Australia Says No To Winning At All Costs
By Michael Pirrie | December 18, 2018
Sport has long helped to anchor Australia’s place in the world, and the nation’s cricket team has been its most successful sporting export in recent times, following a decline in performances by its Olympic teams in London, Rio and PyeongChang.
But if Australia’s world champion cricket team thought it was the Bear Stearns of world cricket and too big to fail, it did not reckon on the public’s growing intolerance of corrupt, incompetent or poor performing elite institutions and administrators, on and off the sporting field.
Few countries enjoy winning at sport more than Australia, but a plot involving members of the national team to manipulate the ball and alter its flight and movement through the air and on the pitch to gain an unfair advantage against South Africa’s batsmen was a step too far for this sports-proud nation.
The very public downfall of the players involved along with the national governing body, Cricket Australia, followed an unprecedented deluge of criticism in the media, and in homes, cafes, schools, office blocks, shopping centres, airports, construction sites, nursing homes, community halls and just about every location across the country.
The public anger flooded talk back radio, filled newspaper front and back pages, and editorial columns, led television news bulletins and dominated digital screens and devices of all shapes and sizes, all demanding those responsible to be disciplined and punished.
Elites Under Challenge
The public’s reaction to the cricket crisis shattered the elite sports caste system that has long elevated, isolated and protected sporting heroes, teams and governing bodies in Australia – and other nations – from the wider community and country.
The public outcry was also an expression of community anger against perceived elites and was dramatically different to almost anything seen in sport prior to Brexit and Trump.
While it was inevitable that momentum from these and similar other social and political movements would cross over into other sectors of global society, the common demands for greater accountability, equality, and responsibility from elite institutions, executives and others in positions of power and privilege became evident for the first time in elite sport in the cricket controversy in Australia.
Draining The Swamp
The community anger in relation to sporting elites is focused on a perceived lack of accountability and soft approach of governing bodies and authorities to corruption and incompetent administration in response to continuing doping, financial mismanagement among other concerns, including high costs of elite sporting events, programs and infrastructure.
This has hardened community opposition globally against hosting major sporting events, especially the Olympic Games and FIFA Football World Cup, which many cities and countries now consider too burdensome and costly.
While several highly strategic and politically motivated community campaigns have secured a string of successful public referendum outcomes against Olympic, FIFA and other major world championship bids in cities around the world, much of the emerging anti-elite sport activity has been spontaneous and largely unstructured.
This includes protests by sports fans at public venues against athletes who have participated at elite sporting events such as the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and London 2017 World Athletics Championships after serving suspensions for doping.
Impact Of Corruption
The impact of corruption on a national sport, on a country, an elite governing body and on the public, however, has rarely been seen on such a scale as the cricket scandal in Australia.
A once and potential future Olympic sport, cricket is Australia’s national pastime, and the scandal was both an acutely personal and public moment for many Australians who feared the cheating controversy would reflect poorly on the country and its citizens.
Ironically, while Theresa May, the embattled Prime Minister of the UK, Australia’s greatest cricket rival, recently invoked the fighting spirit of a former English test cricket great, Sir Geoffrey Boycott, to reassure the British people of their capacity to survive the Brexit blues, Australia could find only despair in its national game.
The public and media reaction to the cricket scandal was pivotal from the outset in determining the fates of the players and administrators involved.
Observing the public’s immediate shock and anger to news of the ball-tampering, the incident also was immediately condemned by politicians and community leaders, led by Australia’s Prime Minister at the time, Malcolm Turnball, who did not hold back in describing the cricket ball conspiracy as an affront to Australia and its values.
Australia’s response to the crisis also revealed a yearning to return to its more traditional and cherished “Fair Go” values and image in the current era of rapid change and uncertainty.
Australians felt disappointed and even betrayed by the national cricket team, and expected swift sanctions against everyone involved, beginning with the players directly implicated – the nation’s top two batsman and a key strike bowler who received record 12-month bans – before focusing on the elite cricket bureaucrats responsible for management of the sport and team.
The subsequent review of the cricket scandal, commissioned by Cricket Australia itself, read like the script for a Netflix sporting tragedy, based on the seven deadly sins of modern sports administration and performance, including greed, ego, soaring ambition, deception, pride, poor governance, and stakeholder relations, especially with players.
The failings outlined in the review were of Shakespearean proportions, triggering an earthquake in the sport that centred on an obsession with winning driven by commercial interests, which corrupted the team culture and ended in public defeat and humiliation, precipitating an extended losing streak in Australian cricket.
Winning Without Counting Costs
The culture surrounding Australia’s premier sporting body had turned the cricket team into a finely tuned machine designed solely to win, taking the goals of modern sport into a new frontier.
This was not just about winning at all costs but ‘winning without counting the costs,’ according to the review report.
The cricket team and management had redefined the sport of cricket in Australia in their own image, but this was an image of cricket that Australians did not like or even recognise.
The landmark report, compiled by the Sydney Ethics Centre, revealed fault lines and connections to cheating in sport like never before, drawing lines of responsibility stretching from players on the cricket pitch in South Africa all the way back to Cricket Australia’s offices located, ironically, close to the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Sport In A Gilded Bubble
While events on the sporting field and battle field have long defined Australia’s fighting spirit and soul, references in the report to the “gilded bubble” of wealth and privilege in which the national cricket team and support staff existed, had rendered Australia’s elite cricket unit unrecognisable from the humble and rugged pre-and post- world war cricket heroes who inspired and united Australia in times of great adversity and defined Australia’s sporting traditions and values.
The anger in the community and media prompted a Trump-like chorus of calls to drain the sports swamp, triggering an executive neutron bomb that emptied Cricket Australia of almost all signs of high level executive life, evaporating the positions of some of the most senior sports executives in Australia who resigned and evacuated the headquarters of the governing body in a rush to limit damage from the fall out of debris from the scandal.
These included the chairman of Cricket Australia, the national team manager and coach, the high-performance coach, and others, including the commercial director, who all resigned or left their positions prematurely.
Masters Of The Cricket Universe
This was an extraordinary fall from public grace and favour for the masters of the cricket universe as the sports obsessed nation disowned the Australian team’s brand of ruthless win-at-all cost cricket, which had alienated many who felt cricket’s supreme decision-making body in Australia and national team had lost their way, and no longer represented the sport or brand Australia.
The Australian cricket scandal is one of the most significant developments in world sport for 2018; for what happened on and off the fields of play this year; and for pointing to circumstances that can give rise to corruption in elite sport, and steps that can be taken to curb such corruption.
New Wake-Up Call For Sport
The cricket controversy in Australia is a cautionary tale for other countries, sporting codes, federations and governing bodies where toxic cultures still exist hidden in plain sight under a mask of corporate respectability and conformity, which could break and shatter at any moment – just like Cricket Australia and its national cricket team.
With a number of national Olympic committees and sports trying to contain a range of serious misconduct allegations, from bullying and financial mismanagement to fraud, political activity and sexual abuse, the cricket scandal and review report are highly relevant to the Olympic Movement, especially the emphasis in the report on the responsibility of senior management for misconduct that occurs on their watch.
Several previous warnings from IOC President Thomas Bach urging Olympic sporting bodies to change and get their organisations into proper order before change is forced upon them, are even more telling in wake of the cricket controversy, which has highlighted the need for further urgent reform and modernisation in the elite sports sector.
Internal Rogue Culture
Australian cricket had developed its own internal rogue culture and vision for the sport, which was rejected by the wider community for whom the rules and traditions of sport still meant more than winning at all costs, especially in the current era of social disruption, in which the role and relevance of sport and the public’s engagement with sport is changing rapidly as society changes.
The lessons from Australia’s elite cricket breakdown indicate that sport governing bodies and teams must live and act according to their own corporate values, and that codes of conduct must explicitly ban bullying and other forms of threatening behaviour and apply equally to executives and Board members as well as support staff and team members and officials.
In this new and rapidly changing post-Brexit, Trump and #MeToo landscape, human resource departments in sporting organisations are as important as high-performance divisions in order to ensure corporate vision and values are aligned with the goals and needs of sport and athletes.
Governing bodies also need more diverse sources of revenue so that finances and funding are not highly dependent on the ability of premier competition teams to constantly win.
Winning Is Not Everything For Everyone
The elite cricket establishment in Australia over-estimated the importance placed on winning in the wider community, especially in a society that still champions the underdog.
While sport must be commercially successful to survive, the cricket controversy highlights the risks of running sporting organisations as corporate enterprises, traditionally designed and structured for profit, but often lacking governance and accountability systems needed to protect the spirit and essence of sport.
If Russia’s surreal state sanctioned doping programme and cover up highlighted the lack of effective protocols and powers in the international sports system to detect deep covert doping and corruption activity, the Australian cricket scandal points to the rise of people power as an emerging new force against corruption in elite sport.
The cricket scandal has shifted the balance of power back towards sport and changed the relationship between the public and cricket power brokers, making sporting officials and teams more accountable to the wider community and public, the ultimate shareholders and investors in modern sport.
The author is a London based international communications and major events consultant and commentator on world sport and Olympic news and politics. Michael has held several senior communications positions on organising committees for major international events and projects, including the London and Sydney Olympic Games.