What's the cost of sports corruption?

Formula 1Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone appeared in a German court this week as a witness in the biggest corruption trial the country has seen in over 60 years.

He's not in the dock, but he is accused of paying £27.5 million to an executive working for a state-owned bank. Ecclestone originally denied making the payment, but now says he was being blackmailed.

The man on trial for accepting the payment is Gerhard Gribkowsky, a former chief risk officer with the BayernLB bank. He's also charged with breach of trust and tax evasion over his part in the 2005 sale of the bank's £526 million stake in Formula 1 to private equity group CVC.

It's alleged that Ecclestone wanted the CVC deal to go through because that would enable him to stay in firm control of the sport. Ecclestone says he did pay Gribkowsky the money, but only because he was worried the bank executive would tell the Inland Revenue that Ecclestone was really in charge of an offshore family trust called Bambino, which is controlled by his wife Slavika.

Ecclestone says that allegation is false, but it would have sparked an expensive tax investigation. Gribkowsky denies blackmailing Ecclestone, saying the fees he received were for legitimate consultancy. The court also heard that Gribkowsy had authorised the payment of £26 million to Ecclestone as commission for easing the F1 sale – a payment that was totally above board.

Pakistani cricket scandal

It's yet another tale which is causing many to question how much sport remains sport. This year we've seen three Pakistani cricket internationals jailed for spot-fixing, something which shook the sport even more than the revelations of match-fixing 11 years ago by South Africa captain Hansie Cronje.

In 2006, Italian football giants Juventus were stripped of two league titles and relegated from the top division after taped conversations of club officials influencing referees were released. AC Milan and Fiorentina also had points deductions imposed as the investigation unveiled more corruption.

In Turkey, an ongoing investigation into match fixing, bribery, corruption, extortion and intimidation in football has seen 61 people arrested and put the results of at least 19 matches under the spotlight. Fenerbahçe, the club at the heart of the scandal, has been banned from playing in the Champions League.

In England, despite whispers over the years, there's no evidence of serious corruption of the sort that has disfigured football in Italy and Turkey. But with vast amounts of money at stake, and greater profits to be made, the temptation is surely there.

Ben Johnson

What does all this do for sport, and our enjoyment of sport? For sport to really work, spectators have to believe that what they are seeing is fair competition. Otherwise the spectacle is spoiled. It took me years to enjoy athletics again after watching Ben Johnson's amazing 9.79 second gold medal-winning 100m victory at the 1988 Olympics, only to find that his performance was aided by steroids.

Sport is certainly a business now and, at root, there's a fundamental clash between successful business and successful sport. In business, you need to guarantee success as much as possible. In sport, the more success is guaranteed, the less sporting the spectacle becomes. We have to believe we are watching real competition.

That's why sport is increasingly covered as entertainment, the thing itself becoming secondary to the narrative of character and confected controversy. Writing in the latest issue of football journal The Blizzard, Telegraph journalist Rob Smith refers to the headlines the morning after Barcelona's exceptional Champions League victory last year.

They were all about Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger complaining that striker Robin van Persi had been sent off. "The beauty of Barcelona was relegated to second billing behind the whisper of illusory controversy," he says. The sport has become secondary to the story.

Football bubble

While I don't see much evidence of the pull of sport diminishing seriously just yet, and certainly not of the long-predicted bursting of the football bubble, there is an underlying worry that sport is not what is was or what it could be. It is a great money-spinner because of the passion and affection it inspires, and there is some evidence that passion and affection are being tested by what sport is becoming.

Perhaps ironically, it was the founding father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre du Coubertain, who turned the phrase that is at the heart of people's affection for sport. He said "the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not the winning, but the taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

That concept of fair play and honest effort is central to sport's attraction, and to why businesses want to be associated with sport. As sports turn themselves every more into businesses, they need to retain the ability to strike a balance between business and sporting values. Otherwise the whole house comes tumbling down.