Thierry Henry’s rehabilitation is on track. He kept a low profile in Barca’s win on Tuesday night but was back in the spotlight nevertheless. Gasps of relief across the world of marketing could even be heard in football stadiums. Forget the indignation in Ireland about the hand ball incident. We are a small country with little clout. Besides, Roy Keane summed it up well saying, get over it. But, what message does this give to the myriad school age footballers across the globe? Is it OK to break the rules as long as you get away with it? In his defence, it was probably a reflex action in the heat of the game and the French were under considerable media pressure but, what does it say about fair play in sport? Or, is fair play just an old fashioned concept?
Perhaps it is, if FIFA feels there is a need to undertake wrist MRI to check the age of underage footballers. Not all countries have the same methods of birth registration, delays can occur and, there may be confusion about the exact date of birth, especially in some developing countries. And, different ethnic groups may mature at different rates. But, Jiri Dvorak, in an editorial in November’s issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, raises the uncomfortable issue of “age doping,” where there may be deliberate falsification of information about the age of players in underage sport. If, in their documentation, the entire team appear to have birthdays in the same month, or players present birth certificates with consecutive serial numbers, it seems reasonable to wonder. And, try not to smile, when Jiri describes players at an under 16 tournament going shopping for teddy bears for their children. He also mentioned that when FIFA announced that they would introduce MRI of the wrist at the under 17 world cup, some teams replaced up to 15 players from they original squad. Hardly encouraging news for those who feel that sport should embody the principles of fair play.
But, is fair play always a problem for other countries, other players, other people’s children? It fascinates me when I hear of underage athletes asking about dietary aids, protein supplements and Creatine. Coaches and parents are happy to allow, even encourage, their offspring to seek sporting advantage because it is entirely within the rules. But, in truth, these athletes, with the acquiescence of their parents, clubs, and schools are seeking aids to performance – exactly the same objective as those athletes who fail dope tests. Their logic is that these substances are permitted. And, they are. But, what is the moral difference? Doping regulations are based on a philosophy that seeks to make sport fair. They are an arbitrary agreement among sporting bodies based on the premise that no one should have unfair advantage. Yet, these same parents and schools seem happy to counter this principle, simply because these substance are not on an arbitrary banned list. What message do they give their children? Is this fair play? Plus ça change……
Domhnall MacAuley is primary care editor, BMJ