Ian Wooldridge

Last updated at 00:00 08 June 1996

FOR 30 years this newspaper has paid me to watch sport. It is an infinite improvement on going out to work.

True, there have been the occasional inconveniences of having to write about it thereafter from freezing shacks in Alaska, hell-holes in India, outback properties in Australia, dodgy bars in Uruguay and even a brothel in Nigeria for which, I assure you, there is innocent explanation.

There have been days of beauty and high drama: Ted Dexter's 70 against West Indies at Lord's - still, despite its brevity, the greatest innings I have ever seen; the lovely Mary Peters defying gigantic odds to win the pentathlon gold medal at the Munich Olympics, not for herself but for the people of Northern Ireland; James Hunt winning the world motor racing championship in Japan in rain so blinding that only a maniac would have climbed into the car; Muhammad Ali felling the gigantic George Foreman on the banks of the Congo river, the most bizarre location ever for a world heavyweight championship boxing match; last year's European Ryder Cup golf victory in America, sheer hypnotic theatre.

Also there have been the characters one has been privileged to meet.

Muhammad Ali tops the unforgettable list, but not far down come Lawrie Smith, ubiquitous yachtsman, and old-timers, if they will pardon the expression, like Arnold Palmer, Stirling Moss, Christine Truman, Henry Cooper, Denis Compton and Keith Miller. There have been some awful ratbags as well, of course, but I won't waste the newsprint on them.

So after so equable an arrangement with the Daily Mail don't expect me, as an intellectual BBC radio forum did earlier this week, to renounce sport as a burned-out culture. I have witnessed enormous heroism, physical bravery, chivalry and staggering technique in sports stadia across the world, and last summer, at the prize day of a school for the severely handicapped in Margate, I witnessed the therapeutic value of competitive sport for kids who would otherwise have been abandoned to crayon picture books.

That said, what of the national mood today as we brace ourselves for the opening of the biggest sporting event staged in Britain for 30 years? Far from anticipating a carnival, millions are cringeing in apprehension of what further indignities will befall us in the name of sport in the next three weeks.

How real is the threat to bring Euro 96 to a violent halt by the hooligans who have got their hooks into football? And what further follies may we anticipate from the overpaid and under-talented footballers who, in the lead-up to the championships, have joined the renegade royals in making us the laughing stock of Europe?

Anyone with a vestige of concern for what is left of Britain's reputation for law, courtesy and tolerance is entitled to question whether hosting a major international sporting tournament is worth the aggravation, the stretching of police forces, the setting-up of clandestine units to identify known trouble-makers, the dawn raids to round up potential thugs.

And what, further afield, of the still greater five-ringed circus to be staged next month: the monolithic Olympic Games, with its 10,000 athletes and two million visitors? Atlanta, Georgia, USA, is already bracing itself against trouble with a security force as mighty as that which fought the Gulf War.

Few less suitable venues could have been selected than a Deep South city with a grim track record of violence and racism at a time of year when heat and humity, so often the fuses of civic disorder, are predictably intolerable. There is a cynical explanation. Atlanta houses the homes of Coco-Cola and the CNN television network, vast commercial sponsors of the Olympic movement.

With 40 days to go, it is a dustbowl, with sporting facilities still under frantic construction and unsightly edifices being torn down. In London this week Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, assured us with his usual silky blandness that all would be ready.

It was ironic, though, that the briefing was largely consumed by a subject about which he couldn't be complacent: drugs, the scandalous proliferation of which makes mockery of so many world `records' achieved under chemical horse-power.

Thus new and vastly more expensive testing programmes are set up to catch the cheats, well knowing that equally sophisticated laboratories and unscrupulous chemists are perfecting untraceable steroids. After all, an Olympic gold medal, commercially exploited, is now minimally worth Pounds 1 million.

The aim of the Olympic movement, reborn 100 years ago, was to encourage the youth of the world to aspire to the pinnacles of athletic greatness, but leave them unbroken even if they did not triumph. `To take part is greater than to win,' observed their founder, Baron de Coubertin. If it sounded naively altrustic at the time, it is now regarded as hilariously fatuous.

Losing teams and individuals are publicly pilloried. Coaches are sacked.

Governments actually hold inquiries into what went wrong and promise extravagant funding to produce a champion who can run O.OO2 seconds faster than some guy from Ghana.

What chance now for another Roger Bannister or Chris Chataway, the two great British middle-distance athletes of the Fifties? Bannister ran the world's first sub four-minute mile while preparing for a distinguished career in neurology. Chataway achieved his victories between studying for winning careers in television, politics and banking. These were rounded men to whom sport was thrilling and challenging, but secondary to what they proposed to do in life.

The answer is that such men today would have no chance. Training now is all-consuming, necessitating wintering in South Africa or Australia at the expense of sponsors, benefactors or governments. The Soviet Union and communist East Germany first had the idea that sporting prowess made you the envy of the world, and look where it got them.

The inevitable question is whether some high-performance sport - as opposed to, say, village cricket and the local bowls club - is worthy of the idolatry it attracts. This is not a new lament.

Back in 1937 Paul Gallico, the American author, signed off a celebrated sportswriting career with these words: `I have found myself too busy reporting to do much evaluating.' What had eventually sickened him was the rise and rise of commercialism, the demise of fair play and a declining ability to accept defeat with grace.

God alone knows how he would have evaluated a sports scene now entirely dominated by commerce, in which the concept of fair play is scathingly dismissed as the demented credo of Tom Brown's Schooldays, and the idea of losing gracefully is so archaic that when Greg Norman did just that after losing to Nick Faldo in the recent U. S. Masters golf championship, he was almost canonised in editorials around the world.

Money, mostly generated from television rivals now bidding astronomical sums in an orgy of attempted fratricide, is at the root of it. Indeed there is simply no point contesting the view of Richard Pound, one of the saner members of the International Olympic Committee, who said recently: `Take away sponsorship and commercialism from sport today and what is left ? A large, sophisticated, finely-tuned engine developed over a period of 100 years - with no fuel.'

Romanticism can no longer live with such brutal realism. Promoters and agents, some more scrupulous than others, and a few easily identifiable hoodlums have taken over.

When Mike Tyson, the world heavyweight champion, was asked at his divorce proceedings where the $40 million he had already earned from boxing had gone, he proved that he was broke. When one of his contenders, Lennox Lewis, is paid Pounds 4 million for not fighting, the shadow of the despicable Don King, the American promoter, falls heavily over sport.

Two days ago Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB paid Pounds 670 million to secure the rights to screen English Premier League football for the next four years.

Those without cable or dishes won't be able to see it, those who have them will understand that it was hardly a philanthropic gesture when they have to pay additionally for a selected match.

It is not a scam, it is brilliant business, and it will send many lesser, but long-established English football clubs to their doom. Meanwhile Premier clubs will be able to lash out another Pounds 8 million on a new player who can't speak English to entertain, at ludicrously high admission prices, a community racked by poverty and unemployment.

A champion Grand Prix driver can now earn Pounds 25 million a year. Top tennis players and golfers can make Pounds 10 million. A leading footballer in England may feel himself hard done by on a mere Pounds 15,000 a week, but it may colour his attitude to what he can get away with on a flight from Hongkong to London.

These are ludicrous sums, even over the comparatively short-spanned career of a professional sportsman. He may choose to argue that pop stars and actors in even mediocre films make more. The difference is that to maintain his income the sportsman must be seen to win, unscrupulously when necessary.

Thus drugs, the so-called professional foul, the ugly triumphalism in victory, the foul-mouthed challenge to umpires at Wimbledon and sledging - verbal intimidation mostly of an obscene nature - on the cricket field.

On his back are not only managers and coaches, themselves an endangered species the moment things go wrong, but a virulent Press and xenophobic crowds. These, as much England's football performances, should concern us during Euro 96.

It has been a year of unrelieved dispute in British sport. Understandably rugby union players, watching Pounds 4 million being generated at a single match at Twickenham, rose up in rebellion and forced its administrators into reluctant professionalism. The game is now in turmoil.

Cricket, the least trades unionist of games, saw its county players meekly ask for a minimum wage of Pounds 18,000 per season and actually get it. No sooner had this breakthrough been achieved than a temperamental England fast bowler fell out with a stubborn English chairman of selectors and the result was a protracted conflict in the Press.

Yes, my trade does have a good deal to answer for. We do highlight confrontation and dispute. We lionise and villainise, but then we, too, play in a competitive arena.

But sport, like government, gets the Press it deserves. Down the years I have written more rave reviews of athletic accomplishments than most, transfixed by the skill and courage of heroes, some twice, some half, my age.

A great sportsman at full stretch can be an icon of nobility for his own and younger generations. He doesn't have to be a paragon of virtue, as long as he can set a good example in public.

What we need to see during Euro 96 is more of the inspiring sportsmanship that can lift football to the level of genius, and less of the conduct, on and off the field, that can drag it down to the gutter.

In my eternal optimism, I am hoping for the greatness of the game to assert itself and give us all a summer to set beside that of 1966.