Comment: Let's focus on the best people, not the cheats

IN sport and business those affected by dishonesty are too often invisible, writes Alison Marshall

Justin Gatlin was demonised as a drugs cheat at last years Athletics World Championships. Picture: Getty
Justin Gatlin was demonised as a drugs cheat at last years Athletics World Championships. Picture: Getty

The recent doping scandals in the world of sport, particularly in athletics, have led to a significant loss of faith in true competition and seriously risk the future of those sports. The outrage has been so pronounced that the press has reported this cheating with back page, and sometimes even front page, headlines (and remember how Justin Gatlin was demonised as a drugs cheat at last year’s Athletics World Championships?)

Clean athletes are demoralised and dejected to find out they have missed their big moment in the limelight, and one wonders what kind of inspiration young athletes will take from the whole saga. Should historical records still stand? Should ignorance be a defence? Should offending athletes be banned for life?

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

From a business owner’s perspective, it’s interesting to see such a public debate on such a topic, as there are so many parallels between sport and the business world – but the reaction to rule breaches can be quite starkly different.

The main response to a doping scandal in sport is that it’s so unfair to the clean athletes who have done it the proper way, the hard way. It’s all about a level playing field and fair competition. You can’t go back and give that clean athlete her moment on the Olympic podium a year later when the victor is disqualified for doping.

In the business world, injustice like this happens all the time, but the result of “not playing fair” doesn’t tend to catch the headlines unless a really high-profile business is involved.

Businesses are under more and more strain to comply with the mountain of regulations that seems to grow every year, and that this can be particularly burdensome for smaller firms. However, if everyone complies, the playing field is level and competition is fair.

A recent director disqualification case from Fife relates to a quite blatant breach of a great number of regulations – the key failing being not keeping proper accounting records to show things as basic as money flowing in and out of the business. Failure to keep such records makes it near impossible to establish if the correct amount of tax is paid, if money laundering is taking place, and so on.

The person in question was disqualified from being a director for six years. A disqualification means, among other things, that she is no longer able to be a director or able to take part in the management of a company, a personal blow.

However, stories like this only make small blips on professional newsletters and Companies House press releases. We don’t know what other competitor businesses might have lost out significantly due to this “corner cutting”, and they almost certainly will have no form of recourse.

Maybe they went out of business. Maybe there was unpaid tax and so public services have suffered. Is that better or worse than someone taking the wrong kind of cough syrup and then winning a running race?

Of course, rightly or wrongly, people want to read news stories about well-known figures, and the press will only publish what’s newsworthy. A 100m world class sprinter taking (innocently or not) banned ADD medication is a much sexier story than a young Fife businesswoman ignoring the need to keep proper accounting records.

Successful sportspeople are icons for the next generation and have a responsibility to live up to that billing, so a fall from grace through doping is not to be made light of.

However, shouldn’t successful business people who work hard and achieve success the right way also be icons for the next generation? Shouldn’t the business “cheats” who ignore the rules and cut corners be more villain-ised to deter others?

Sports scandals will always win more headlines, but spare a thought for all the “clean” business people out there – maybe they’ve been deprived of their moment in the spotlight too.

• Alison Marshall is a partner with CCW Business Lawyers