Tag Archives: sport

WHY DO ADVERTISERS LIKE FOOTBALL SHIRTS?

Q: As a new football season kicks off, I thought I’d ask you about shirt sponsors. Hull City recently announced a deal worth “seven figures” with 12BETuk, which is a gambling outfit, and Everton has extended its contract with Chang beer for another three years; that’s worth £16 million to the club.

A: And don’t forget Everton’s neighbours, Liverpool, which gets £31 million per year for wearing shirts with Standard Charter emblazoned across the front.

Q: So my first question is: Why?

A: Simple answer is: advertising. The Premier League is broadcast practically everywhere on the planet, so every time a game is shown, viewers see 22 moving advertisements for their product. The cumulative viewing audience is colossal.

Q: When did all this start?

A: Well, you have to remember association football has always been sponsored. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, clubs were usually started by churches or factories. The factories in particular sponsored teams with kit, travelling expenses and even wages after professionalism was allowed in 1864. But they weren’t allowed to use their players’ shirts to advertise themselves. That crept in during the late 1970s, at first in Germany.  Eintracht Braunschweig carried the liqueur Jägermeister logo on their kit in 1973.

Q: That recently?

A: Kettering Town, when the club was in the Southern League, could actually claim to have been the first British club to wear shirts with a brand name, in this case Kettering Tyres, way back in the 1975-76 season. The late Derek Dougan (1938-2007, pictured above in early 1976) was the inspiration behind this innovation. The League told the club to remove the lettering. In 1977, Derby County explored a deal with Saab, the Swedish carmaker, and approached the Football League (this was before the Premier League) for permission. The deal didn’t go through, but, as the League approved it, Liverpool rushed in and clinched a deal with Hitachi.

Q: How much?

A: Difficult to know for sure, but £50,000 is the figure I’ve heard. It sounds a ridiculously small amount now, but back in 1978, no one had a clue whether it would be effective, so it was an experiment.

Q: It’s a wonder no one else came up with the idea before, isn’t it?

A: Not really. Football was a sport in the 1970s, not a popular entertainment. Let me explain: although it was a professional game and the players were well-paid after the maximum wage (i.e. wage ceiling) was abolished in 1961, football was not meant to be a business and fans were not customers; they were organic parts of the club. No one would have dared talk about a football market, as they do today. Clubs were wary of the accusation that they would be exploiting fans.

Q: I imagine the Football League was concerned too.

A: Absolutely. The lettering on the shirts was restricted to a maximum size, 2×8 inches back then, which is a lot smaller than the logos we see splattered across shirts today.

Q: But I guess it caught on straightaway, right?

A: Not quite: the television companies opposed it. BBC didn’t allow advertising of any kind and either refused to broadcast games featuring games with teams playing with sponsored shirts, or made those teams cover the lettering with tape. ITV opposed it for a different reason. As the company relied on advertising revenue, it hated the prospect of effectively advertising products and not only not receiving money for it, but having to pay for the privilege. So it was a highly controversial development. The television companies relented in 1983.

Q: Did fans wear the replica shirts with the sponsors’ names back then?

A: No. If you saw someone in the 1970s wearing a football shirt and trainers, you’d assume they had been playing football. The shirts started to be worn as casual clothes around the mid-1980s. Now, this was a crucial development because when fans started wearing replica shirts, it meant that a commercial sponsor had it’s name or logo worn not just by eleven men, but by thousands and, in the case of well-supported clubs millions of people. I know it’s not a reliable figure, but Manchester United claim over 600 million fans around the world, which is why Chevrolet is paying the club £357million to plaster its logo on shirts for the next seven years (see picture below).

Q: So the fans became walking advertisements?

A: Precisely. If one person had dreamt this up, he or she would have been called a marketing genius. But it came about almost by accident. Remember the figure Liverpool gets paid by Standard & Charter bank: £31 million per year. This reflects Liverpool’s huge fan base, a global fan base too. So all over the world, fans are walking around advertising the bank.

Q: That sounds like exploitation.

A: It is. But no one is forcing the fans to pay fifty quid for the 2014-15 shirts, and, if you tried to sell the shirt without the sponsor’s name, fans would complain that it wasn’t an accurate replica. So they willingly agree to be like sandwich board carriers.

Q: So let me try to sum this up. You’re saying that shirt deals have to be understood in the context of changes in the sport rather than just changes in the regulations?

A: Yes. When shirts sponsorship was introduced, many people thought it was against the spirit of football and hurt its integrity. It also used the fans, rather than respected them. The idea of exploiting fans appalled most people. But, as football has become an entertainment industry, the fans have become customers and, as such, they are there to be squeezed. Look at the hikes in season ticket prices as another example. Fans enjoy wearing team strips and they want their shirts to look exactly the same as the players’. They say the most effective form of advertising is when people don’t realize it’s advertising. This is a perfect example.

Should taxpayers pay for football clubs?

Q: I notice Coventry City Football Club has been involved in a long-running legal case to determine whether a £14.4 million Coventry City Council loan to the 32,000-seat Ricoh Arena operators ACL amounted to unlawful state aid. What’s all this about?
A: Coventry City was formed in 1883 by workers at Singers’ cycle factory and is now owned by a company called Sisu, which bought the financially troubled club in December 2007. Presumably, the company believed that the club could win promotion to the Premier League and would then start prospering. The club’s previous owners had sold the club’s old Highfield Road ground but then spent all the proceeds. So Sisu club rented the Ricoh stadium in Coventry, which is run jointly by Coventry City’s council with the Alan Edward Higgs Charity as Arena Coventry Limited (ACL). The council spent £14.4m of council taxpayers’ money building the arena. So all parties were satisfied with the arrangement: Sisu could afford the rent, the city got a revenue stream, and the citizens of Coventry got a club playing at a terrific brand new stadium. But things didn’t go according to plan and Sisu lost about £36m on players’ wages, transfer fees and other losses. Then worse: the club got relegated from the Championship. Then the £1.2m annual rent for using the Ricoh started to feel unaffordable and Sisu went back to the council to ask for a renegotiation. These took place with ACL and the Higgs charity, but no deal was done. Then in March 2012, Sisu said it couldn’t afford to pay the rent and just stopped paying it.  To stabilize the position, the council borrowed money to pay off ACL’s mortgage, effectively becoming ACL’s banker itself. Here’s where it gets complicated: Sisu actually sued the council, arguing it had acted illegally.  This claim was thrown out when the judge said Sisu “had caused rent to be withheld as a means of exerting pressure [on ACL] in their commercial negotiations”. ACL sued for the £600,000 owed; then, when Sisu still did not pay, applied for the club to go into administration. Sisu were by far the largest creditor due to the hedge fund millions they had put in as loans, and so were able to buy the club back from administration. Last year, ACL offered Sisu dramatic rent reductions, but Sisu refused and instead decided to move Coventry City to Northampton where it rents a smaller ground for its home games.
Q: Hang on! So Coventry City has been playing its home games in Northampton, which is 35-miles away?
A: Yes. And the fans have been boycotting them. With attendances plummeting from an average of 10,900 at the Ricoh Arena to 2,348 at Northampton, the financial losses are punishing. I hear the club has committed itself to playing at least two more seasons there.
Q: So the club will go under, right?
A: Not so quick: we’re now waiting for a legal decision that will determine the future of the club. Sisu have requested the judge orders another hearing to allow the club to seek damages from Coventry City Council. There’s just been a three-day hearing at Birmingham High Court to determine whether the £14.4million Coventry City Council loan to Ricoh Arena operators ACL amounted to unlawful state aid. Taxpayers could be hit with a bill for millions of pounds if the owners of the Sky Blues have successfully proved their case.
Q: But why should taxpayers get stung for the bill if the football club loses money?
A: Well perhaps they shouldn’t: if you think the club is just like any other business, it should stand on its own two feet. If, on the other hand, you think a football club is an organic part of the local community and contributes to the cultural life of the city, then you could argue that the residents should chip in.
Q: I’m guessing people who take the latter position would point to the jobs created by a football club, the tax revenues it generates and the civic pride it brings. Is this a legitimate argument?
A: Again, it depends on your perspective. In the USA, cities clamour for prestigious sports clubs and are often willing to build state-of-the-art stadiums and training facilities to attract them. And we’ve seen something like this in Manchester where the stadium built specifically for the Commonwealth Games was rented out to Manchester City at a knockdown rate. Nobody in Manchester has ever complained about this, presumably because the city has thrived and the club has won the Premier League title a couple of times. In fact, Manchester City are the current champions. You can imagine this row in Coventry wouldn’t be happening had the club gone from strength to strength. But it’s grown weaker. That’s happened in many American cities where taxpayers have discovered their hard-earned money has just been sucked into a black hole of debt. Aggravating the situation is the fact that the players, whether baseball, football, basketball or hockey players, all earn huge wages, whether the club loses money or not.
Q: I’m still not getting a straight answer from you. Should taxpayers contribute to a football club?
A: Sorry to be evasive. I guess my answer is: ask the citizens. We’re going to see a referendum in Scotland soon, so it seems logical to stage a vote among taxpayers for a direct decision. You could ask, for example, are you willing to have an extra £5 per week added to your council tax if we promise to spend it on the football club?
Q: A Sky Blues Tax?
A: Effectively, yes. You can’t assume everyone would vote in favour. Sport is popular, but maybe not as popular as we think. I mean, we all loved the London Olympics. But I wonder how we would have voted if, we had been asked in, say, 2002: are you prepared to pay £200 to bring the Olympics to London? That’s about what it cost taxpayers. I’d like Coventry to get its club back. I think the club has been part of the city’s identity and I can remember back in 1987 when the club won the FA Cup. But equally, I’m not from Coventry, I don’t live in Coventry and I don’t pay my taxes to the city; so I don’t count. I think it’s the responsibility of the club’s owners to run the club in a way that doesn’t lean on taxpayers. Equally, I think the Ricoh owners have to be realistic and realize that the club is struggling so badly that it needs an even bigger discount on the rent, even if only for the short term. One thing is for sure: the club can’t possibly survive for much longer if it continues to play its home games at Northampton. Fans are alienated already and are showing no signs of changing.                                                                                          Q: Knowing what a media whore you are, I’m surprised you haven’t been on tv talking about this subject.
A: Er, I’m afraid you spoke too soon. I’m on this week’s Sunday Politics at 11.00am on BBC One, Sunday 22 June 2014. Sorry about that.

Is it time for football to dump Fifa?

Fifa is an organization run by self-serving individuals with little interest in the health of the sport and an overpowering motivation to satisfy their own avarice, say fans


World Cup: FIFA in spotlight at first conference since corruption claims

The latest scandal to engulf Fifa is the most damaging in a long series of calamities that has underlined what most people already knew: that this is the most corrupt, venal, amoral, unprincipled sports organization in the world, staffed by mendacious, self-serving officers who prioritize their personal interests over those of the most popular game in the world – a game they are meant to govern with integrity.

Should we be surprised? Only if we are pathologically gullible. Fans are certainly not. My recently published book, with Jamie Cleland, Football’s Dark Side collects the views of over 10,000 fans on a variety of football related subjects, particularly corruption and bribery in the sport. Their conclusion is “Fifa is an organization run by self-serving individuals with little interest in the health of the sport and an overpowering motivation to satisfy their own avarice.”
With this in mind, fans have little hope that Fifa can ever reform. Is it beyond redemption? The timing of the latest leak could not be more damaging for Fifa, coming as it does barely a week before the opening of arguably the most prestigious tournament this side of the summer Olympic Games.
Illicit payments and underhand accounting involving present and former Fifa officials have now become commonplace. Fans have practically accepted that men they despise run the sport they love. But the latest vote-rigging story is breathtaking. Think about it: if true, it means that the destination of the World Cup is decided by a group of people, many of whom weigh up the alternatives purely by asking one question: “What’s in it for me?”
Everyone in and out of football knows that Qatar is wholly inadequate for staging a tournament such as the World Cup, no matter what time of the year. Russia too is woefully inappropriate in the light of its antigay legislation, which sits oddly and contradictorily with Fifa’s own equalities policies. Evaluated objectively and with a rational mind, neither bid would have progressed any further than the first round.
Now Fifa faces the prospect of re-voting. The likelihood of this happening is, actually, remote. After all Fifa is not subject to any overarching judicial panel or answerable to any other organization: it is a self-perpetuating club and can, if it wishes, ignore the scandal. Fifa’s President Sepp Blatter is well versed in the art of scandal management: he has navigated his way through many calamities over the years and emerged with his reputation in ruins, but his power base intact.
But this time is slightly different: he faces the probability that Fifa itself is shown to unequivocally corrupt. Even in the administration of its most prized tournament, it has abandoned integrity and awarded the tournament to the country that has greased most palms.
Of course the official report will not be published for about seven months and we should remind ourselves that we are dealing with leaked information. As such this information is still conditional. But the likelihood is that the leak is reliable and that Fifa will have to respond quickly. Resignations, forced or voluntary, are most probable. Blatter himself could theoretically order another vote. But what rational voter would change? It would almost be an admission of guilt. Chances are the voting would still yield the same result.
One thing is certain: Fifa is not, to use a phrase of today, fit for purpose. Other sports have created new governing organizations either to replace or as alternatives to existing regulators and this is possible. But the omens are not good: think about boxing, which now has several competing governors, all with their own champions. Tennis too has threatened to splinter at some points in history. Frankly, any organization that rose up in the wake of the latest scandal would be welcomed. But corruption follows money with the same inevitability as night follows day. It would be naïve in the extreme to imagine any organization charged with the responsibility of governing a major professional sport in which revenues are measured in billions will remain pure for long.

A WORLD WITHOUT SPORT

Should lives be lost or ruined because of something that’s meant to bring joy?”

Rumble In the Jungle Boxing

Just think of a world without sport. Almost unimaginable, isn’t it? No sports to provide us with those ritualistic actions that bring us together, or the traditions that transfer customs and beliefs from one generation to the next. Where would we look for the dramatic spectacles that set the adrenaline pulsing through our system, the savage, gladiatorial conflicts that have no counterpart in any other area of entertainment? Our pantheon of heroes would be seriously diminished without figures like Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth or Stanley Matthews. How we’d miss savoring the delicate skill, the unconquerable combativeness, and the occasional moment when art intrudes into the realm of competition and elevates a contest into an expression of sublime creativity. Sport can be overrated. But not by enthusiasts.

If we had to reconstruct history without sport, it would leave unbridgeable gaps. Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 would be missing. The “Rumble in the Jungle” of 1974, when Muhammad Ali reclaimed the world heavyweight title (above) wouldn’t have happened. Tiger Woods’ historic Masters win in 1997  just wouldn’t exist. Numberless people would have been destined to live in poverty if denied their only opportunity for advancement. There would be no camaraderie, or the filial relationships, the ritual bonding, the common causes that unite people. The peaks of triumph, the troughs of failure, the ecstasy and despair: we would never have experienced how sport can elicit all these. The color would be erased from otherwise monochrome lives.  The commerce, industries, media of communications, and employment sectors that have organized around sport just wouldn’t have materialized.

Surely, we would be worse off without sport. Wouldn’t we? Not according to some: they insist the world would be a better place. They’d argue that the clasp that sports have had on our hearts and minds has been unhealthy and led to all manner of despicable incidents. Sport may not have been the cause of the Munich atrocity of 1972 (above), when eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed, but it provided a global forum. The 95 football fans who were crushed to death at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, in 1985 (below) were gathered for one purpose – to watch a sporting competition: they surrendered their lives for a pointless game. Countless young people illicitly procure dubious substances and ingest them, often in dangerously high doses, for one simple reason: to win sports contests.

The Heysel tragedy, 1985

Embedly Poweredvia Cnn

These are the kinds of reminders that should us make scratch our heads and wonder: is this madness? Should lives be lost or ruined because of something that’s meant to bring joy? The answer is, of course, no. So have we lost the ability to make rational choices? Let’s consider one sports events that seems to offer an answer. Since its inaugural race in 1903, the Tour de France has been responsible for at least 30 deaths, of cyclists (including Britain’s Tom Simpson in 1967, below) as well as spectators. And riding a cycle over 2,130-miles along a track that takes in Champagne country, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Atlantic coast has no obvious utility. Yet, every year, 15 million spectators crowd along the cyclists’ path. All they see is a brief blur of 198 cyclists hurtling past en route for Paris.

The Tour de France is an exceptional event, of course: it remains one those competitions that excite people from around the world, turning rationality on its head. They forget the purpose of the epic ride – which was actually to promote a magazine – and flock to whatever vantage point they can just to catch sight of the competitors whizzing past. Spectators are familiar with the brutal side of this sport, but there is a momentary frisson at the sight of fit and doughty young men submitting their bodies to what is an almost inhuman ordeal, not for 90-minutes, or three hours, or even for the five days test cricket sometimes takes, but for three weeks, with only a couple of rest days.

Most major competitions are over in a fraction of Tour’s duration time, and take place in confined spaces that can accommodate thousands rather than millions. But, thanks to television, anyone who’s interested can watch from anywhere in the world. Association football’s World Cup is actually longer than the Tour and draws an overall audience 30 billion over 25 days, the final game alone drawing 1.7 billion people to their tv sets. That’s about a quarter of the world’s population. A figure like this makes the NFL’s Super Bowl seem like a private gathering of 200 million. Well, all this certainly looks like madness. After all, the sight of grown men cycling at breakneck speeds for three weeks, or eleven supremely fit and trained men trying to move a ball in one direction while another eleven supremely fit and trained men try to move it in the opposite direction serves no obvious function. Nor will the fruits of their labors bring any lasting benefit to civilization. It’s not as if they’ll take us anywhere nearer curing cancer, or bringing peace on earth or saving the planet. And unless we’ve staked a substantial wager on the outcome, we don’t stand to gain anything in material terms. In fact, we will, for the most part, be out of pocket. Enthusiasm for sports is truly universal and seemingly unquenchable: no matter how much we get, we thirst for more. And there’s no apparent let-up to our spending.

images@elliscashmore

This is an edited version of the Introduction to Making Sense of Sports, 5th edition.

 

 

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.

 

Should we boycott next year’s Winter Olympics?

Stephen Fry up

Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected actor Stephen Fry’s request to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in protest at Russia’s homophobic laws.

Vladimir Putin’s new legislation allows for the imposition of heavy fines for anyone providing information about homosexuality to people under the age of eighteen. The Russian city Sochi hosts the games.  Athletes have been warned they’ll be penalized if they “propagandise” on the issue.  The probability is that there will be no boycott and that the controversy will resurface again as we approach the 2018 football World Cup, which will be held in Russia.  By then it’s probable there will be several openly gay footballers.

As with any boycott, there is a balance of interests.  Athletes aiming to compete at next year’s Games will be training hard and dedicating themselves to winning a medal.  Clearly, none of them – straight or gay – would want to sacrifice their chances.  Any protest over political, social or moral issues risks casualties of this kind. Individuals have their own interests at heart and there is nothing wrong with this.

On the other side of the balance sheet are collective issues, in this case one concerning fundamental human rights.  Gay people are currently stigmatized in Russia.  Like all international sports tournaments, the Winter Olympics presents an almost natural forum for events far removed from sport.

Some people, like Cameron, prioritize individuals’ interests over all others.  He believes it would be wrong to prevent athletes competing in what will probably be their career-high tournament. Fry’s call for a boycott suggests he thinks, if Russia is allowed to proceed in an uninhibited way, the effect will be to condone its attitude towards gay people.

So who is right? The first lesson history teaches us is that sporting protests do work: they force issues often involving prejudice and inequality to the attention of the world and concentrate pressure on offending nations to reconsider their policies, laws and sometimes ideology.

The Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 was instrumental in the eventual fall of South African apartheid in 1990: it effectively ostracized South Africa by prohibiting sporting contacts.

Boycotts usually make headlines and attract the rhetoric of interested parties who talk regretfully about how unfortunate is it that sport and politics have become mixed-up.  In fact, sports and politics are not just mixed-up, but entwined so closely that they will never be separated: sport is an effective vehicle for promoting or publicizing causes, principles and aims, aswell as full-blown ideologies. Presumably, this was on the minds of Black September when it planned what turned into a bloodbath. The group’s demands for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners were not met, precipitating a sequence of killing at the Munich Olympics of 1972. The massacre was horrific and condemned almost universally, but it made the condition of Palestinians known to the world.

Earlier at the 1968 Olympics, there had been an iconic moment when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black berets and gloves and bowed their heads on the victory rostrum while the US national anthem played. At the time they were decried as unpatriotic and hounded out of sport.  Now they are revered as the men who made America’s prejudice against black people known to the world and in their own way made their imprint on history.

There are those who will argue that we could find fault with the host of practically any major sports competition.  Remember, Britain, which held last year’s Olympics, is not without critics. So when we consider protests, we have to think in terms of a political or moral triage, assigning degrees of urgency to issues, some of which demand more immediate attention than others.  The gay issue in Russia does, in my opinion, require attention.  Gay people are, we understand, habitually persecuted in a nation with a population of 143 million, and where the attitude towards homosexuality is basically the result of a hangover from the Soviet Union combined with Putin’s crass and populist ideology.  I respect the rights of the athletes who will defend their freedom to choose whether or not to attend and compete in the games.  But they should ask themselves whether they would be complicit in perpetuating a social and political arrangement that is morally repugnant.

Should doping be allowed in sport?

Who believes athletes are squeaky-clean innocents whose most serious vice is a nicotine patch? Then why do people pretend to be surprised when we discover that some high-profile champion has been using dope?  Rarely a week goes by without some figure from sports returning a positive test.  Since 1988 when Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold and chased back to Canada in disgrace, there have been many, many supposedly great athletes reduced to “cheats” after the discovery of banned substances.  Diego Maradona, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and so many others have been involved in drugs scandals of some kind.

The lesson is clear: athletes across the whole spectrum of sport have indicated their preference to take drugs.  And, like it or not, we – and the media – encourage them.  Not obviously, of course.  But we demand athletic performances that make almost inhuman demands on the body, and are disappointed when we get less. What if we simply allowed athletes to use whatever substances they choose, then ask them to declare what they’ve been taking?  Then we could commission research, investigate the substances, their effectiveness, their side-effects and, where necessary, their dangers.  We could feed the information back to athletes and advise accordingly.  It would create a more open, honest and, most importantly, safer environment.  It’s not a popular idea and, in this video, I discuss it on Channel 5 news.

Tour de France: Do we care if the riders use drugs?

A mysterious contagion is blighting the planet; earth has fallen prey to zombies. Am I going to write a review of the $200 million Hollywood blockbuster World War Z? No: I’m commenting on the Tour de France, which starts for the 100th time on Saturday, June 29.

Cyclists now resemble the undead against whom Brad Pitt battles in the film. Doped-up automata, unresponsive to their surroundings, they are like corpses controlled by chemists. At least that’s what our media would have us believe.

Cyclists have always taken dope. When the Tour first started in 1903, strychnine and cocaine were the drugs of choice. By the late 1950s, synthetic stimulants, especially amphetamines, were regularly used to sustain competitors through 23 days of the most exacting physical demands. Jacques Anquetil (1934-87), who won the Tour five times, spoke openly about how cyclists didn’t opt to use drugs: they just couldn’t do without them. No one cared. Only after Britain’s Tommy Simpson died during the 1967 Tour, did cycling – indeed, sport generally – begin to wonder whether competitors needed protecting from themselves. Anti-doping rules were introduced in the early 1970s, but have had little effect in cycling.

Last year, during his confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong was asked if doping was part of the process required to win the Tour. He answered: “That’s like saying we have to have air in our tyres or water in our bottles. It was part of the job.”

If Armstrong is to be believed, drug taking in cycling is not seen as a transgression: it is normal behaviour. Armstrong was a scapegoat: someone blamed for the wrongdoings of others, especially for reasons of expediency. It made more sense to hang the most famous cyclist in history out to dry rather than examine the entire culture of the sport. Armstrong merely confirmed what most people have known, or at least strongly suspected for years. Cycling is a sport in which doping is an everyday practice.

Here’s my question: do we care? The media tell us we do, or, if not, we certainly should. The media themselves care: they have turned Armstrong from one of the greatest heroes in world sport to the biggest cheat in history. I’m not sure the rest of us feel the same way. Some years ago, I was involved in a round table radio discussion in which one of the discussants suggested that we should stage two Tours de France: one for riders who used dope, the other for those who chose to compete au naturel. “It’s possible,” I replied. “But who’d watch the clean Tour?” We’ve all become used to athletes pushing themselves towards and, occasionally, beyond the limits of the human body. We love intense, unbridled competition. Sport conceals its own preparation: we won’t see the riders taking drugs, yet we’ll know they are using something; and we will enjoy the competition just the same. People like eggs for breakfast; they don’t need to see chickens that produced them fed.

If consumers were so turned off by cycling’s close association with drugs, the Tour wouldn’t have lasted long after 1973 when the first authentic tests revealed the widespread use of drugs by riders. Since then, a steady crescendo has built, every Tour yielding cases of doping. The 1998 Tour was so affected by doping that it was known as Tour du Dopage. And yet the race continued to grow in popularity. In terms of live spectators, the Tour is the biggest sports event in the world – by some margin: over 12 million people throng the streets over the period of the race. The Tour is only thinly popular outside Europe, but an estimated 2.5 billion people are exposed to it, counting those who read about it in newspapers. Television corporations pay about $200 million per tour to the organizers. Sponsorship deals are valued in dozens of millions.

Despite Armstrong’s evidence about the ubiquity of drugs in cycling, despite 2006 winner Floyd Landis’s claim that the cycling’s corrupt governance has created an environment where cheating is required, and despite last week’s admission by Jan Ullrich, who won the Tour in 1997 that “almost everybody back then took performance-enhancing substances,” enthusiasm for this year’s Tour will be undimmed.

There is a disconnect between how the media reacts to doping in sport and how fans think and feel. Consumers don’t share the delirium that follows a positive test. We have doubts, but they rarely interfere with the satisfaction we take from the Tour. In common with all other athletes, cyclists are not there to provide decency, moral direction or lessons in propriety; they are not supposed to be paragons of rectitude whose most iniquitous habit is an occasional e-cigarette. They are supposed to send a sudden, strong feeling of excitement or exhilaration through us. When they do, they solicit our approval. We’re not in denial: we know they will probably be using dope. Sport is a world long since purged of goodness.