Coping with a credibility crisis

When a few elite sprinters recently tested positive for stimulants, a Finnish tabloid solicited comments from a sports scholar locally known as a critic of the anti-doping ideology. According to Iltalehti’s interview, the Finnish scholar agreed with the common belief that the ill-fated urine samples had dealt a tremendous and possibly lethal blow to the ‘credibility’ of sprinting.

Yet the so-called expert failed to spell out the exact procedure of measuring the sport’s lost credibility. Come to think of it, is it even conceivable to submit the buzzword to a serious analysis?

Credibility as the quality of simply believing in officially timed results is of course still there. As long as the participants cover the same distance and don’t obstruct each other’s performances, the credibility of the race cannot be at stake. A male athlete can indeed gallop one hundred meters in nine and a half seconds and a female athlete in ten and a half seconds.

Integrity is another synonym for credibility, and in a sportive context it implies strict adherence to the current rules that regulate the use of performance-enhancing substances and methods. In this limited sense the credibility of the sprint disciplines certainly seems to have diminished, although (and this is a crucial qualification) their popularity shows no signs of wearing out.

Cycling is a prime example of an immensely popular sport which has remained immune to a series of drug disclosures. In fact, the mediated ‘doping scandals’ in cycling could hardly have been better designed by a top-rated marketing company. The melodrama of nosy journalists forcing athletes to lie about their medication and the very same journalists professing disbelief when their heroes own up to being ‘drug cheats’ is entertainment of highest order (except for the disgraced heroes).

It follows that the idle speculation about the endangered credibility of this or that sport is totally beside the point. While an increasing number of observers believe that all elite athletes resort to a wide array of drugs, their conviction hasn’t yet translated into wholesale abandonment of sport.

Die Verärderung des Sports ist gesellschaftlich, argued the title of a typically illuminating volume by Henning Eichberg nearly thirty years ago. Only a societal change can bring about a veritable turnabout in our conception of sport. In other words, we won’t stop believing in the spectacle of medically-enhanced sport until we manage to dispose of the ‘faster, higher, stronger’ paradigm in our societies obsessed with all sorts of performances.

In the meantime, I’d strongly recommend that sports scholars keen on retaining their personal credibility should abstain from seeking journalistic fame. What I set out to explain in the Finnish tabloid interview was the simple fact that no amount of drug stories can have a lasting impact on the fate of sport. Either I couldn’t make myself understood or the journalist had reached a conclusion before contacting the ‘expert’ of his choice.

Whether the credibility crisis caused by the interview will put a premature end to my academic endeavors remains to be seen.

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  1. avatar

    Is it really a common belief that the recent doping incidents have dealt a tremendous and possibly lethal blow to the ‘credibility’ of sprinting or is this belief only to be found amongst sport journalists? And is it reasonable for a scholar to expect the journalists to present the critical view of the scholar in a correct and concise manner so that the scholar retains his or hers credibility? In my opinion the short answer to the questions is no.

    I do not think that the common man or woman care so much about who is using performance enhancing substances or not. An athlete’s ‘credibility’ is not an important issue; his or her performances are. The common man or woman cares about who wins; hoping that “their” athletes succeed. They are not caught by the ‘moral panic’ that sport leaders and sport politicians express in newspapers or television interviews. Frankly, I am not sure that the sport leaders or the sport politicians are that concerned about drug use or athletes’ credibility either. What they say in the mass media may not be what they really mean about these matters. They turn up on the grand stands when the great events take place, don’t they?

    So what is this fuzz about doping in the media and in the public opinion? What we observe as sport in the media is fiction; fiction created by journalists to produce news and entertainment. The mass media makes stories and myths, heroes and heroines, local identity and national pride. To do so the journalists looks for angels: focusing on conflict, not agreement; drama, not idyll; sensation, not the ordinary; crisis, not stability and so forth. “Credibility” is one concept that can be used to create tensions in a story; implying a conflict between athletes and the common man and between the sport system and scholars and indicating a crisis that threatens the sport from within. We are all playing our roles in this melodrama. One scholar may not turn the tables; but a lot of critical scholars may make a difference. But other groups may also do their parts: politicians may stop grant money to elite sports, international companies like Nike and Samsung may sponsor other areas of society and the public may not attend mega-events and use the off button on their television when elite sport is on the screen. If this happens, then sport journalists will have to write about other things where credibility is not an issue and therefore is not in crisis. So Erkki, keep up your good and critical work; your credibility is not determined by a misrepresentation in the mass media. Your scholarly writings will!

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