Tipping point: Public proves ineffectual army in doping fight

Sonia O’Sullivan’s view on her sport have been met with depressingly muted reaction

Are we so inured to doping that even O’Sullivan’s disillusionment with a sport she adorned for two decades is insufficient to shake us out of our stupor? Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Are we so inured to doping that even O’Sullivan’s disillusionment with a sport she adorned for two decades is insufficient to shake us out of our stupor? Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

 

Sonia O’Sullivan declared some weeks ago that inadequate doping procedures were a reason why she lost her emotional attachment to athletics during the summer of 2001. And that statement provoked little or no reaction. I’m still trying to decide what’s the most depressing.

Has mass information resulted in mass emotional anaesthesia? Is digital news flung around so profligately that filtering worthwhile significance from a vast flood of attention-seeking bullshit is no longer required?

This was Sonia O’Sullivan revealing that for the final half-decade of her competitive career, she viewed athletics with an ambivalence familiar to anyone who’s ever woken up one day and decided their passion isn’t being reciprocated.  

It can be credibly argued this woman is the finest ever athlete from this country, and for the final half-decade of her career, it was effectively just a job. Is it too ‘old media’ to wonder why no one reckoned that worth lifting and running with?  

Where was the reaction, the headlines, the widespread acknowledgement of an iconic figure admitting her heart wasn’t really in it and the significance of that? If hers wasn’t, how could any schmuck on the sideline pin their heart to athletics?

This was a damning verdict on the sport’s failure to effectively police itself, one that should have reverberated as an eloquent counterpoint to Sebastian Coe’s deluded self-regard. If nothing else you’d think it would strike home in Ireland. Yet there was barely a peep, nary a tweet to trend, never mind bellowing headlines.

Two decades

Are we so inured to doping that even O’Sullivan’s disillusionment with a sport she adorned for two decades is insufficient to shake us out of our stupor?

For those of us who gave up on track and field’s credibility a long time ago there was a certain vindication in her views. But it’s a bitter vindication. And just as bitter is the tang of weary resignation implicit in the response – or lack of it – to O’Sullivan’s comments because there’s more than just resignation going on here.   

Athletics is getting a kicking now, which is almost reassuring since its sporting credibility has been largely shot for a long time, although curiously its corporate credibility continues to be notably resilient.

But where for instance was the tumult of reaction to Arsène Wenger’s recent assertions about doping in football and the feeble attempts from soccer’s authorities to combat it.  Surely that should have set alarm bells ringing, provoking demands for enquiries, heads rolling, the whole kit-and-caboodle of public outrage.

Except there hasn’t been anything, really; certainly no rampant indignation suggesting Wenger was out of line: in the context of one of football’s most decorated and respected figures coming out and declaring the world game has a doping problem it is failing to address, the response has been paltry.

Which begs the question: have we got to some pathological synchronicity which assumes cheating is inevitable, and rather than address something complicated, tawdry and ultimately quite boring it’s easier to keep cheering along, buying the replica kits, presuming the fight against doping is in reality little more than a PR exercise in expedient shaping rather than anything meaningful or achievable?

It was put to me recently that Lance Armstrong’s real sin wasn’t doping but the depth of his hypocrisy.

The fact Armstrong would like us to believe that idea too is a compelling reason in itself to reject it. Yet it’s hard not to suspect that doping is increasingly becoming as big an irritant to large swathes of the sporting public as it is to those who routinely make such a cock-up of properly administrating all sports.    

Rugby, too, is lurching down along some well-worn territory by smugly declaring no positive tests at its recent World Cup. And that is enough to reassure many fans eager to be reassured.

There seems to be a widespread indifference towards actively joining the dots for fear of what some joined-up logic might reveal. That is nothing new among those charged with administrating sport but worryingly the public palate appears to be growing more jaded too.

Viewing figures

It’s not hard to see why expectations of proper governance and official willingness to properly take the initiative on cheating and corruption might shrink with each controversy; much harder to explain is how shrinking expectations don’t seem to correspond to dropping viewing figures or consumer-spend.

Why aren’t people turning over, tuning out, dropping the pretence? Invariably the cry is that the clout is with corporate sponsors. But sponsors coldly follow the audience and the audience doesn’t look to be going anywhere.    

Can it be surprising then those who’ve managed to climb to the top of the greasy administrative pole aren’t rushing over themselves to potentially tamper with the bottom line by implementing reform – what price credibility when punters keep watching and coughing up.

That’s a tough one to get the head around but surely it isn’t sustainable. Sentiment might not be a natural fit on a balance sheet but sport is fundamentally rooted in the sort of emotional attachment O’Sullivan wrote about. Without it the whole thing is just a lot of sweating.  

The hope must be that disillusioned audiences, tired of being taken for passive touches, will see through the official flannel and make their feelings known in the only way that those in authority understand, through their pockets.

You would think it ultimately has to be in each sport’s self-interest to clean itself up. There are a number of presumptions implicit in that, however, and they all depend on a sense of outrage. 

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