THE SPORTING SPIRIT

It is the time of the year when it is customary to look forward and in 'Sports View's' case to the sporting delights ahead in the New Year. I was going to start with the momentous India cricket tour to Pakistan scheduled for February but, sadly, that now looks very much to be in doubt.



One can only have sympathy with the Indian cricketers who have asked that the tour be cancelled and it is probably true that no international side would wish to tour Pakistan in the current troubled times in that country. To those of us who are cricket obsessives the absence of India/Pakistan clashes from the calendar is a source of great regret. This is not only because the matches would be so hard fought but also because some of us like to believe that sport can be a force for good and transcend the bitterness of historic national, religious or other enmities. It now looks that this chance will again be lost and it is all very sad.

The perhaps idealistic hope that sport can set an example to politicians and others and show that it is possible to have fierce competition without violence or rancour has its apotheosis in the Olympic Games. The "Olympic spirit" stands for a form of competition which requires the athlete to behave with honour and dignity as well as striving to perform to the best of his or her ability. Sadly over the years Olympic Games have been tarnished by scandals from time to time - not least by the drug cheats who break the rules and abandon their principles in the pursuit of Olympic glory. The 2004 Olympic Games in Athens is the main sporting event of the year and it is a sad reflection on human nature that we will have to rely on drug detection technology to keep the games clean rather than expect that competitors will be so imbued with the Olympic sprit that they won't resort to artificial stimulants to enhance their performances!

At the Athens Olympic Games there will be no fewer than 28 different sports on display. There are a few sports for which there are already have well established and regular world class competitions in place and being Olympic champion is clearly a secondary achievement (Football and Tennis are the prime examples). But this is a quibble. For nearly all of the sports to be a medal winner in the Olympic Games is the greatest ambition that a competitor can strive for. Many of these sports are truly amateur and as such they naturally embrace the Olympic ideal.

If the Olympic Games is the main sporting event of 2004, there are also mouth-watering events in prospect in other sports. In cricket, the ICC Champions Trophy is, as I have written before, a much more interesting competition than the World Cup. It lasts only two weeks, involves all the top cricket nations and has a format in which every match counts. Earlier in the European summer we have the EURO 2004 football tournament in Portugal. Seven of the top 10 football countries (according to FIFA) are European and all will be present in Portugal so this tournament is a true test of the best (or perhaps who is second best to Brazil!). A leading British journalist Michael Parkinson recently wrote that soccer is an example of "what can happen to a game when money distorts values and those who are paid as watchdogs act as lapdogs" and those of us who follow sport closely know what he means by this. EURO 2004 is an opportunity for the values of the sport to transcend the commercialisation, the vulgarity and the hype. We must hope that it does.

As we look forward to 2004 let us hope that the "watchdogs" (the sports administrators) have some resolutions to follow that will make it a year to remember. Even the most fanatical of fans ought to know that sport is ephemeral - even trivial - but in a world where natural and man made disasters dominate the news, sport can offer welcome relief. It will be sad, but understandable, if the India tour of Pakistan is called off. But it would be sad and unforgivable if the Australian tour of Zimbabwe planned for June goes ahead. Let's hope that the ICC and the Australian Cricket Board show some moral leadership, but don't hold your breath! Happy New Year.


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