Nick Butler

I've been off the grid over the last two weeks, so to speak, summoning the last vestiges of youth to spend two weeks backpacking around Europe.

This has meant that I have consequently only loosely kept abreast of Olympic developments, either through social media or occasional messages from colleagues. One theme leaped out when attempting to summarise what I had missed: values and the hallowed principles that sport claims to respect, but often does not.

"In order to be recognised by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and by the Olympic movement, it is not enough just to show physical activity," said IOC President Thomas Bach before an esports Forum in Lausanne. "Physical activity must also be in compliance with the values of the Olympic Movement.

"We have to draw a very clear red line in this respect and that red line would be e-games which are killer games or where you have promotion of violence or any kind of discrimination as a content...they can never be recognised as part of the Olympic Movement."

Bach later claimed that, in his view, the "concentration, quick reactions, tactical understanding", competitive spirit and mental fitness required for top-level esports is comparable to traditional Olympians, but he conceded this is far from a universal view. My colleagues tell me that other IOC officials present showed only mixed enthusiasm.

My Twitter feed was awash after the meeting with middle-aged and - largely - male sporting executives backslapping and congratulating themselves for having the foresight to consider a computer games collaboration. Personally, I just don't get this and don't see what the Olympics has to gain from esports.

IOC President Thomas Bach speaking at an esports Forum in Lausanne ©IOC
IOC President Thomas Bach speaking at an esports Forum in Lausanne ©IOC

Bach spent the first two years of his Presidency stressing the need to get "couch potatoes off the couch" and playing sport, an admirable value even if it was a clumsy analogy. But isn't he now considering the exact opposite?

We journalists are competitive, mentally fit and like to think we have good reactions and tactical understanding. But, while there are many media types who take themselves very seriously, I am yet to meet one who genuinely thinks their profession should be on the Olympic programme.

By the time they consider introducing esports to the Olympic programme by 2028, is it not also likely that a new and trendier alternative will have piqued the interest of young people? A similar argument to the ones made about the late timing of skateboarding’s debut at Tokyo 2020.

I suspect the real motivation Olympic figures have for collaborating with esports concerns money, which, funnily enough, is one value which those who run sport do prioritise.

There is also something nauseating about Bach’s evangelical crusade in favour of non-violence and discrimination. He would undoubtedly claim that the presence of at least six combat sports on the Tokyo 2020 programme is different to the mindless violence espoused in some computer games, but the distinction is a subtle one.

The values of sport have been tested in some other stories over the last two weeks.

Fair play was a core theme of the European Universities Games in Coimbra. And yet when the Finland team allegedly faced "constant and serious sexual violence" at their hotel, they eventually went public in accusing the European University Sports Association (EUSA) of "attempting to completely brush the incident under the carpet". 

The EUSA deny responding inappropriately and more action could follow, but this is far from the first time a sports body has been accused of hiding rather than investigating.

The Mesut Özil case says less about the good values of sport ©Getty Images
The Mesut Özil case says less about the good values of sport ©Getty Images

Germany has been locked in a protracted row involving footballer Mesut Özil. 

As an Arsenal fan, I can agree that he is a frustrating player, and posing for a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before the World Cup was, at best, misguided given the political context in Germany. But the response from figures including the German Football Association President Reinhard Grindel to effectively single-out Ozil for blame and allow the racist overtones of criticism to intensify was disgraceful.

The IOC have, to my knowledge, stayed quiet on this, but were keener to argue with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) over the new Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act which could put all athletes under the country's criminal code, despite the "very worrying" existing challenges of doping in American professional leagues. 

The IOC always seem terrified about USADA and would no doubt love to lock its chief executive Travis Tygart in one of the henhouses he always lectures them about, with a pack of feral foxes for company, but on this occasion, they do have a point. It is hypocritical for the US to act as the world police on doping where they continue to face so many serious problems themselves. On the other hand, the IOC are in no place to talk.

The whole dispute is unseemly and hardly reflects the hallowed values of sport well.

"Sports has the power to change the world," said Nelson Mandela in a quote which is almost compulsory reciting at many sporting meetings. "It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand."

It certainly can, and it was great to see North and South Korean table tennis players Cha Hyo-Sim and Jang Woo-jin uniting to win the mixed doubles together at the Korea Open last month. Sport has provided a platform to raise the profile of Korean unity this year, even if, despite the claims of some officials, it has done little directly to improve relations.

Jang Woojin and Cha Hyo Sim won gold together at the Korea Open table tennis event in Daejeon ©ITTF
Jang Woojin and Cha Hyo Sim won gold together at the Korea Open table tennis event in Daejeon ©ITTF

Sports leaders, though, are less keen to recall what George Orwell had to say about their world.

"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play," the 1984 and Animal Farm author wrote in a 1945 essay. "It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting."

The truth is surely somewhere in between. Sport is a microcosm of society which replicates every part: good and bad.

The Tour de France which closed in Paris on Sunday (July 29) provided a perfect snapshot of this in proving as controversial and chaotic as every other part of life these days.

The race began on a cloud of controversy following the clearing of pre-race favourite and defending champion Chris Froome after he failed a drug test for an asthma product. 

It contained several unsavoury moments. A prolonged row between International Cycling Union boss David Lappartient and Team Sky head David Brailsford which left neither looking particularly good. The constant abusing and hassling of Froome and other members of his team by spectators, a rider disqualified for punching a rival and a farmers' protest which caused the race to be halted after police mistakenly sprayed the peloton with pepper spray .

Eventual winner Geraint Thomas was among Tour de France riders to suffer from the effects of pepper spray ©Getty Images
Eventual winner Geraint Thomas was among Tour de France riders to suffer from the effects of pepper spray ©Getty Images

Despite all of this, I was still nagging my friends while travelling to ensure we found a bar by about 4pm whatever city we were in to ensure we caught the end of the stage. 

It was still sport at its glorious and exciting best and, as it stands, it resulted in a popular and grounded winner in Britain's Geraint Thomas who seems to exhibit the values we want in our sporting champions.

Rather than deviating off into the new pasture of esports, the IOC and other sports bodies would be better off embracing and improving what they already have in a world of sport which is flawed and thrilling in equal measure.

Liam Morgan is away