Lessons of Hillsborough and Karachi tragedies must be absorbed to prevent further unnecessary loss of life

Remembrance of the Hillsborough tragedy has been forefront in everyone’s minds over the past week, and its lessons stretch well beyond the boundaries of British sport. It was as shocking to read about how 96 innocent football fans were asphyxiated to death in a section of the stadium amounting to a death trap, as it was to hear that 264 Pakistani workers were trapped by metal grilles and a lack of safety exits while a factory fire raged around them and they were burnt alive. In Britain, the Hillsborough tragedy ensured that safety standards were upped, while the silver lining in the cloud of revelations that came to the fore last week lay in the ability of its citizens to hold the government accountable and thereby bring about changes that could save lives. In Pakistan, what guarantee that the recent factory fires in Karachi and Lahore will result in honourable resignations and an urgency to correct antiquated structures that imperil people in such ghastly fashion?

As far as sport is concerned, it is always notable how cricket in the subcontinent is played before a fanatical following, who turn out in overwhelming numbers for T20 and one-day internationals and whose pens are delineated in the stadium by strong grilles in the front and to both sides. It would be a surprise to any Pakistani if the safety officials inside the stadium were aware of how many people each pen could take before the risk of a human crush like the one that happened at Hillsborough became a reality, or if they had measures in place to check the number of people in each pen at any given time. Similarly, there is little faith that safety stewards would know how to effectively stagger the number of people entering any pen in the stadium by standing at the entry tunnels, which was a key failing of the police at Hillsborough that resulted in fatal overcrowding.

The intersection of the Hillsborough report with the fatal fire in Karachi places fresh impetus on the Pakistan government to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again. As far as sport is concerned, it falls to the Pakistan Cricket Board to order a review of safety at all major cricket grounds so that one of the few instances in which people turn out en masse in that country can never be subject to the sort of irreversibly sad disaster that befell Hillsborough. India, too, has a track record of getting up to speed on sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games and the Indian Grand Prix in the most shabby and delayed fashion possible, and would do well to check back and ensure that no potentially fatal shortcuts were taken in the construction of stadiums, stands and terraces.

Armstrong’s concession lurches sports fans into uncertain new world where nothing is as it seems

In effectively holding up the white flag of surrender by allowing the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him for life, Lance Armstrong has burdened all of professional sport with the obligation to confront some ugly truths.

The cold clear light shone on Armstrong’s world by the testimony of former teammates complicit in his crimes still has the power to shock in a sport whose past scandals might have inured us to such feelings by now. In the light of USADA’s compiled evidence (soon to be released to the public), Tyler Hamilton’s interview to CBS about his and Armstrong’s partaking in the wider culture of doping in cycling (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQZnBpoC2jc) can now be taken at face value. His step-by-step deconstruction of the myth Armstrong and cycling spun, through detailing EPO packages sent back and forth between US Postal team members, furtive trips to Spain on private jets to reap the illegal benefits of blood transfusions and the apparent certainty with which Armstrong knew any positive tests would be covered up, reveals the incestuous extent to which cyclists and cycling’s governing body alike stitched doping into the fabric of the sport to further interests that were to do with anything but.

As big the man, and as hard the fall that awaits him, some of the evidence that the investigation surrounding him has thrown up impels us, USADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport to look beyond the story of one man’s downfall, and continue probing deeper in a bid to strike the dark heart of the problem. There is enough to suggest that the International Cycling Union (UCI) has been in on Armstrong’s game from at least as far back as 1999, and that they colluded with him to cover up positive tests and further a legend that brought financial rewards to all who were party to its construction. Armstrong continued to fall back on his last, specious bastion of defence yesterday in Austin by insisting that “the only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls [tests] I have passed with flying colours” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/lance-armstrong-issues-statement-over-usada-doping-charges/2012/08/23/839262ae-ed8f-11e1-866f-60a00f604425_story.html). Yet if such a misleadingly clean record was achieved with the complicity of his governing body, what hope remains for sports fans who would have wished to dismiss plausible conspiracy theories out of hand surrounding certain events in their chosen sports? If the UCI realised that by doing away with honesty and scripting a Hollywood-esque tale of glorious victory from the jaws of defeat in its place that fulfilled most of the storylines people seek from sport and guaranteed a windfall of cash, then why should we believe that FIFA acted from any different motive in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively? Perhaps more hard for people to believe, but no less worthy of investigation in the mistrustful atmosphere of the post-Armstrong world, is the conspiracy theory trotted about by some that Manchester City’s injury-time winner to secure the Premier League last season was not entirely organic. Another avenue for investigation lies in Spain, venue for the infamous ‘Operacion Puerto’, and a country where rumours that its successful national footballing team received “special” treatment from doctors can no longer be laughed away.

It is now the burden of responsibility of all sports fans, intrepid media personnel and those institutions that still haven’t lost sight of their decency and obligations to investigate any cloud of suspicion around their sport, rather than taking the easy route out of turning a blind eye and continuing business as usual. Otherwise, they leave themselves open to the kind of crushing disappointment and shattering unravelling of truth that cycling fans are grappling with now. Cricket fans might wish to believe that the problem of match-fixing was nipped in the bud when three Pakistani cricketers were banned in 2010, but a more plausible theory to advocate and investigate would be whether the International Cricket Committee banned them to quiet media efforts to probe gambling in cricket and thereby protect their own collusion with wealthy mafia who guarantee them higher incomes than their sport can provide. Those who dismiss such fear-mongering as the petty imaginings of fools disregard how the shoe has gone onto the other foot in the post-Armstrong world. Similarly, can we really trust the PGA to investigate Tiger Woods’s links to Anthony Galea – the Canadian doctor associated with doping athletes – thoroughly at the risk of jeopardising the career of an athlete who has brought staggering benefits to the game of golf and all those employed by it? There is no reason to believe Tiger Woods guilty, but at the same time, there is no longer any reason not to investigate and hopefully disprove any lingering threads of suspicion. This can be the only way in which an increasing number of fans are not lost to their sports through cynicism and a justifiable reticence to believe what they are watching.

For all those who cling on to the hope that it is next to impossible for a sportsman of Armstrong’s stature to lead a double life on and off the cameras in today’s paparazzi world, they have to ask themselves why it took over a decade for his deception to come to light. As with Tiger Woods who maintained an image of being a family man long after that world had ceased to exist, and countless politicians, powerful public figures can control their image through associating themselves with the right “advisors” (and Armstrong had countless of these) and offering important bodies sufficient incentive to get behind them. Sports administrators are as partial as any other person to the lure of money, and if making money means participating in the construction, dissemination and maintenance of a beautiful lie and selling the soul of their sport in the process, then that is what they have proved themselves capable of doing. From now on, nothing is too far-fetched, and no longer should true fans of any sport consider not coming to its rescue because they are enjoying potentially false storylines and epic dramas too much to care.

Neymar facing career crossroads in quest to be the best

A sports writer recently suggested that Barcelona and Real Madrid’s unfair hegemony in La Liga was setting themselves up for the same fate that befell Rangers and Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. The idea was that clubs that continued to widen the gap between themselves and the opposition through artificial means, such as the two Spanish giants’ practice of negotiating their own TV rights rather than agreeing to a shared pool, were diluting the quality of the rest of the league to their own detriment. Competition breeds excellence, and the lack of it for Rangers and Celtic transformed two previously regular participants in the Champions League into no more than big fish in a tiny pond, unable to compete at the highest level for lack of practice with quality opponents.

While it may be too much of a stretch to argue that La Liga’s dwindling quality will have the same corrosive effect on Madrid and Barca, whose traditions at the top of the game are well-ingrained over decades (although both did suffer surprising losses in last season’s CL to Bayern Munich and Chelsea respectively), it did illustrate a valid point. Players and teams need to expose themselves to the most competitive leagues to grow and nurture their talent. Part of what makes the artificial gap PSG are about to open up on the rest of the French League so worrying is the potentially stunting effect that regularly turning out against diminished opposition will have on the development of young starlets like Thiago Silva and Javier Pastore. It is also something that might be beginning to bear down on Neymar, the most eagerly anticipated of the clutch of young players on the verge of making their breakthrough.

Neymar’s continuing determination to ply his trade in Brazil until after the 2014 World Cup has the ability to both slow his development at a critical stage and severely hamper Brazil’s chances of lifting the trophy on home soil. There were patches in the Olympic final against Mexico on Saturday when it appeared that the prodigy’s training in Brazil had not equipped him with the knowledge to deal with several defenders instantly closing space around him and suffocating his movement. In the last ten minutes, three runs he attempted at the massed Mexican ranks resulted in the ball cannoning back off them and behind him, as his tricks failed to bewitch defenders who had probably had the opportunity to watch him in carefully prepared training videos beforehand. It is this kind of elite, tactically informed opposition comprising the ranks of international and European football that Neymar is missing the chance to grow against in Brazil, and for which he only has a parsimonious international calendar left to prepare him for in the run-up to 2014.

However Neymar’s obligations in becoming the world’s best player go beyond simply honing his talent in the most competitive leagues in Europe, and thereby becoming a player who scores match-winning goals for both club and country in crucial competitions. Goals can be scored by any great player, and Cristiano Ronaldo is perched atop the best of the rest in this regard. Yet in four consistently wondrous years at Barcelona, Lionel Messi has set the bar higher than that. Beyond the staggering number of goals scored and assists made, what really thrills about Messi is observing how he speeds and flies past tactically educated European defences who have learnt his moves by rote in the most sophisticated pre-match instructions available and are still powerless to halt him. Knowing how effective European leagues are at turning games into tactical battles designed to negate a forward’s natural ability, and then seeing Messi take all of the twenty-two men on the field back to the playground with moves that should only exist on PlayStation and in a child’s imagination is perhaps the closest thing to surreal that sport has to offer.

There is perhaps some truth to be had in the argument that Messi’s genius is unlocked by Barcelona’s unique ability to retain possession in threatening areas and create space for him to launch his unique runs at defences. However, the fact remains that there is not a single footballer from South America playing in Europe today that has managed to retain, let alone polish, the fantastical magic of how they play the game in that continent to the extent that Messi has done. For Neymar, it is the challenge of representing and demonstrating the limitless magic of South America’s game at the highest level of competition to at least the same extent that Messi has done that now awaits him in his anointing as crown prince.

Liu Xiang’s Olympic dramas boggle the mind

It is difficult to know what to make of Liu Xiang’s recurring problems at the biggest event for both his career and his country. If pulling out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics whilst on the precipice of starting his first-round heat was not abrupt and mystifying enough, his decision this time to move his training base to Germany from London – the city in which he had to compete – because it was too “wet and cold” would have only further grown suspicions that there was something phony or spurious around the cult of Liu. It was not too long after pondering the complete absence of logic and whiff of panic in his sudden decision to move camp to Germany that I heard he had pulled out of the hurdles yet again after crashing into the first barrier, citing a repeat of the injury suffered in Beijing four years ago and limping to add a kiss to the last hurdle in his lane for good measure.

To pull out of the Olympic hurdles in the first heat, and in almost exactly the same fashion twice in eight years will arouse the suspicions of anyone with enough common sense not to believe in such unlikely coincidences. Liu would have been attended to by the best trainers and doctors China has to offer, and it is inconceivable that they would not have used the intervening four years to ensure that he was able to make his one date with destiny. Although his true health before the event may have been concealed in the wish not to disappoint people, the general impression given by his staff is that they were as surprised by the sudden reoccurrence of his Achilles injury as we were . That is hard to believe. Seasoned sports watchers might also add that an athlete’s instinctive reaction to having his world and lifelong ambition come crashing down upon him in the way Liu did on Tuesday would have been to burst out into tears at the disappointment. Instead, Liu remained admirably controlled enough to act out a photogenic moment that will be replayed time and again despite possibly having very little to do with sport, and everything to do with a prima donna instinct honed by a decade of adoration in his native China.

Yet, it is impossible to dismiss Liu as a complete fraud who has relied on lies and PR to build his image as a super-athlete. He gave the people of China good reason to love him by winning gold in the 2004 Olympics as a prodigious 21 year-old, and setting a world record in the event a little later. It may be that he was afraid to tar that reputation by failing to live up to expectations either in China or London. Whatever has gone on behind the scenes (and despite the recent announcement that he is undergoing surgery on his Achilles tendon, there are still legitimate questions that might never be answered), should he make it to Rio 2016, I would advise the Chinese people to ignore Liu even during his first-round heat. They may then be surprised to find that their champion, miffed at being slighted, would have raced through his heat with a clean bill of health and given them a contest in the final full of the sort of athletic integrity his recent no-shows have – fairly or unfairly – called into question.