Professional sport needs to raise its game in 2020

The world of professional sport has been dragged through the mud recently whether it be through racism scandals in football at home and abroad or Russia's Olympics and the World Cup ban for doping. Neil Drysdale looks at the 2020 vision of how sport can clean up its act

The pitch was simple. Let’s draw up a plan to tackle endemic racist abuse in football and spread the message far and wide in 2020.

Serie A officials in Italy organised a poster campaign, commissioned an artist and waited for the results… which turned out to be that supporters are apes and we should acknowledge we are all in this terrible monkey business together.

Sports administrators have never been renowned for their prescience or foresight, but even by that standard, there seems to be a worrying lack of 2020 vision.

In the year ahead, we can look forward to an Olympics in Japan, which will not feature anyone competing under the flag of Russia, whose tendency towards creating hormone monsters has finally been recognised and reviled by the International Olympic Committee.

Yet the stench of hypocrisy is overwhelming. The issues raised by the Oregon Project and its controversial mentor Alberto Salazar, whose efforts helped Mo Farah to the summit of world athletics, have already provoked controversy, but it’s not just the Russians who stand accused of looking for the quick fix.

On the contrary, whether you look at the Tour de France, which is as mired in scandal as any Trump tweetfest nowadays, or examine the plethora of missed drugs tests by elite athletes, the Olympics has a credibility issue. And that affects all those hard-working, Stakhanovite performers every bit as much as the Justin Gatlins of this world. It must be hoped that the Olympics can transcend the malicious whispers through the efforts of a new generation of stars. But there’s no disguising the fact: Usain Bolt was a very hard act to follow.

In football, Scotland’s men have the opportunity to achieve something they haven’t managed since the last millennium – or 1998 if you want to be less melodramatic.

But, if Steve Clarke’s side are to qualify for a major finals – which given the absurd, multinational format of the tournament means it’s coming to a small car park near you – they will have to get past the play-offs, which means a home tie against Israel and, potentially, an away contest with Serbia.

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It shouldn’t be mission impossible, but the Scots are desperately short of a Gareth Bale, Harry Kane or Aaron Ramsey. Even if they reach the finals, the suspicion persists they will be making up the numbers. Which, given how well Celtic and Rangers have fared in Europe recently, begs the question: do the Old Firm care? Of course not!

Whether Scotland are there or not, questions will prevail about the wisdom of VAR – or Visually Affected Referees, as it’s known in some circles – and how players should best respond to being racially abused.

England set the bar high in their qualifying match away to Bulgaria by threatening to walk off the pitch if the problem surfaced. And, to their credit, they made good on their words and helped topple the most senior figures in the Bulgarian game.

Sadly, though, the idea that England fans have suddenly embraced the ideals of Nelson Mandela is the merest piffle. There’s still abuse and monkey noises being made at club grounds and, without becoming overly political, the seemingly unstoppable success of Boris Johnson is hardly going to help the situation.

The best hope is that supporters start shopping the miscreants. It’s already happening and there is a feeling that many youngsters are genuinely appalled at monkey noises and banana-flinging.

Elsewhere in sport, it will be fascinating to see whether Tiger Woods can launch any sort of credible defence of his US Masters title and if Andy Murray can continue to defy logic by succeeding in tennis where most other individuals would have exited stage left 12 months ago.

There will also be pressure on Scotland rugby coach Gregor Townsend, whose team were woeful in the World Cup in Japan and will enter the Six Nations Championship with a horrible realisation.

Namely, it’s 30 years ago since David Sole led his now-famous confrères out to Grand Slam glory against Will Carling’s over-confident England at Murrayfield.

Three decades on, history won’t repeat itself. There’s a new hierarchy that won’t be easily dismantled – the times have moved on. Or at least they had until racism in football reared its ugly head once more.

Neil Drysdale is a sportswriter for The Press and Journal