Sport Unconquered – Invictus Games, Leicester City Herald Sports Fight Back after Corruption, Doping Scandals in Countdown to Rio Olympics
By iSportconnect | May 18, 2016
Prince Harry “is the Baron de Coubertin of the Invictus Games….” Orlando Sentinel, anesthetist Monday 9 May
‘I don’t think anything could be more inspiring than seeing a guy who lay bleeding to death in a ditch in Afghanistan now running 100 metres in Paralympic time,’ Royal Marine Andy Grant, Invictus Games
***By Michael Pirrie
While recording a panel discussion on the highlights of the 2015 sports calendar for iSportConnect TV late last year, which featured Around the Rings founder and editor, Ed Hula and AP’s highly respected Olympic and international sports editor Steve Wilson, with myself as presenter, Steve observed how corruption and doping, the two scourges of modern sport, had come together in 2015 like never before.
“Blackmail, bribery, extortion, corruption. You name it, it’s all out there at the moment, and we are still not sure what the end game will be,” Steve said in an accurate summary of how the rapidly evolving scandals were engulfing world sport.
Months later and we still don’t know the full extent of these and other scandals in world sport, ticking away like time bombs until they can be contained no longer as corrupt officials, administrators and athletes move on or are eventually exposed by whistle blowers, smarter electronic auditing and fraud detection systems and better scientific screening and testing protocols for human body samples.
This follows new allegations of doping amongst Russian athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, and the retesting of urine samples from the Beijing Games as the IOC uses technology in more sophisticated ways to revisit the past to identify and prevent corrupt athletes from winning in the future, delivering a significant strike against doping.
No wonder the mood in our recording studio was so sombre – and continues to be so in world sporting circles and beyond as the shockwaves from the Fifa, IAAF and other scandals are absorbed and condemned by disappointed fans, sponsors and players in a global conversation taking place about the values, integrity and future of sport.
“We are talking about the integrity of sport. These organisations have to be almost above reproach; they have to lead by example; and they have to show that sport is not in a corrupt mess and is deserving of the billions of sports supporters around the world,” said Ed Hula.
This is a conversation that stretches from community sports centres and clubs, office water coolers, cafes, and school sports team meetings to the boardrooms of broadcasters, sponsor companies, and government and city hall tourism, major events and marketing departments, the lifeblood of sports worldwide.
Concerns over the state of sport also dominated conversations at the recent Sportaccord convention in Lausanne, the world’s biggest sports talk shop and business summit, where the scandals in sport provided a backdrop that focused urgent attention on the role and responsibilities of sport, raising even questions about whether sport, as a growing global business enterprise, has lost its moral compass and purpose.
In his opening ceremony address to Sportaccord, however, IOC President Thomas Bach, referred to the power of all sports “to send a signal of hope and joy to the world in our much troubled times.”
Those who perhaps can’t wait to be re-inspired by sport at the Rio Olympics and want a more immediate reason to believe in sport again, may have had their prayers answered temporarily by Leicester City’s recent miraculous win in the English Premier League; an epic, almost unimaginable victory thought to be so nearly impossible, so audacious and so unlikely that experts gave Leicester but a solitary one in 5,000 chance of succeeding.
Yet, despite such seemingly insurmountable odds, succeed is exactly what Leicester did, as the team of nobodies who came back from the brink of relegation to defeat the aristocrats of the Premier League and win one of the most cherished and competitive trophies of any professional league in the world.
This was not a lucky penalty shoot-out victory but one secured over a grueling nine month season, of David and Goliath proportions, which helped to confirm one of the great lessons in sport and in life – that if you believe in yourself and work hard enough and smart enough and never give up, much can be achieved.
Leicester’s unprecedented win also reminds us of sport’s unique and uplifting capacity to inspire hope and change even in some of the most unlikely of circumstances – in Leicester’s case with a lowly ranked and team and coach – and prompted a spontaneous outpouring of joy around the world, reflecting Bach’s firm belief in the growing importance, role and expectations of sport in today’s society.
The Invictus Games, which have just concluded in Orlando, Florida, provides even stronger evidence that the essence of sport has not been completely corrupted by recent scandals. People who followed the Invictus Games, inside and outside the world of sport, know that Invictus, Latin for “unconquered,” like Leicester, is something special.
The Invictus Games is a contemporary sporting phenomenon, which, more than any other recent sporting event in these turbulent times of conflict, war, terrorism, and political, financial, police and religious scandal has redefined the role and relevance of sport in positive and life affirming ways.
Based on the US Warrior Games, the inaugural Invictus Games was staged in London in 2014 and was championed by HRH Prince Harry of England, and supported by some of the key figures behind the extraordinarily successful London 2012 Olympic Games, including Sir Keith Mills and Jackie Brock-Doyle OBE, who also advised and assisted on the second edition of the Invictus Games which took place to wide acclaim over the past week in Florida.
Prince Harry seems to have inherited his mother Princess Diana’s passion for taking on important causes, which included the removal of hidden land mines, devices so similar to the IEDs responsible for so much of the damage suffered by the Invictus Games participants.
The Invictus Games of Orlando 2016, like the original Invictus Games in London 2014, involved hundreds of serving and former servicemen and women from 14 countries around the world – Germany, France, New Zealand, Georgia, Jordan, Estonia, Australia, Afghanistan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands – sports participants, who in the words of one leading sports commentator, had become “part of the human debris of wars.”
Some of these men and women had lost limbs stepping onto or trying to defuse IEDs – improvised explosive devices – or suffered brain damage or depression from post traumatic stress. These men and women also found in sport the motivation to overcome and carry on, despite suffering horrific injuries and setbacks.
Sport was their common motivation – and often it was their salvation too!
Like it was for Sarah Rudder, who lost one of her legs following an injury she suffered while in the US Marine Corps helping to recover bodies from the debris of the 9/11 Pentagon attack.
Sarah won the very first gold medal in sport at the Invictus Games just a few days ago and her story is also the story of these Orlando Invictus Games.
Sarah said that sport and training for the Invictus Games had given new purpose and meaning to life.
“Sport saved my life. It showed me that I can do and be something, and that I can be part of a community again.”
The Invictus participants of 2016 followed on from their London 2014 colleagues – colleagues like Royal Marine Andy Grant, who won the 1500m for single amputees at the inaugural Invictus Games. “I knew straight away the importance of sport to my rehab,” he said.
“I don’t think anything could be more inspiring than seeing a guy who … lay bleeding to death in a ditch in Afghanistan now running 100 metres in Paralympic time.”
Or Lance Corporal, Derek Derenalagi, who was pronounced dead after being blown up by an IED in Afghanistan, but as a body bag was being prepared for him a medic detected the faintest pulse and he went on to recover and compete in the London Invictus Games.
Spectators witnessed performances at the Invictus Games in Orlando that may have never been seen before on or around the field of play.
Like the rousing ovation of applause that Jordan’s Ulfat Al-Zwiri received from the crowd and from fellow competitors in the women’s 100m wheelchair dash who waited behind on the track to cheer on Ulfat who finished several meters and seconds behind the rest of the field.
Or the sublime speed and skills of Anthony McDaniel, the US wheelchair basketball captain who lost his hand and both legs in a roadside IED in Afghanistan, but moved like poetry in motion and was as elusive as quicksilver as he propelled himself up and down the court in his wheelchair faster than most could run.
This was sport that had to be seen to be believed!
While competitors at elite world sporting championships might reluctantly give back a gold medal after returning positive blood or urine samples linked to performance enhancing drugs, America’s Elizabeth Marks gave one of her four swimming gold medals back under dramatically different circumstances – to thank staff at a hospital in England for saving her life after she became extremely ill shortly after arriving in London to compete at the first Invictus Games two years ago.
The gesture and the swimmer epitomised the unique spirit of the Invictus Games, named after the poem that inspired Nelson Mandela while imprisoned on Robben Island during his life long campaign to end apartheid. Mandela of course was also adamant that sport can change lives.
“ I don’t step on to a block or go into a pool without thinking of all my battle buddies from all over the world who suffer every day. I never go into a pool to win a medal but just to do them proud,” Marks said after passing on her medal to Prince Harry to give to the Papworth Hospital on his return from the Games.
Prince Harry, Mills, Brock-Doyle and now the Orlando organising committee led by Ken Fisher, and Vicky Gosling, have created something very different, very inspiring, and very relevant to sport in these troubled times – a new vision for sport which has much in common with that of the founder of the modern Olympic Movement, Pierre de Coubertin, to build more peaceful communities and countries based on greater respect, education and understanding through sporting contact and activity.
It is a vision for sport in modern society that also has much in common with the founder of the Paralympic Games, Ludwig Guttmann, who introduced sport to the rehabilitation of wounded men and women on their journey back into society after WW2.
And the world seems to be watching this Invictus Games vision unfold with great interest and admiration.
At a time when international sporting events and bodies are having difficulty attracting new sponsors, funding, broadcasters and high profile supporters, the growth of the Invictus Games is unprecedented.
Since its launch less than two years ago in London, the Invictus Games has attracted sponsorship and support from prestigious global companies and brands such as Jaguar Land Rover, Disney, Virgin, and many others.
The Invictus Games has also generated extensive media and broadcast interest and coverage from experienced rights holders and partners including ESPN and BBC One – more than 400 media were accredited for Invictus Orlando – and was trending on social media.
It has also attracted headline ambassadors from the worlds of sport and entertainment including respected Olympians such as Ian Thorpe, Hollywood actor Michael J Fox and Morgan Freeman, to name but a few.
The Invictus Games has also made global and regional leaders and icons feel safe and comfortable about being associated with sport again after recent scandals, as can be seen in the Invictus video that went viral featuring The Queen along with Prince Harry, President Obama and the First Lady promoting the Games.
While events on the sports field and battlefield have helped to shape and define the contemporary cultures and history of many countries in modern times, the great achievement of Prince Harry, Sir Keith Mills and Jackie Brock-Doyle has been to bring these two highly influential sectors of modern society together within the popular format of an Olympic-Games-style event in an international celebration of peace, inspiration and individual change.
The competitors and participants came to the Invictus Games to help recover further from their war injuries, but in doing so, created a new chapter in the history of sport and human achievement, and realized new possibilities for sport in modern society.
“Winning can be about a lot more than winning medals. Winning is about just doing better, and doing something that you have not done before – that’s when you see the spirit of sport,” said five times Olympic gold medal winner, Ian Thorpe, of Australia.
The Invictus competitors and organisers have made sport potentially more inclusive and accessible than ever before in modern society by showing that participation in sport is possible at all levels of ability and can benefit participants from all physical, emotional and psychological backgrounds and conditions and this can be a major event and cause for celebration in itself.
Prince Harry, Mills, Brock-Doyle and co. have in fact created a new blueprint for sport and multinational multi sport events; one that is scaleable, accountable, transparent and achievable without excessive budgets, and above all, a model of sports activity that is credible and attractive to participants, sponsors, governments and media precisely because it is credible.
The courage and achievements of the Leicester players and the wounded and injured Invictus Games servicemen and women on the pitch, in the swimming pool, on the track, basketball court, and other venues has helped to rescue sport from corrupt officials, athletes, systems and bureaucracies that threatened to rob sport of its special qualities.
The Invictus athletes and Leicester City players have given new purpose and meaning to sport and restored the nobility and credibility of sport so important to the billions of sports players and supporters worldwide, especially young people.
Invictus and Leicester have given sport a good name again, and, as IOC President Bach might say, sent a signal of hope to the world in these troubled times.
***Michael Pirrie is an international communications and major events strategist and commentator.
Michael has occupied senior positions in major bidding and organizing committees, including the London 2012 Olympic Games, working as executive adviser to chairman Sebastian Coe.