Duncan Mackay


Last October, as the credit crunch was gathering force, I spoke to Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters’ Federation about the effect the economic situation would have upon spectators.
As I expected, he instanced examples of fans who could no longer afford to travel to every away game as they had in the past. But he also mentioned another factor which was coming into play – a “sense of discomfort” among supporters at the level of wages being paid to those at the top end of the sport against a background where many were losing their jobs or seeing their houses repossessed.
Clarke likened the phenomenon to the debate over bonuses for City bankers, and offered the example of one of his neighbours, a mad keen Manchester United fan, who had not renewed his season ticket.
“Five years ago you would have thought hell would freeze over before he stopped going to see them,” Clarke added. “It’s not so much that he can’t afford it, but he is saying ‘why should I pay all this so that Wayne Rooney can spend £10,000 on a stag party?’”

For all the rising optimism engendered by England’s efficient qualification for the World Cup finals in South Africa, the "discomfort" factor still looms large in the game, as the furore over Eduardo’s recent ‘simulation’ of being brought down by the Celtic goalkeeper indicated. 
While UEFA's punitive action against the Arsenal player did indeed beg the question of just how often the authorities now intend to overrule their referees, it at least registered a sensible concern for the corrosion that such actions have on the necessary trust of those who follow and support football.
It comes down to the basic question – if we can’t believe what we see, what’s the point in watching?
That is a question which Formula One fans will now be asking in the light of the latest allegations of race fixing that have been made against the Renault team.
Following the shameful blood capsule subterfuge at Harlequins, it’s a question which rugby union followers will be asking every time they see a player leave the pitch with an apparent injury.
The debate over Caster Semenya’s sexual status, now reaching intense levels within international athletics, is uncomfortable in a very personal sense – however the biological details turn out, the way in which this case has been handled has been humiliating to the South African who is still in possession of the gold medal for the women’s 800 metres event at the recent World Championships.
But beyond the particular circumstances, the incident has created further uncertainty in a sport which has suffered more than its fair share of bad publicity in the course of the last 20 years.
Not that many sports appear beyond reproach these days. Tennis? Well, those match-fixing allegations keep surfacing, don’t they? Snooker? Ditto. Swimming? No waves there at least. Other than those set in motion by performance-enhancing, all-in-one swimsuits which have slid their occupants to a host of world records.
Well what about modern pentathlon – surely you can’t get more Corinthian than this sport?
Broadly true. But there was the uncomfortable – that word again – aberration at last month’s World Championships at Crystal Palace where two Italians were penalised for wearing one swimsuit over another in order to streamline their swimming performance, and one of them was subsequently disqualified for booting a flower display across the tartan track in protest.

So where can sports followers turn in order to find a spectacle without blemish, stain or blot?
Just a suggestion, but how about catching up with triathlon? Britain’s Hollie Avil has just become the new Dextro ITU world under-23 champion as this year’s series has staged its Grand Finals on Australia’s Gold Coast at the weekend, with team-mate Jodie Stimpson taking silver. That double success was followed by another landmark achievement in the men’s event, where Britain’s – or should we say Yorkshire’s – 21-year-old, Alistair Brownlee (pictured) has secured the title.
Here, surely, is a sporting spectacle to be embraced with a clear conscience.

From a British point of view, it would also be nice to think that Brownlee. Avil and Stimpson could be among the home performers who will give spectators something to cheer about without any sense of reservation when the Olympics arrive in Stratford slightly less than three years from now.
How good it would be to see them on the rostrum in the stadium that is already a recognisable bowl and which, after the Games, according to the most solemn pledge, will be reduced in seating capacity from 80,000 to 25,000 in order to serve as a world class facility for athletics.
Unless, of course, it doesn’t – remaining instead at its Olympic capacity in order to provide a commercially viable venue for a football team. That is something the Shadow Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, has just espoused with air of a man who expects to be well out of the Shadows by the time the Games begin.

 But commercially viable football teams in this country don’t want to be separated from spectators by the width of a running track. Which means, unless athletics is to have a world class facility for long jumping, high jumping and hammer throwing, something has got to give.

It comes down to another of those basic questions, I suppose – if we can’t believe what we hear, what’s the point in listening?

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now freelancing and wrties regularly for insidethegames