Written by Sport and Fitness • Published 21st October 2016

Image courtesy of Girl from Clapham on Flickr

David Beckham was and to this day remains one of, if not the most iconic of all British sportsman. Not only that, but through his long and illustrious career in football, he has earnt a fantastic reputation for himself, both as a competitor and a human-being. As much as he has established this sort of ‘invincibility’ to his name, however, this cannot be said for many of his sporting counterparts who have seemingly been destined to follow this same path. This being said, we decided to take a look into the underlying roots of several well documented recent sporting superstar sagas, which to us resonate the overwhelming need for athletes to be increasingly aware of exercising strong judgement at all times, and the need for media management to maintain a credible, and favourable reputation.

Once upon a time, Sport was built upon the simple constructs of talent, hard work and sportsmanship, but it is now gamesmanship or the ‘bending of the rules’ as such, that threatens to compromise not only the reputations of honest athletes but the integrity of sport. Although we argue it is the fierce nature of competition that has been the catalyst in stimulating this change, with the ever-increasing pressures of money, performance targets etc. instilling a win at all costs attitude into many, it is the ambiguity of gamesmanship that we feel is ultimately clouding the lines that dictate the difference between what is right and wrong. Without this clarity, managing one’s reputation has become a precarious task.

To exemplify, we first take a look at the case of Bradley Wiggins, who has recently come under significant pressure in the media concerning the taking of banned substances via the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) protocol. This protocol is meant to allow athletes with illnesses or conditions that require them to take particular medications which are on the prohibited list authorization to take the needed medicine but instead acts as a glowing example of a loophole in the ‘rulebook’. Whether Bradley Wiggins is abusing this system we do not know, but the fact that the topic is open for discussion, to us clearly shows the problem that gamesmanship poses in blurring the lines that should separate fair and unfair competition.

When coach, Alberto Salazar, was placed under the BBC Panorama spotlight back in June, yet another of Britain’s biggest sporting icons, Mo Farah, was left to defend himself over doping allegations. The investigation supposed Salazar’s methods included the use of unethical practices, including the alleged use of asthma and thyroid medication for performance enhancement. It is the word unethical that reverberates most significantly here, as it highlights if nothing else, the opportunity to not necessarily break the ‘rules’, but abuse the system.

In an era of cases such as those of Maria Sharapova, the damning exposure of systematic Russian doping, and where sports such as cycling find it hard to escape the demons of their damaged pasts, it is understandable why Sport as a package and its big names might be scrutinised to a greater extent. At the same time, however, it would sadly appear that Sport in its purest form as a test of the human body is now dictated by so much more than just athletic prowess and attitude.

In sports such as cycling, where Great Britain proved themselves as a dominant force in the recent Olympic Games, it would be naïve to believe that technology did not play its part in the team’s success. Although this is operating completely within the parameters of competition, again it is a prime example of how Sport in its purest form has not only been diluted but has been opened up to exploitation. If technology is giving athletes an edge over their competitors, would it be the craziest thing to suggest that superior technology might be bracketed within the imprecise realms of ‘gamesmanship’ or ‘unethical’ practise? Perhaps not, but does it lend itself to the generation of negative publicity and suspicion surrounding individuals and teams, potentially.

Steve Cram recently spoke on BBC Radio 5 live describing the TUE system as ‘robust and well administered’, but another important point was made that although this may be the case, people’s trust in sports governing bodies to run and administer it with integrity is just not really there. It was also suggested in the debate, that being an athlete in this day and age is ‘not necessarily a passage of right, but a privilege’. In line with this, we suggest that perhaps athletes must accept that greater transparency is required to protect the integrity of sport, but ultimately believe gamesmanship will continue to allow some athletes to abuse their ‘privilege’ regardless.

Even if the world anti-doping agency are able to in some way completely revolutionise constructs such as the athlete biological passport, and protocols such as those used for TUEs, we believe the brutal reality is that the opportunity to bend the rules is going to be near impossible to completely eradicate. This being said, in an age where drugs cheats are seemingly always one step ahead and gamesmanship imposes itself as a potentially equally damaging force, we believe it is paramount that innocent athletes wishing to protect their reputations also remain one step ahead of the game by seeking media management.