of violence, insanitary conditions, a constitutional crisis,  and now … a doping crisis! All in a day’s work for the organizers of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, eh?

A: Yes: every summer Olympics has its share of problems in the lead-up to the tournament, but they’re usually about getting the stadiums built in time, or completing the transport links. For Rio, these are minor problems: they have much more serious crises to avert. Do you want me to go through them?

Q: Sure. Start with the public health cataclysm.

A: Cataclysm might be overstating it a bit, but the Zika virus certainly has the potential to develop into a global pandemic. Zika is the virus spread by mosquitoes — those pesky little long-legged flies with a taste for human blood. Aedes aegypti is the name of a species of mozzie that carries this Zika virus and if they bite a pregnant woman her baby could develop a devastating birth defect. This has already happened in Rio. The danger is that, if some of the expected 500,000 visitors to the Olympics get bitten, then return home, then the virus goes with them. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says the mosquito type has been recently reported in Madeira, the Netherlands and the north-eastern Black Sea coast. You can bet that, after the Olympics, it will be many, many other places too.

Q: So this is potentially a huge public health risk. Who in their right mind would go to a part of the world where this kind of mosquito thrives?

A: The Olympics has a great pulling power and not only for audiences. Athletes train for four years and, when they finally get the chance to compete in the most prestigious tournament in the world, they will run a cost-benefit calculation through their mind and decide it’s a risk worth taking.

Q: Professor Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa has recently written a warning in of the Harvard Public Health Review in which he calls for a complete postponement or even cancellation of the Olympics. He thinks it’s that serious.

A: And I find his arguments compelling. I was in a discussion with him recently and agree with his findings. But I don’t think the Olympic organizers will listen. As always, money overpowers everything, including public health considerations.

Q: How much money are we talking about?

A: Well let’s start with the sponsors’ money. The International Olympic Committee , or just IOC for short, has about 30 global corporations in its team of commercial “partners,” as it likes to call them. These include Samsung, Visa, Omega as well as the ever-present pair, Coca-Cola and McDonalds.They pay for the rights to use the Olympic rings logo, advertise themselves as Olympic sponsors and generally associate themselves with the Olympic brand. Because of the different levels and lengths of contracts, I can only estimate the value of sponsorships for this particular tournament, but I don’t think $1 billion would be wide of the mark. And I know we tend to use the word billion as we used million a decade ago. But remember: a billion is a thousand times more than a million.

Q: A thousand million American dollars? That’s £691,488,810. Serious money!

A: Actually, it gets more serious. The media deals are enormously complex because they’re often structured over several Olympic cycles and there are subcontractors who buy the broadcast rights to whole territories and then sell on to individual broadcasters. The IOC has one particularly lucrative contract with NBC television worth $7.5 billion and which stretches to 2032. But for this single Olympic games, the overall value of media contracts is, I’d say, slightly north of $4.1 billion.

Q: Why so much?

A: Advertising. The 2012 London Olympics was broadcast to 115 different countries, reaching an audience of 3.8 billion homes. That’s a formidable reach and very, very few televised events can claim such a fantastic demographic. Football’s World Cup is one of them, of course. So, if you’re an advertiser and you want to show your products to the biggest possible consumer market, then you advertise during the Olympics. And tv and radio companies charge you more. So they make money. The IOC charge a lot in the confident expectation that broadcasters will cough up, secure in the knowledge that they can charge advertisers a premium. The USA’s NBC charges about $100,000 per 30-seconds and has already taken $1 billion in advertising spots. The rate is dwarfed by those attached to some sporting events, like the Super Bowl, but, of course the Olympics lasts over two weeks. So a cancellation at this late stage would create pandemonium for both sponsors and broadcaster.

Q: But surely the huge corporations tied up with the Olympics are insured against a cancellation or some other kind of catastrophe.

A: Definitely. But imagine the brand damage: the Olympics is a popular portal for advertising and marketing because of its connotations: health, wholesomeness, purity, virtue — squeaky-cleanliness. Public health disasters are not part of the brand profile.

Q: Which brings me to the other potential problems. I was reading the Brazilian footballer Rivaldo had warned prospective travellers to stay away from Rio. He thinks they will be exposing themselves to violence.

A: I’m always skeptical about these kinds of warnings. Every big city in the world carries its own menace: cities are, almost by definition, places where rich and poor live side-by-side. Well, perhaps not side-by-side: there are affluent and impoverished areas of most cities. Rio is no different. Of course, there are dangerous parts and most clued-up travellers will give them a wide berth. All the same, when someone like Rivaldo reckons Brazil is getting “more ugly,” I guess we should take notice. You might expect Brazilian athletes to support the Games and encourage fans from everywhere to flock to Rio. He’s warning them off. Add to this the report that Rio’s Olympic waterways are rife with pathogens — bacteria that can cause disease — and that corruption is rife and you come up with the picture of a country that is not quite fit-for-purpose as an Olympic host. Matter of fact, Rio and the Olympics makes Quatar and football’s World Cup look like a match made in heaven!

Q: Almost inevitably there’s been an ominous doping scandal, the difference this time being that this one has arrived before rather than during or after the Games.

A: Let me recap: Russia is already suspended from the Olympics and it will petition to have its suspension lifted before the start. It’s case is now being considered. Kenya has also been mentioned, though nothing has materialized thus far. Russia is known to have had a state-sponsored doping programme. Kenya was recently declared “non-compliant” with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules. It would be a major blow if either or both nations were excluded from the Games for drugs violations. Russia was fourth in the 2012 medals table and Kenya is the preeminent force in middle and longdistance running. And it gets worse: dozens of athletes expecting to compete in Rio de Janeiro could be barred from the Games. The International Olympic Committee announced that it had retested urine samples taken at the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and would retest more from the 2012 tournament. The intention is presumably to strip those who tested positive of their medals and, if they planned to compete in Brazil, ban them.

Q: Hang on, I’m not quite getting this. The athletes at Beijing and London were tested in 2008 and 2012 respectively and, we presume, came out clean and so kept their medals. How can they testers change their minds now and declare them “cheats”? It seems to go against the entire ethos of sports. I mean, there’s a contest, an outcome and winners are declared. OK, we know dopetesting can take a few days. But eight years? This means that every single medallist at Rio keeps the medal conditionally and, if at some future unspecified time, their sample shows up a banned substance, their medal could be annulled.

A: That’s it. Every result at Rio will be provisional. And it will remain provisional for ever. The testing equipment available now will detect some substances. But athletes are intelligent enough to realize that, if they intend to enhance their athletic performance, they don’t want to use substances that will be detected. That’s why they use designer drugs, these being drugs that are synthetically made to escape detection. It’s possible that at some point in the future, the testers will catch up — as they apparently have with some of the substances used in 2008 and 2012 — but, there’s also a better-than-even chance that they’ll never devise tests sophisticated enough to catch them.

Q: All the same, this has to be an unsatisfactory state of affairs. It means that the 78,838 fans at the Estádio do Maracanã (pictured above) plus the 3 billion+ tv audiences will be watching events in which the results will be inconclusive and always subject to change.

A: Correct. But try to think of the Olympic Games less as a sporting tournament and more of a spectacular exhibition — a showcase for the world’s seventh biggest economy. Between August 5-21, there will be plenty of competition, but there’ll also be the grand opening and closing ceremonies and two-and-a-half weeks of the most intensive marketing imaginable. The Chariots of Fire bolted long ago.



Pearl Izumi Tour Series - Kirkcaldy (4)

Q: Is cheating fair?

A: “The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.” This isn’t an answer: it’s a quote from John Lily’s Euphues (1578). A contemporary of Shakespeare, Lily could have had no clue how his phrase would become so widely used as a mitigation of cheating. Of the many modifications, one stands out: “All’s fair in war, I believe,” claims the central character John Pendleton Kennedy’s 1954 novel of the American Revolution, Horse-shoe Robinson. “But it don’t signify a man is good.” OK, this is hardly a definitive statement, but it does highlight how the rules of fair play might be acceptably broken in some circumstances, though without necessarily making the violation morally right, or exculpating the offender (i.e. signifying he or she “is good”).

Q: That’s actually a better answer than I’d expected. I was hinting at the recent case of “mechanical doping,” as they’re calling it. A motor concealed in a bike at the world cyclo-cross championships suggests competitors are prepared to try any means, fair or foul, to gain an advantage. It is banned in competitive cycling and the UCI, cycling’s governing body, has acknowledged it is a problem. Cycling is still trying to come to terms with performance enhancing drugs, of course. This is another form of cheating, isn’t it? After all, to cheat is to deceive, trick, swindle or flout the rules designed to maintain conditions of impartiality. So how can this be fair in any situation?

A: To answer this we need to establish the circumstances in which cheating takes place, and the conditions under which cheating is practiced – the context of cheating. Prior to professionalism, the aim of sporting competition was to perform at the highest level our bodies and minds permitted. Rules were designed as guiding principles, directions regarding appropriate behavior. Participants played on their honor: they trusted each other to be fair and honest. In a sense, the rules were superfluous. Later, when winning became the ultimate goal, rules became limits – boundaries of permissible behavior; they were supposed to govern conduct and specify what we could and couldn’t do. Rules not players governed acceptable conduct. It’s impossible to be precise about the time of the change in ethos. Sports such as association football and baseball were both professional in the nineteenth century, whereas rugby union didn’t go open until 1995. The Olympics were amateur for much of the IOC’s history; but, during 1986-92, it introduced amendments in its charter that effectively permitted professionals to compete. Even allowing for this unevenness, we can surmise that, while competitors in all sports were committed to doing their utmost to win, those who competed for money rather than glory alone had to deal with temptation.

Q: We’re always hearing phrases like, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” and “Football is a matter of life or death? … It’s more important than that.” Competitors are encouraged to adopt a professional win-at-all-costs attitude. So, it could be argued that the athlete who is prepared to risk disqualification and the defeat, shame and sometimes humiliation in order to win embodies the very qualities that define competitive sports in the 21st century, right?

A: I’d say so. Cheating is an undesirable but inevitable consequence of professionalism. You could say it’s an admirable characteristic of determined competitors who are prepared to do whatever it takes to win.

Q: So how does cheating manifest today?

A: I’d say in three main ways:

(1) An intentional infraction designed and executed to gain an unfair advantage. Perhaps the most notorious unpunished instance of disguised cheating was Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, when he palmed the ball into the goal of the England football team in a 1986 World Cup game. Video evidence showed that the Argentinean player used his hand illegally and probably intentionally. The referee didn’t see it and awarded a goal amid much protest. Maradona didn’t confess his sin to the referee. For that matter, he’s never openly acknowledged it. There are too many cases of this kind to chart here. But let me just give one more, this time from boxing. In 1983, the unbeaten Billy Collins, then 21, took a terrible pounding from the normally light-hitting Luis Resto, who was 20-7-2 at the time. Collins’ injuries were so bad that he didn’t fight again and was killed in a car accident nine months later. It was found that padding had been removed from Resto’s gloves. Resto was banned from boxing and, later, convicted of assault, conspiracy and criminal possession of a deadly weapon (his fists). His cornerman, Panama Al Lewis was convicted of assault, conspiracy, tampering with a sports contest and criminal possession of a deadly weapon. They both served 2 years in prison.

2) An unintentional infraction that goes unnoticed by game officials and which the offending player fails to report. It’s difficult to imagine an instance when a coach would not condone cheating if there was a guarantee that it would go undetected and an advantage to be gained. In a 1997 game of football, Liverpool player Robbie Fowler was awarded a penalty after the referee ruled that Arsenal’s goalkeeper David Seaman had fouled him. Fowler informed the referee that Seaman had not fouled him, but the referee was adamant that the penalty stood and Fowler duly took it. While Fowler’s spotkick was saved and driven home on the rebound, one wonders what might have happened had the player remained true to his original confession and deliberately sliced the ball wide of the goal. Even if the original intention of the athlete was not to cheat, the structure of the game actually inhibits him or her from doing much else.

(3) When rules are observed, but the spirit of competition is compromised. During her losing match against Steffi Graf in the French Open final of 1999, Martina Hingis (a) demanded that the umpire inspect a mark on the clay surface after her forehand landed adjacent to the baseline, (b) went for a 5-minute toilet break at the start of the third set and (c) served underarm when facing match point on two occasions. While the actions did contravene the rules, they prompted Graf to ask the umpire: “We play tennis, OK?” A dramatic fall by Arsenal player Eduardo in 2009 was the subject of intense, yet ultimately inconclusive scrutiny. Playing against Celtic in the European Champions League, the player tumbled after what appeared to be minimal contact with an opponent, and was awarded a penalty, from which his team scored. A retrospective charge of diving, or “simulation,” yielded a two-match ban from Uefa; this was subsequently overturned when governing organization failed to prove its case. Whether the player deliberately deceived the referee remains a talking point, though the absence of sanction suggests that the official view was that Eduardo was fouled and simply exaggerated his fall. Soccer players are so notorious for this that Fifa introduced rules that forced all injured (or pseudo-injured) players to be stretchered off the field of play before they could resume playing. Boxers employ a comparable strategem, exaggerating the effects of low blows to gain time to recover when under pressure.

Q: From what you’re saying, it seems instrumental qualities, such as prudence and calculation, are now parts of the character of professional sport. So were there no cheats before money became a factor?

A: There were, but perhaps not so many as today. Earlier this week, Lawrence Donegan, author of Four Iron in the Soul, who called me about a story he was writing on cheating in sport for the New York Times. I emphasized the importance of the filthy lucre, but added that we should guard against assuming amateurs were pure and virtuous. In 1976, for example, when the Olympics were amateur, Boris Onischenko, in a desperate bid for gold in his last Olympics, wired a switch under his leather grip, which triggered a hit when pressed during the fencing event of the modern pentathlon. He was disqualified after officials noticed that hits were registering even though his foil wasn’t even touching his opponent. Money is the primary variable in motivational mixture behind cheating, but prestige, distinction and the status winning brings to the victor are also ingredients.


West Bromwich Albion v Leicester City

Q: I notice Leicester City footballer Jamie Vardy (pictured above) has apologised for what he calls a “regrettable error in judgment” and will be investigated by the club over a video showing him allegedly using racist language to a fellow gambler in a casino. He called him a “jap” three times. Do you want to hear his explanation?  “It was a regrettable error in judgment I take full responsibility for and I accept my behaviour was not up to what’s expected of me.” What does he mean, “what’s expected of me”?

A: I guess he thinks people regard him as a — and here comes that term again — role model. I can barely think of a term so hopelessly overused in recent years. Let’s just pause and consider what exactly a role model is: a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated. That seems a reasonable working definition. So, who in their right mind regards footballers as exemplary citizens whose behaviour should be imitated?

Q: Hang on! Before you get going on one of your usual tirades, I think a lot of people do regard them as role models. If they didn’t, why would we be kicking up such a fuss over this guy, and, while we’re on the subject, the three players who Leicester sacked (Tom Hopper, Adam Smith and James Pearson) after they filmed themselves hurling racist abuse at three local women during an orgy on the club’s trip to Thailand in last May?

A: First, because it makes a brilliant story for the media. Sorry to sound crass, but it does. Second, because football’s governing organizations have historically set themselves up as the moral guardians of the sport. In truth the Football Association are proficient in negotiating lucrative contracts with the media, but have no meaningful way of controlling the behaviour of ill-educated young men with incomes comparable with movie stars.

Q: Ill-educated? You sound your typical arrogant self. What right have you got to characterize professional footballers in such a negative way?

A: Football clubs scout players voraciously nowadays. That means with great enthusiasm, by the way.

Q: Let me qualify my use of “arrogant”: egotistical, conceited, supercilious and self-important, too. Move on.

A: As a consequence, they are lining up prospective players at younger and younger ages. At nine, Wayne Rooney was in Everton’s youth team, and he made his professional debut in at the age of 16. That was 2002. Cristiano Ronaldo was played high quality football for Andorinha at 12. Today, it’s the norm to approach players before their teen years. If someone approached you when you were, say 13, and said: “Sign with us and you’ll be a professional footballer the second you leave school. You can order that Aston Martin now, if you like. You’ll have a million in your bank account before you’re old enough to vote,” it would hardly incentivize you to study for your GCSE’s or start applying to universities. Basically, it means you no longer have to study. I didn’t say footballers were not intelligent. Many are. But you’re just not going to be motivated by education when you can earn a fabulous living doing what a great many boys and young men love doing for nothing.

Q: Are the clubs obliged to arrange education for younger players?

A: Yes and several clubs have admirable academies. But, as you know, to get anything out education, you have to be motivated to learn. If you’re head is elsewhere, you’re not going enrich yourself intellectually. And this leaves us with a generation of players who are largely uneducated, bringing me back to the question: who thinks they are role models?

Q: So what are footballers for?

A: To entertain us, and to induce us to buy stuff. The world loves watching football, as we all know. So footballers provide great entertainment. Their other main function is to appear in advertisements for practically every product under the sun. We associate them mainly with sports gear, but just pick any pro player and trace how many products he hawks. The likes of Ronaldo endorse dozens of products. What they don’t do is instruct us. They never offer themselves as exemplary citizens or moral paragons and I doubt if anybody seriously regards them as such.

A: But the implication of what you’re saying is that we should allow players their lax behaviour and forgive them for their trespasses, so to speak.

Q: I wouldn’t go that far. We embarrass, sometimes even shame celebrities from other sports and difference branches of the entertainment industry. Politicians are a bit different because they are meant to be exemplary — well, to an extent. So I think, if a footballer abuses someone and behaves boorishly, then they should be accountable. I just don’t think we — and I mean all of us — should think they have let us down. What else do we expect of them? Every time we learn about an incident like the Vardy case, we start tut-tutting and complaining how the transgressing players have let us all down. They haven’t. If anything they live up (or down, depending on your perspective) to our expectations. Role model is just a term the media like. Nobody seriously thinks footballers are there to be emulated. Heaven forbid if they did.

Depression in sport


Ian Thorpe ‘in rehab for depression’, says managerThe five-times Olympic swimming champion, Ian Thorpe, has been admitted to rehab after suffering from depression, local media said on Monday.

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The recent news about Ian Thorpe  would have been stunning ten years ago. Today, we are used to hearing about former Olympic champions, football greats, rugby legends and stars from many other sports who quickly fall from grace once their competitive career ends. Depression is prevalent among athletes across the whole spectrum of sports. Why? After all, these are people who have achieved more than most of us and enjoy the adulation of sports fans. Perhaps the very factors that drove their success also contribute towards their depression. One of the chapters of my book Making Sense of Sports examines the specific causes of depression in sport. I include it here: Sinking Under Pressure


Next month’s games will embarrass Russians … but may change them

Russia Figure Skating Cup Of Russia Ashley Wagner

Sochi. A few weeks ago, you’d have been forgiven for confusing it with a Japanese dish served with raw fish, or Nigella Lawson’s ex. Soon, Sochi will be one of the world’s news capitals. Sochi 2014 will be known in much the same way as Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972. The cities and the years denote the place and time of the Olympic games; but they are memorialized not for sport, but because they serve as emblems of social and political events. In Mexico, two African American athletes staged a silent protest against racism while on the victory rostrum. At the Munich Olympics the Palestinian splinter group Black September killed nine members of the Israeli Olympic team and killed two others to highlight how the political rights of displaced Palestinian Arabs were being disregarded. In both cases, the Olympics effectively served as a global showcase.

Sochi is the Russian port in the foothills of the Caucasus, where, on February 7, the 2014 Winter Olympics will open. At a cost of US$51 billion (£32 bn), it is the most expensive Olympics in history and offers an opportunity for Russia to publicize its status as a major, advanced, capitalist power, worthy of overseas investment. It will do more than that.

Last year, Russia introduced a law that criminalizes “homosexual propaganda,” making public displays that promote gay rights, including handholding, punishable by imprisonment. The law became an international cause célèbre. US president Barack Obama criticized the legislation on television hours before cancelling summit talks with Russia’s Premier Vladimir Putin. British actor Stephen Fry, who is openly gay, wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, urging a boycott of the games. Putin, according to Fry, “is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did to Jews.” The statement was criticised as ridiculous by several commentators. David Cameron acknowledged Fry’s concerns but insisted, “we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.”

The games will definitely go ahead, though many athletes, gay and straight, will wrestle with a dilemma: by going to Sochi they may appear to endorse a Russian leadership that, far from safeguarding the interests of minorities, has passed laws that legitimize prejudices entrenched in the former communist bloc. The law is actually consistent with the retrogressive assault on civil society and political opposition since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. The jailing of the dissident female rock duo Pussy Riot was a warning shot and the release of the singers two months before the end of their sentence has been seen as a transparent attempt to take out some of the sting of world opinion prior to the Olympics. “This selective amnesty was not an act of humanism,” said band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. “It happened because Putin is afraid that Olympic Games in Sochi will be boycotted.”

The antigay law has Putin’s fingerprints all over it: he has consistently sought to promote a conservative ideology, advocating Russian nationalism and close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. It was entirely within his power to veto the controversial law. Instead he pandered to the homophobic and xenophobic elements of Russian society. But the costs will be punishing.

Putin knows he can’t mute the protests. The establishment of “public protest zones” to contain protesters will be ignored, just as the designated areas Beijing sectioned off to absorb protests against China’s human rights record and its policy on Tibet, went unused during the 2008 Olympics. Protests near the competition were quelled and activists either detained or deported. Putin has a reputation as a hard man, but he wouldn’t countenance such draconian measures, especially as he is forewarned. He recently declared gay people “can feel relaxed and comfortable” at the games as long as they “leave the children in peace”.

Obama has delivered him a slap in face by sending three openly gay members in the official US delegation. Several athletes have publicly stated their intention to flout the law. One of them is Ashley Wagner (pictured above), a 22-year-old figure skater who has murmured: “This is the opportunity for the Olympics to be ground-breaking.” She will no doubt incite Russian officials by wearing rainbow earrings and nails on the ice and, with others, is still thinking about how best to make her views known. “Too many people are quiet,” she reckons. Wagner could emerge as an improbable symbol of protest.

Billie Jean King, the first internationally famous female athlete to come out as gay in 1981 after her partner filed a palimony lawsuit against her, is in the American delegation and has alluded to Mexico 1968: “Sometimes, I think we need a John Carlos moment.” Carlos (below, on right) was one of the two black Americans who raised a defiant gloved fist and bowed his head as the Stars and Stripes was played; he was subsequently banned from sport, but history has transformed him into a champion of civil rights. Sochi may well produce a comparable event. But will its effects be as far-reaching?

Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1986 Olympics
For as long as anyone can remember the only certainty about inequality, exploitation and persecution, from despotism to slavery to apartheid, is that sport can either support them or challenge them. For those who piously insist sport and politics should be kept separate, the paradox is a torment: sport can be a potent political instrument, as the Gleneagles Agreement of 1971 shows. Signatories affirmed their opposition to apartheid by agreeing to end sporting contacts with South Africa. It became an effective adjunct to other forms of pressure to isolate South Africa and render it a pariah.

Sochi will hyphenate the introduction of Russia’s antigay laws with the football World Cup, which the nation will host in 2018. If the nation trembles with dread and staggers in astonishment at the strength of opposition to its regressive legislation, then it will surely ponder the even fiercer pushback in four years time.  We’re not going to witness a Tahrir Square-like rally or another Tiananmen Square. But there will be an event that causes wide-ranging changes that will either transfigure Russian society or lay bare its primitive repudiation of fairness, justice and egalitarianism.


This has been published simultaneously by the LSE Politics and Policy blog

Gay footballers: Clubs and agents stop them coming-out*


The recent announcement by German player Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay has once more raised the question of why more gay footballers do not feel confident enough to come out. I’ve conducted research on the subject which reveals what prohibits gay footballers from coming out

Robbie Rogers

When Marcus Urban revealed how, during his professional football career, he lived in fear of having his sexual orientation made public, it surprised no one. The once-promising East German youth international played in the 1980s, after all. Only one prominent athlete was known to be gay: Billie-Jean King’s sexuality became public in 1981 when she was sued by a former lover, who also worked as her secretary. Other gay athletes cautiously waited for the fallout from King’s revelation. Three decades later, there are openly gay athletes, not only in tennis, but in most major sports, even the traditionally macho sports like boxing and rugby. Yet Urban’s sport seems to have preserved its prejudices, as if in aspic. In the entire history of the sport, only two professional players have declared themselves to be gay during their competitive career. English player Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 after threats by a newspaper and, more recently, American Robbie Rogers (pictured above) retired, came out, then resumed playing, making him the only openly gay professional footballer (Anton Hysén, is also outspokenly gay, though he is a semi-professional in a minor Swedish league).

Is football out-of-step with other sports? Is its culture anachronistic – conspicuously old-fashioned? Or are there other, hidden factors that prohibit gay players from being honest and maintain the code of silence that proved such a torture not only to Urban, but to countless other gay footballers? There are gay footballers, probably hundreds if not thousands of them. Why do they not come out? The popular reason is: the hostile reaction of fans. The explanation may have been credible in Urban’s time, but are today’s fans ferociously opposed to gay players? No: in fact over 9 out of 10 fans insist homophobia has no place in modern football. The absence of gay professional players is becoming an embarrassment – it projects the misleading impression that football culture is mired in bigotry. This is not opinion; it is the conclusion of a study of 3500 fans I conducted with my colleague Jamie Cleland. While fans emphatically rejected that they harboured unfriendly feelings towards gay players, they understood the reasons why they were conventionally identified as the cause. They are easy targets who rarely have the opportunity to answer back And there is logic in what they argue: when Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz and Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas (below) came out, fans were indifferent, unconcerned about their private lives. Football fans would respond similarly. Because there are no openly gay players outside the USA’s – and I do not intend this to be insulting – somewhat insignificant Major League Soccer, we cannot test this argument.

Gareth Thomas Reads

More plausible explanations lie inside the football industry, where agents and clubs are always sensitive to the market. Agents earn their living from commissions derived from their clients’ (that is, players’) earnings. It is probable that they persuade gay clients not to gamble, at least until their careers are at an end. Clubs are conservative institutions and wish to preserve a status quo that has endured, in some cases, for over a century. “The club with a gay player” is probably not a label relished by football clubs. While officially clubs condemn homophobia and other types of discrimination, it is easy to imagine how they advise players to remain in the closet … at least until they move to another club, or retire completely! While this state of affairs persists, fans get the blame and the real culprits stay hidden. So the scarcity of gay players provides a spurious evidence of the presumed malevolence of fans. And fans can do nothing to destroy a myth that has been in football at least since Urban’s time.

* This is a translation of the author’s article, which was published in the January 2014 edition of the German cultural affairs magazine Kulturaustausch


More questions than answers …


Tom Daley

Q: So what’s all the fuss about Tom Daley, the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist?

A: He’s recently announced via a tweeted video that he’s gay.

Q: I thought we already knew that.

A: Well, there have been rumours circulating for a while and many people have, I think, assumed it. But Daley reckons the rumours have turned nasty, so he thought he’d go on record, so to speak.

Q: Will it hurt him?

A:  Not at all. His fans are not going to desert him. The advertisers who use him to endorse their products won’t drop him. And itv will appreciate the publicity bonus for the new series of Splash!

Q: So again, why the fuss?

A: Because there is still a degree of risk involved when an athlete, or, for that matter, actor, rock singer, politician or any person in the public eye comes out. They can’t be 100 per cent sure there is going to be approval. For instance, Britain’s first sex-change parliamentarian, the UKIP MEP Nikki Sinclaire has told how she was born a boy but had gender reassignment surgery on the NHS 18 years ago. This was big news and, let’s faces it, with some justification: it was unusual. But Sinclaire has not been on the end of a sharp backlash, has she?

Q: So you think the days of bigotry and homophobia are gone?

A: I didn’t say that. Enlightenment hasn’t spread to all parts of the world. In Qatar, where they are intending to play a football World Cup, homosexuality is still a punishable offence. In Russia, where there is going to be a winter Olympics, there are laws against which people have been protesting recently. And there are many other parts of the world mired in old-fashioned prejudices. I guess you have to believe that sport can be a force for good and work to change the mentality in such parts of the world.

Q: Football is the most popular sport in Britain and, indeed, the world. Yet, to my knowledge there is only one openly gay player and he’s playing in California in a league that doesn’t really have much impact. Right?

A: Yes, Robbie Rogers plays in Major League Soccer. Previously, he’d played for Leeds United. Now if he had chosen to come out while at Leeds, it would have been interesting to discover what the reaction would’ve been. My guess is that it would have encouraged some acerbic banter from opposing fans, but nothing too malicious. I’ve done research on this subject and over 90 per cent of football fans oppose homophobia and want to get rid of this reputation they have for being homophobes. The only way they can prove this is by not responding to a gay player in the way many people expect.

Q: You have to be kidding. You’re not seriously suggesting that a player in the Premier League or Championship could declare himself to be gay and not get what football fans call “stick,” are you?

A: Stick is typically bantering. OK it can be a bit caustic at times, but it is generally good-humoured and often quite witty. Fans visiting Brighton often chant, “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?” or, “You’re standing up ‘cause you can’t sit down!” I don’t think these are malicious. And frankly I don’t think gay people are offended by this kind of ribaldry.

Q: One more question: would advertisers run a mile?

A: Quite the opposite: imagine the brand value of “the Premier League’s first gay player.” I would think any gay player who comes out as gay would have great marketing potential. Anyway we’ll find out soon. I predict a gay footballer in Britain will come out over the next couple of years. @elliscashmore




Sir Alex’s torment

“The big problem for me … he fell in love”

I remember getting a call in my hotel room in Manchester in February, 2003. It was from a radio station that wanted me to go on air to talk about David Beckham’s fraying relationship with the then manager of his club Manchester United, Alex Ferguson. “Why? What’s happened?” I asked. “Apparently Ferguson has cut Beckham’s eye.” It became known as the “flying boot incident.” Ferguson had vented his rage at Beckham after an FA Cup tie against Arsenal and, for some reason, kicked a stray boot, which flew through the air and collided with Beckham’s face. With his typical flair for dramatizing small incidents, Beckham wore his hair fastened back with an Alice band so that the wound – treated with steri-strips – was clearly visible. The professional relationship between the two men had probably been deteriorating for a while, but this was the first tangible evidence. I could only speculate on radio that this was probably the beginning of the end. Ferguson was irritated that the player had become a focus of more media attention than Manchester United. One can only imagine what torment Victoria caused him: it seems she was pulling her husband in many directions, all of them wrong from Ferguson’s perspective. If she wasn’t taking him to Lenny Kravitz’s birthday bash, she was displaying him on the front row of Giorgio Armani’s new launch or introducing him to her friends Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. For the hard-bitten Glaswegian, it must have been purgatory.

Ferguson’s new autobiography confirms what we all knew about his loss of patience with Beckham, though at the press conference to accompany the book’s publication, Ferguson let slip arguably an even more interesting insight: “The big problem for me [was] he fell in love with Victoria and that changed everything.” Read that again: the big problem for Ferguson was that Beckham fell in love with Victoria. This is exactly the kind of blunderingly insensitive remark that earns Ferguson respect from many people, who regard him as a kind of master of the dark arts of psychology. But is he?  He’s a good … no great football manager, perhaps the best there’s ever been, but he can also be boorish, crass and frequently shows no feeling or concern for others. How unfortunate for Ferguson that Beckham met a woman, fell in love, had children and became a celebrity athlete on par with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Beckham, writes Ferguson in the book, thought “he was bigger than Sir Alex Ferguson.” The very idea, eh? “The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts.” Football fans might argue that successful managers have to be authoritarian in the sense that they need obedience from players at the expense of personal freedoms. But this statement sounds like it comes from someone who can’t bear the prospect of one of his minions having the temerity to challenge him or even occupy other people’s attention. When Ferguson writes, “I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents.” You wonder what irked him more: the fact that Beckham was distracted by the lure of celebritydom, or that global interest in Posh and Becks, as the couple was then known, eclipsed interest in either the club or Ferguson. There was clearly a clash of egos at the club and, with no prospect of limiting Beckham’s celebrity ambitions or prising him away from Victoria, Ferguson’s only option was to release him. Beckham transferred to Real Madrid within months of the flying boot incident. Ferguson regards this as a “shame because he could still have been at Manchester United when I left. He would have been one of the greatest Man United legends.” We’re all sure he could too. But instead he became just a common or garden global icon.


In defence of Gordon Taylor

I’m not an admirer of Gordon Taylor, but I’ll defend his right to spend his £1 million yearly salary however he chooses. The papers are roundly condemning him for his gambling habit. The chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – the players’ union – has warned his members about the dangers of gambling and has even used the term “zero tolerance” to deter his members from betting on matches. Certainly, there are strict rules about players betting on games in which they are involved. This is no more than common sense.

Taylor has also stated: “Gambling is possibly the biggest danger facing our members.” Even allowing for a measure of exaggeration, there is nothing inconsistent about this statement. Taylor may truly believe gambling does pose dangers for young men who find themselves in positions where they command the adulation of fans and the kind of money they could barely have dreamt of.

Taylor is acting responsibly if he advises his members to guard against gambling irresponsibly. But, if he enjoys a bet himself, so what? He earns the kind of money that allows him to place bets of £25,000 a pop without any undue discomfort. And if he ran up debts of £100,000, as one newspaper reports, so what? This is like someone who earns £50,000 a year owing £5,000 – a considerable chunk of change, but not ruinous.

Taylor’s advice to players on gambling has credibility: he is someone who obviously likes a bet and presumably enjoys the thrill or frisson that’s peculiar to gambling. So when he counsels players about the subject, his advice has substance because he knows about the attractions of gambling. Were the advice to come from a goody-goody who was sternly opposed to gambling, players would pay it no heed.

Who has the right to tell Taylor how to spend his money? He is not a gambling addict – in fact, there is no such thing: the medical profession abetted by uncritical social scientists has perpetrated this myth. Same goes for “problem gambler”: this is another fiction. There may be gamblers who have problems, but that is another phenomenon. And in any case, Taylor’s only problem at the moment is a pious media seemingly hell-bent on destroying him.

Were it discovered he drove an Aston Martin One-77 at just under a million quid, would he be disqualified from issuing guidance on expensive cars? Players favour Bentleys and Lamborghinis, as we know.

I have not agreed with many of Taylor’s decisions in the past and have criticised him for his stance on other issues, but, on this occasion, I am with him: he is perfectly entitled to spend his money however he chooses. Gambling is legal in the UK. It is not hypocritical for him to talk on the subject and offer advice to his members.

Football fans are not homophobic

The Crown Prosecution Service’s new initiative aimed to tackle, among other things, homophobia in football is badly conceived, poorly planned and misdirected. “As well as tackling violence, disorder and criminal damage, we will deal robustly with offences of racist and homophobic and discriminatory chanting and abuse and other types of hate crime,” says the CPS

Most of these are already punishable offences, though the issue of “homophobic” chanting and abuse is new. With my colleague Jamie Cleland, I’ve conducted research on the supposed homophobia among football fans: contrary to popular wisdom, a huge majority of fans oppose homophobia and think it has no place in football. In fact, most fans welcome the day a professional footballer will have the confidence to come out in Britain. There is only one pro player who is openly gay and he plays in America’s Major League Soccer.

Just under 10 per cent of fans questioned in the survey of 3500 fans expressed hostility to homosexuality and resented any liberalisation in attitudes towards gay players witnessed in other sports.

Nearly a quarter of all people playing, coaching or refereeing professional football personally know a gay player. This suggests that gay players are known inside the football industry, but are afraid to come out. Why? If it’s because of the possible reaction of crowds, they have nothing to fear. Gareth Thomas, a former Wales rugby union captain who later switched to rugby league, declared he was gay while still at the peak of his professional career. In only one instance did fans react with hostility; for the most part he was not subject to homophobic abuse.

Football fans barrack all players and, it’s true, they often use language that qualifies as homophobic. But in the occasionally baffling logic of football fans, this does not mean they hate, dislike or disapprove of gay players. It is, in the fan’s jargon, “stick” —  sharp but playful remarks designed to put opposing players off their game. There is, for sure, homophobia in football, but it lies in boardrooms and in the offices of football agents. Gay players are being persuaded that it’s in their best interests not to reveal their sexual preferences while they are still playing football professionally. Football clubs may fear the brand implications of being known as the first club in the English or Scottish leagues to have an openly gay player. Agents are no doubt wary of the effects on sponsorship deals – remember agents earn their commission on players’ earnings. The publicist Max Clifford, who is rumoured to have been consulted by at least three gay professional footballers, has revealed that he has advised footballers not to come out because the sport is “steeped in homophobia”.

Of course, it’s much easier to blame fans and introduce tough measures to silence them. Football will soon follow other professional sports and see some of its top players come out: in recent years, rugby union, hurling and tennis have seen star players reveal that they are gay while at the height of their careers.  It is not fans who are stifling them. The taboo surrounding gay players in football is a myth.