Day three of the Olympics, and I’m struggling to become engaged in the swimming, cycling and other contests. Partly, this is a sulk because, unlike in 2012, they’re not being held in London, and partly because my sports-viewing time has been taken up by the gripping Test Match between England and Pakistan; I attended the Friday’s play at Edgbaston, and followed much of the rest on the TV.
Of course, another reason for many folk turning away from the 31st modern Olympiad, the first to be held in South America, is the extent of the doping scandals, especially in athletics. I wish I could say that cricket was a haven from cheating, but match-fixing scandals have blighted the sport in recent years. In the current series Mohammed Amir had just ended a five-year ban. Given that he was only 19 at the time of his involvement in the scandal, and that he went to prison, I think he deserves another chance, but not everyone agrees.
For my forthcoming novel Marching on Together, I’ve been looking into actual and suspected match-rigging in European club football in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve established only two cases of referees accepting bribes, but some highly suspicious results hint at more, as this 2009 Telegraph article shows. The new opus features a central character for whom the most notorious, but unproven controversy, the European Cup Final of 1975, had momentous repercussions, still affecting her life in August 2014, when the events of the novel take place.
Taken together, however, it is sadly difficult ever to be completely certain that a professional sporting event is clean and fair. The place on the podium seems to be all that matters.
In this context, it is worth dusting off the code of conduct of upper-class British sportsmen from the late 19th Century. It came to be known as the Corinthian Spirit, although there appears to be no explicit link to the mores of the ancient city of Corinth, nor to St Paul’s letters from the Greek city.
The code, however, was real enough, ensuring that cheating, even in a small way, was utterly taboo and could result in social ostracism. The emphasis was upon the love of the game and fair play. In some amateur football teams in the 19th Century, this even extended to volunteering to retire a member of your own team if the opponents lost a player through injury. The code was strict: You walk when you’re out. You never cheat, even if you could get away with it. You always accept the referee’s decision, even when he’s clearly made an error. You never accept or offer a bribe. You applaud your opponents. You accept there is physical risk and you don’t complain when you’re hurt. You always play to the best of your ability.
Much was lost when the Corinthian spirit became crushed by professionalism and the ‘win at all costs’ mentality took hold. As Brian, the main character in Close of Play, laments:
In England, until around 1960, there was something known as ‘amateur’ status in the counties. Gentlemen who were wealthy enough to play distinguished themselves from the professionals who earned a wage, and considered themselves higher in social status. Until the 1950s you had to be an ‘amateur’ to captain England. At the level of the clubs, especially in the south, there was an emphasis on ‘friendly’ fixtures honouring the amateur ethos and the spirit of the game, rather than leagues where the emphasis was more upon winning and chalking up points. Amateur status introduced an absurd sort of social distinction, so it had to go. But as ever with social progress, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Out went the old school tie, class distinction and much nonsense; but also out of fashion was walking when you were out, applauding your opponents, and generally playing to the spirit as well as the letter of the laws of the game.
He goes on to point out the irony that the move towards professionalism and leagues made matters much harder for immigrant and second-generation cricket teams in London, as they could not afford their own ground. More generally, the Corinthians, though mostly colonialist in outlook, were relatively benign compared with the violent and racist regimes of South Africa and the southern USA. On the field of play, different races were equal, enabling West Indian superstars to emerge such as George Headley and Learie Constantine as long ago as the 1920s. The latter became a peer in the British House of Lords in 1969.
There was much about the attitudes of the public school boys who upheld the Corinthian values that seem dated now, but they were more liberal than they’re given credit for, and they upheld some noble values too. We owe them an apology.