Years ago I found the single-best golf membership in the world. At Ampleforth College, a sort of Catholic Eton on the edge of the North York Moors, there is a challenging little golf course primarily for the use of the pupils. There’s also a private members roll, and on enquiry I discovered that the subscription rate for students (as I then was) ran at only £50 for the year. Who could refuse? I sent in my form, and wrote to the secretary asking if he required proof of my student status. The reply was just what you might have expected: ‘The last time I looked’, he said, ‘golf was an honourable game. No proof will be required.’
I had a happy two years in that honourable place, and in the adjacent pub. But I’m given to reflect on the diminution of that spirit of trust in sport in general. The influence of money has corrupted most of the pursuits we love, and the spectre of cheating lies in wait for those activities we cherish as sacred. Baseball has been disgraced; cricket is in the mire; athletics (track & field) has become the least trustworthy display of athleticism known to man; and cycling is a plain farce. I could go on.
Hogarth, Pit Ticket. The shadow of a dishonourable man hangs over the game cocks.
In times past the influence of money was perhaps just as prevalent, but the general sense of shame, or fear of disgrace, checked abuses. In the heady days of cockfighting, which before the 1830s was as popular and as monied as horse racing, those who made false bets were publicly exposed, suspended from the ceiling in a large basket, and alienated from the community until all debts were properly settled. The community regulated itself because the honour was the point of the activity. Winning was hollow unless winning was genuine. And when winning was genuine there was no shame in losing. The better man, or his cock, won, and hands were shaken.
The spirit of fair play is integral to sport, and that is contingent upon trust. Sport must be honourable or else it is not sport. With this in mind I viewed with some horror the latest developments at the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). The MCC is the home of cricket at Lord’s in London, and upholds everything good about the traditions of the sport. It is stuffy, conservative, and typically reactionary, but it is all these things in the best traditions of the English anti-revolutionary pace of reform.
Enter the Australian: Steve Waugh is a member of the MCC’s World Cricket Committee. He’s a former Australian captain, and a fabulously plucky character. And Steve Waugh is cheesed off. Fed up with being asked how many games he played in were fixed, Mr. Waugh decided to put himself through a lie-detector test. Naturally, he passed the test with flying colours, but in his report to the media he suggested that the polygraph ought to be taken up by the sport so that innocent men could prove their innocence and restore public confidence. The integrity of the sport, he seems to suggest, depends on honourable men being subjected to lie detection.
My strong feeling is that the fading integrity of the sport is killed outright by such a suggestion. If an innocent and honourable man truly is innocent and honourable, then I will take him at his word. If I am betrayed, no doubt it will come out in due course, and we will shake our heads. But the fundamental point is that we would be better to educate our youngsters to uphold the games they play in the right spirit so that such barbarisms as polygraphy are unnecessary. Doubtless, a return to the glory days of amateurism are not set to return, but that does not mean that we have to accept the notion that financial reward is the raison d’être of sport. Primarily, I expect sportsmen to be sportsmen because they fundamentally love their sport, and love the competition that comes with it. If we can instil this precept, we shall not have to worry so much about corruption.
If lie detectors are really thought necessary, then the sprit of sport is surely dead. I await the outcry of honourable men.