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Thu May 26 02:42:08 CAT 2016

Don't be blinded by muck

Ross Tucker | 01 February, 2016 00:17
Ross Tucker. File photo
Image by: Times Media Group

The year is only a month in, but it cannot seem to escape the shadow of corruption and controversy.

Match-fixing in tennis. Doping in athletics. Bribery and corruption in football and athletics. Almost an entire team of 34 Australian Rules Football players banned for doping.

And most recently, an under-23 competitor at the Cyclo-cross World Championships is alleged to have raced with a motor in her bicycle.

But sport long ago lost its innocence - Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong symbolise the doping problems, while it's been an open secret that mega-federations like Fifa and the IOC have been run like Wall Street banks for years.

Still, there's something particularly discouraging about the scandals of 2016, because they force you to question whether what you're seeing is real, or just a variant on the WWE without knowing who is pulling which strings.

When Sepp Blatter and Co were enriching themselves at the expense of suckers who bid to host Fifa's money-machine, it didn't affect the pleasure of seeing a well-drilled German team against the individual brilliance of a Lionel Messi or Sergio Aguero. It's a little different when medals and matches are being manipulated from an office.

From my perspective in sports science and management, the biggest frustration is that the forced focus on doping and other forms of corruption detracts from the numerous other aspects . I'm not arguing for wilful ignorance, because to ignore the cancer of corruption is to allow it to spread, but perhaps it's good, once in a while, to set aside the negative and illustrate that the hidden side of sport involves more than brown envelopes, syringes and bags of money.

For example, when Stephen Cook made a debut century at the age of 33, it reminded me of a fascinating study that Australian Cricket commissioned a decade ago, because they had a batch of 30-something batsmen in their team. Conventional wisdom was that the mid-30s was "over the hill", in large part because eyesight and reflexes deteriorate after 30. Concerned by this prospect, they called on research to test the reactions, reflexes and eyesight of their players, and found, to their relief, that no such vision liability existed. They got thousands more runs from those "aged" batsmen, and bought time to bring the next generation through.

Reading that Cricket South Africa had left Cook off their list of 16 players awarded national contracts last week got me wondering whether his age may be a factor against a longer-term investment, and whether such decisions might be better informed with some "scientific thinking".

You could interrogate so many aspects of sport in a similar way. Why has Rafael Nadal's level dropped so substantially since his injury lay-off?

Is there a residual problem that prevents him from moving as fast and from getting his extraordinary spin on the ball?

It would be possible to answer these with Hawkeye technology.

Or consider the upcoming Super rugby tournament. It asks players to travel more than any sporting competition in the world, and the addition of Japan and Argentina does not make this any easier. Fascinating research on jet lag and travel stress says that teams who get their approach right will gain what could be a decisive advantage. Sports science is the way to engage with those questions.

This is not an argument for cognitive dissonance. More an autobiographical reminder that there are so many layers to sport. What 2016 has thrown up is a toxic layer, one which demands attention (and scientific thinking and good management).

But there are many more, and I hope that isn't lost in the fog and mistrust.

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