Corrupt sport is a fool's game

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

SINCE before he could remember, he had loved foolball. Then, he had loved it innocently. He loved the freedom of expression it allowed him that no other endeavour did, and the moments when it all clicked.

He had loved the sense of you are against me, and yours against mine. Body versus body, skill versus skill, will versus will, with no more sophisticated prop than a water bottle. He had loved the feeling of falling into bed at night, exhausted but satisfied, counting the days until he did it all again. Foolball was sport as his dictionary said it was, ''exercise and pleasure''.

There was an instance when a man he distantly knew, a successful butcher with a Mercedes-Benz, had asked his coach how much it would take for him to deliberately lose that day. But no number of lamb chops was worth sacrificing the wings he grew when playing foolball.

He grew older, and taller, and stronger, and a better foolballer, and others began to take pleasure in his pleasure. His recreation became his vocation, and then his job. His free expression now attracted a fee and had a price. Foolball suddenly had a weight and bulk that it did not when he was young. But he loved it no less.

Then odd things began to happen. He was introduced to strangers, who gave him concoctions, to be injected away from the club. In a ''sterile'' environment, by a registered nurse, they said. But were not the change rooms sterile when he sometimes was administered painkillers during games? Was not the doctor registered enough? The needles didn't hurt, but they pricked.

He was asked to sign forms, giving consent, avowing secrecy. This puzzled him further. If this practice was illegal, he thought, why would there be a form, documenting it? If it was legal, why was a form necessary? He looked at his peers, who looked away. Foolball became a stone heavier. Match days, he looked at other foolballers, some his childhood friends, and wondered about their secrets.

As elite foolball players went, he was stock standard, as far as he could tell. He didn't do performance-enhancing drugs. He didn't do illicit drugs, much. He had a beer every now and then. He liked a bet. These were freedoms of a kind. He went to all the lectures the authorities gave, and listened to the stern injunctions on drugs and drinking and gambling, and looked around the stadium and saw all the alcohol ads, and watched foolball on television and saw the endless sequence of every-child-wins-a-prize gambling ads, and couldn't work out which side the authorities were on.

More odd things happened. More strangers ingratiated themselves, some recognisable, which was flattering and thrilling, but also in some cases alarming. In conversations that never happened, he was offered money, not to lose exactly, but for little acts of pretended neglect or oversight that might easily be thought accidental. He refused, but fretted. Drugs to win, money to lose; this was not the foolball he had fallen in love with.

Some days, he sensed a lack of effort in his opponents. Some days, he sensed a lack of effort on his own side. Some days, the tactics baffled him; frankly, they were self-defeating. One day, there was a forfeit, for no apparent reason. He looked at his peers; they looked into the distance. Foolball felt like an anvil on his back.

It grew eerier still. One night, his foolball game was rained off. At dinner, a stranger, not knowing this, had congratulated him on the win. The next night, the game was replayed, and decided by the exact scoreline that so pleased the stranger. A blither colleague, a Pakistani, put it this way: ''Maybe it's fixed, maybe it isn't. As long as the public doesn't know, what does it matter? They get their entertainment, we get what we want.''

But it was not what he wanted. He wanted out. He tried to look the public in the eye. Damned if they weren't looking straight back, the adults hoping and pleading, the kids trusting. This wasn't the foolball of his youth, the greatest game of all. This wasn't you and yours against me and mine, strength versus strength, skill versus skill. This was your chemist against mine, your bookie against mine, your fixer against mine.

You might even be on my side, and not know it. I might be on yours. Which side was he on? Which side were the authorities on?

Foolball now weighed him down so far that it was burying him. It was exercise without pleasure.

On pay television, he watched the big shebang in Canberra, as the Australian Crime Commission released a shocking report on corruption and organised crime in Australian sport, and listened to a series of CEOs pledge every wit and last cent to root it out, and saw that as soon as the telecast ended, the broadcaster crossed to a lengthy market update sponsored by a prominent bookmaker, spruiking juicy odds on every foolball game.

He didn't even bother to shut the door as he walked out.

This story Corrupt sport is a fool's game first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.