Modern sport: The best ‘role models’ are in prison

Baku 2015 European Games

The Azerbaijan flag is waved by spectators at the opening ceremony of the Baku 2015 European Games on Friday. Photograph: BerndThissen/Corbis

The pretence that sportsmen and women are “role models” is impossible to maintain. It’s not just that no parent tells their teenage children to model their sex lives on premier league footballers or holds up Lewis Hamilton’s flight to a tax haven as a model of good citizenship. To be a member of the sporting “elite” is to live in a state of perpetual childhood without enjoying or even wanting the rights and responsibilities of a grown-up.

A few weeks ago Paul Scholes wrote how he was astonished that Manchester United fans expected players to behave as free adults in a free country and give their opinion about the Glazer family’s takeover of their club. The debt-laden American raiders reduced my team from a side that might have been one of the best in the world to a side that wasn’t even the best in Manchester. Nevertheless, said Scholes: “As an elite sportsman you cannot allow yourself to be sidetracked. It was not up to me who owned the club, and it would never have been appropriate for a player to have got involved in that debate.”

I am sure the over-praised Alex Ferguson would have dropped any player who uttered a criticism. But Scholes is retired now, and Ferguson could not have hurt him if he spoke his mind. As it turned out, however, a career in professional sport had left Scholes with no mind to speak.

The rest of the “elite” don’t appear to possess one either. This weekend marks a dismal low in the rotten history of modern sport. The Olympics movement is holding the first “European Games” in Baku, Azerbaijan. In theory they are meant to sit alongside the All-Africa, Pan-American and Asian games, and give Europe a continental tournament between the full Olympics. In practice there’s no need for them. Olympic sports already have their European championships.

But – and you will only understand the seedy imperative that drives a disgraceful tournament when you grasp this – the European Olympic committees do not control the rival competitions. They wanted a piece of the action. And in an effort to find it, Patrick Hickey, the EOC’s Irish president, showed how he could move from being unctuous to unscrupulous without pausing for breath as he toured the borderlands of Europe looking for any tyrant with money to spare.

First he tried to woo the dictator of Belarus. He charmed Alexander Lukashenko and gave the murderous old brute an award for his “Outstanding Contribution to the Olympic Movement” . His flattery was in vain. Lukashenko’s ill-governed country was too poor to afford the games. So Hickey headed to the mafia state of Azerbaijan, whose ruling Aliyev crime family will spend whatever looted petrodollars it takes to win international prestige.

Sport for Rights, which is coordinating protests on behalf of imprisoned dissidents and journalists, has not asked for a boycott. It merely wants European governments, athletes and Olympic associations to call on Azerbaijan to release political prisoners. As Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist jailed for exposing corruption said in a letter that Sports for Rights smuggled from her prison cell to the New York Times, the human rights crisis in Azerbaijan has never been worse. She asked visitors to her country to refuse to let the state use games and circuses to “distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse”.

What decent man or woman could refuse the modest request of a woman jailed for telling the truth about a kleptomaniac regime? Just about every sportsman, woman and administrator it transpired. “We’re very much focused on the sport,” a spokesman for Team GB told me, when I asked if it would manage to stammer out a word of protest. Interviewed by the BBC’s Today programme, Nicola Adams, the boxer carrying Team GB’s flag at the opening ceremony, could only say how wonderful it was to be in Baku. As tellingly, the interviewer did not press her. Perhaps the games organisers would jump on any competitor who delivered a critical sentence. The organisers of the Baku games have, after all, banned athletes from making any kind of demonstration or promoting political, religious or racial propaganda in any European Games venue.

Perhaps all they could say in response to an awkward question is: “I’m afraid I am not allowed to comment.” Or: “I don’t like what happens in Azerbaijan but where games are held is not down to me.”

As it is, no athlete is put under the slightest pressure to say anything. Censorship is at its most effective when no one admits it exists. In sport it is now a given that performers will not offer an opinion and journalists will not ask for one.

My friend and colleague, the great sports reporter Kevin Mitchell, says that no one should be surprised. Two infantilising pressures make the sporting elite like children, but without childlike innocence.

Their managers, the national teams, and perhaps most important of all the sponsors exert controlling authority over them. Like Victorian parents, they expect athletes to be seen and not heard. Reporters on the tennis beat were astonished when Andy Murray tentatively suggested he favoured an independent Scotland. It was not Murray’s views that shocked them, but that he had expressed them at all. He risks his sponsors deciding that his democratic decision politely expressed might alienate unionist fans.

Their surprise shows that far from freeing athletes, money holds them in a condition of juvenile dependence. To say they can buy anything they want understates the case. They don’t have to buy when their people shop for them and companies offer them free goods in the hope they will promote their products. As they move from training grounds to hotels, everything is provided for them. How can you expect them to talk about a world they are sheltered from?

The view that sportsmen are role models runs deep and dies hard. A ghoulish Cicero thought that ancient Rome turned “debased men and foreigners” into examples of martial courage by forcing them to fight as gladiators. Today we should accept that athletes represent the worst of us: our willingness to keep our heads down and bite our tongues for fear of offending the authorities who stand over us or employers who pay us.

As they play their games in Baku without offering a squeak of protest about the oppression around them and the corruption that profits them, we must conclude that all the real role models in Azerbaijan are in jail.