More than death – safety first in sport

Are football, tennis, cycling and other pursuits going to continue down the track of being nothing more than death in waiting? That worn out blurb from Bill Shankly about football could have been easily transferred to all sports this year.

Last weekend saw the death in an Irish cage of a Portuguese MMA fighter. A tragic occurrence yet one that was hypocritically jumped on by the very media sources who verbally orgasmed over Conor McGregor, UFC and how great little Ireland was at producing such top notch fighters.

While I’ve used the term violence porn to describe MMA (especially UFC), I remain an admirer of the skill, bravery and talents of those who engage in a rougher form of WWE. And while a spotlight is now shining on this lightly regulated sport, how different is it to any other sport?

Certainly the last few weeks since Maria Sharapova outed herself as a chronic invalid there has been lots of noise from the media. The revelations about Dr. Bonar resulted in spewing out of regurgitated material and platitudes by a media still high on the hoof from the Russian scandals.

Russia was beginning to bore anyway, what with almost daily announcements of failed tests, pulled teams and a basic shut down of the testing system in Russia. And now with WADA admitting it didn’t know exactly how long Meldonium lasts in the body, the agency who are supposed to look after athlete welfare in the realm of drugs are shown to be all fur coat and no knickers, not to mention heavily politicised. At the time Sharapova did her Princess Diana, I stated that the fight against destroying the health of athletes had been set back by 5 years, it looks like I was being conservative now.

Lots of well written articles emerged to question sports relationship with drugs, especially football. One which had a potted history of doping in football by Miguel Delaney, drew on a 2012 article of his about Juventus in Europe, yet nobody would come forward to go on the record. Although all articles that expose the hypocrisy and dangers related to sport, the next day it was business as usual.

Journalists and those working in sports know, but libel laws, fear and business close the door on cleaning up the house.

What keeps mixing the spit in the soup is the idea of doping and fair play. Is it fair that Usain Bolt and Mo Farah run free while Justin Gatlin served time? Is it fair that Lance Armstrong was able to outwit and outrace his fellow dopers? That’s not important.

What’s important is the physical and mental health toll taken on those who dope through encouragement of friends, colleagues, parents, coaches or those who want to win at all costs. Winning is worth far more than death to some, especially those who are supposed to care about athlete safety.

And let us not think that Premier League footballers in England, or Barcelona or Bayern Munich players past and present are too concerned about what they’re taking. The fans don’t care, they simply want to win.

In an online forum poll, which attracted more than 2000 votes, 73.1% would have no objection to their club players doping in order to win the league. Yes, this was a Russian forum, though the result, I believe, would be not too dissimilar in any other jurisdiction.

Every time we take a step forward on athlete safety we lift the cup to see the pea isn’t there. Death and destruction from drug use in sports is nothing new. Warning signals didn’t die with a British cyclist on a French mountainside. Just that it wasn’t important enough to worry about.

What happened after the New York Times article in 1991? It reported on mysterious deaths in cycling (this was when cycling was interesting due to their own Greg Lemond winning races). Nothing changed. Sports continued on.

Between 1987 (when EPO is believed to have come into common use) and 1990 20 Dutch and Belgian cyclists died. Another spike happened in 2003-4 with 8 cyclists under the age of 35 passing away. And on and on. Winning was more than death, dope and win – to hell with consequences.

Promoters got their races watched, cyclists earned money, sponsors were happy, TV Execs got their viewing figures and the media continued reporting. Fait accompli.

In a few months we’ll watch in delight as Rio unfolds (with or without athletes from Russia and Kenya) and pause is pressed on the questions.

The same thing happened after the Sunday Times article on Dr. Bonar, our ADD society turned to the Champions League and the wonderful romance of Leicester City charging to the Premier League title. Regardless of questions about links between the good Doctor and players from the Champions elect.

We heard this month that heading the ball leads to brain damage, I guess we all forgot about Jeff Astle an old fashioned centre forward who died not knowing he’d been a footballer. This “new” revelation will soon be shelved until finally, in 20-30 years we’ll have to deal with it. Just ask the NFL and NHL.

Sports should be more than death, football should be more than death. Yet a quick glance at official statistics tell a depressing story that needs a far more skilled researcher than I to get to the truth.

Since 1889, 125 footballers have died on the field or from injuries sustained on it. It is because of one of these victims that I needed to write this article.

In 2007, when organising venues for touring football and rugby teams in Croatia, I got a call from NK Zadar. They wanted to host a rugby match between a touring English side and a Dalmatian Select, in addition to a friendly between NK Zadar and a German Second Division team whose training camp we were managing.

I’d been a regular to Zadar, city and sports grounds, and the financial figures made sense. However our engineer/Health and Safety Manager, Dusan, told me that he wouldn’t allow rugby there, nor soccer. Dusan had a history with Zadar, but he always put business first.

He pointed out that the wall enclosing the pitch was too close and dangerous. I took photos, sent them to England and Germany, their officials both agreed. I was called some choice words by both the then NK Zadar President and his friend, Croatian Minister for Tourism and Zadar native, Bozidar Kalmeta.

Not just that, he also did his best to mess up our company operations, pulling our tour agency licence and trying to close us down. Within half a year I left for Russia. Last year Bozidar was indicted for corruption, finally caught after over 20 years since he grew from Mayor of Zadar and small schemes, to ripping millions out of EU-funded road-building projects.

And one terrible mistake – when it was suggested by Dusan that he remove the wall at Zadar’s Stanovi ground, Bozidar reacted by saying “It’s too small money to worry about.”

Eight years ago this March, the 29th to be exact, Hrvoje Custic, a young ex-Croatian U-21 international, fell headfirst into the wall at Stanovi and died five days later.

He was a talented lad who lined out for our “League Stars” in a charity match on 12 hours notice. His life was not worth more than death to Kalmeta, his cronies and the league officials.

And this was a terrible accident which could have been prevented, like those deaths that have strong links to doping. From 1889 to 1973, only 27 footballers have died on the field or from injuries suffered on it. Three of these deaths were due to heart attack/failure or cardiac arrest. Do you want to read on?

From 1973 sixty-one players collapsed and died due to heart issues. This does not include over a dozen more who simply “collapsed”. Twenty-five of these have been since protocols were introduced in 2009.

When such things happen in cycling journalists with pride in their work sniff something rotten. Sudden death syndromes aside, if there are no issues to be raised over doping, should there not be questions raised about training? About the demands put on coaches and players by everyone from us in the stands to the ad agency suits?

A 19-year-old drops dead outside of Tesco in Weston-super-Mare due to a heart issue linked to anabolic steroid use. The list of bodybuilders who were known dopers and who died before their time is educational. And the most common cause of death – heart issues.

An argument used by Croatian football officials at the time of Hrvoje’s death was that he was a professional and knew what he was doing and the risks. True. Yet put people into a dangerous environment with the chance to win/earn and countless Japanese TV show that human nature loses all sense of fear.

So who should be responsible? Football officials just want the game to go on, players do what they have to do, coaches are only as good as their next result and the ad men and women just watch the bottom line. Fans don’t care as long as the adrenaline buzz is good.

Worryingly the 4th Estate is the only force powerful enough to force changes to prevent more young men and women dropping dead from heart issues. Is a good story worth more than death for them or is a committed crusade for truth too much of a hassle for those in the press box?

Author Details

Alan Moore
Alan Moore

A Russia-based Sports Journalist and Consultant, worked with major sports clubs including:- Spartak Moscow, Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt. Boxed Internationally, played semi-pro football and worked full-time in sports management/consultancy from 2003-13. First published professionally on football in 1990, first Russian league match in 1991, now hosting Capital Sports on Capital FM, Moscow and the Capital Sports Stadium Shows at the RZD Arena and writing the odd article. Director of the Russian State Social University College in Moscow. And to make things more fun, he produces and hosts #ChampTalks for UNESCO, Moscow's Tolerance Centre and Capital FM.

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