In a previous post, I mentioned that the worlds of cycling and what most of the world calls “football” (but most Americans call “soccer”) are so close but never quite meet. Some of the world’s most cycling-intensive nations also happen to be football powerhouses and some countries in the Americas are emerging in both. (The US has elite athletes and teams in both sports but, on the whole, isn’t quite on the level of, say, Belgium, Italy, Spain, France or England in either one.) I got to thinking about the relationship between the two sports again in light of FIFA’s current troubles.
Although I'm not as avid about them as I once was, I still love sports. I have competed in three (wrestling, soccer and, of course, cycling) and have been a cyclist in one form or another for most of my life. I even wrote about sports for a small local newspaper. To this day, some of the things of which I’m most proud are things I’ve done in athletic pursuits.
I must also point out that I have never participated in any athletic endeavor for money. That doesn’t make me more virtuous or prove my love of sports or much of anything else. However, I also realize that having always been an amateur—and having participated in sports that, at the times I was involved with them, offered few opportunities for scholarships, let alone professional careers—I never had an incentive to cheat. Nor did most of those I competed with and against. Likewise, my coaches and others involved in officiating contests or administering programs in which I was involved were not tempted by the prospect of payoffs or bribes of one kind or another.
That perspective—and my experience writing about sports—helped me to understand that when money, especially large sums of it, are involved, the attitude of everyone involved with sport changes. It’s almost trite to say that money corrupts, and large sums corrupt in major ways. To be more exact, the prospect of a large payoff exposes avarice that might lay dormant in the absence of lucre.
What I find ironic is that nearly every fan of any professional sport acknowledges that corruption exists, at whatever level, but he or she is almost invariably shocked when that corruption is exposed. For all the whispers that Lance Armstrong, the Festina team and any number of other riders and teams were doping, when that doping was exposed or confessed, fans expressed a sense of betrayal. Likewise, nearly every soccer/football fan believes that the sport’s officials and governing bodies are corrupt. (Most people also have the same sense about Olympic organizations.) But some still said the equivalent of “no…really” when Sepp Blatter and others were implicated in various kinds of graft related to the awarding of the World Cup to the countries that hosted the tournament.
One interesting difference I’ve noticed between cycling and football/soccer is that in cycling, the investigations, accusations and crackdowns have focused on individual cyclists and teams, while in football, prosecutors’ sights have been set on the governing bodies and top-level officials. Of course, one reason for that is that the scandals in cycling have had mainly to do with doping, or allegations thereof, while those in football have had to do with kickbacks and awarding tournaments to countries.
Why has relatively little attention been paid to cycling’s governing bodies? Surely, their officials must have known about doping, or the rumors of it. It’s also hard not to imagine that in the administration of cycling, there are money scandals and nepotism similar to what is found in FIFA and football’s governing bodies in individual countries. I mean, if corrupt officials can take bribes to allow Russia or Qatar or some other country to host the World Cup, it’s hard not to believe that similar (though smaller-scale) deals are made so that cities can host stages of multi-day races or for facilities to be built for cycling. Likewise, if cyclists are doping and their teams and sponsors are pressuring them to do so, who’s to say that something similar isn’t happening in football? After all, as in cycling, the world’s best athletes are competing in it, and the difference between victory or relegation could be laid to something as seemingly trivial as whether a key performer drank one glass too many or too few of water on the day of the competition.
And, as I have mentioned, there is a lot of money riding on the siting as well as the outcomes of competitions in both sports. The incentives exist for cheating and corruption, and are so similar in so many ways in cycling and football. But, in that regard, as in so many other aspects, the worlds of the two sports are so close but somehow manage not to meet.