Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Viewpoint: The winning ways of the National

This afternoon one of the world's greatest sporting spectacles, the Aintree Grand National, takes place. Courageous jockeys and their horses will carry the hopes of millions of punters, many of them having their only bet of the year on a race run over a unique course. It is a sporting contest in the truest sense of the word. Sadly, it is also one of the few examples left of what sport is supposed to be all about.

Athletics and cycling have had their reputations almost irrevocably tainted by the stench of drug abuse. When we see someone set a new world record on the track or put up an astonishing performance on the roads, we are suspicious that drugs rather than talent fuelled the performer.

Football, once dubbed 'the beautiful game', is becoming the playground of over-paid, over-hyped prima donnas who have completely lost touch with their fans. Outrageous personal behaviour by some players has left their reputations in the gutter and the growing lack of respect shown to referees has led to the Football Association launching an initiative to force players to behave better on the pitch. Liverpool player Javier Mascherano has been hit with an extra two-match ban for his disgraceful tirade against a match official recently, showing that the authorities mean business.

Even worse, it has now been claimed that a professional footballer arranged to fix an English league game to pay off a gambling debt. This has echoes of the scandals of match-fixing in cricket and is potentially the most damaging allegation to be levelled in the field of football since the 1960s when games were thrown.

Formula One motor-racing, known for its glamour and bank-busting spending, has also had its reputation tarnished by the personal antics of Max Mosley, president of the sport's ruling body, theFIA. The son of fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, he was caught in a vice den, allegedly engaging in some very strange practices. Little wonder that some of the motor racing teams moved swiftly to distance themselves from him, fearing the sport's commercial interests could be seriously damaged.

Some people might argue that what footballers or sporting presidents get up to in their private lives should be their own affair. It is an argument that those caught with their trousers down undoubtedly support, but they miss the point. Sport depends on the loyalty of fans and corporate sponsors to exist in these days of over-inflated salaries and rewards.

Going to a top-level sporting event is expensive and the very least that fans expect is to see a true contest. Companies do not want their reputations damaged by those they sponsor. They demand integrity and honesty from the sporting stars and administrators. Sadly, that is often missing.

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