12 October, 2009Issue 10.1Sport

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Dirty Games

James Appell


Cheating in sport is a sure-fire headline grabber. Nothing has demonstrated this better than a few high-profile cases during the summer of 2009. As holidaymakers prostrated themselves on sun-kissed beaches, the murkier sides of professional sporting competition burst into the spotlight.

Most recently, Rugby Unionthe gentleman’s game par excellencecame under the microscope after a particularly salacious story, popularly known as the Bloodgate scandal, rocked the foundations of the sport. During a quarterfinal match in European Rugby’s premier cup competition, Harlequin Football Club made a substitution, bringing off winger Tom Williams, who appeared to be bleeding from a mouth wound. It was later revealed, however, that Williams had used a capsule of fake bloodhidden inside his sock—to facilitate a tactical change for his team (the rules governing which, incidentally, would fox the average Oxford graduate).

Williams betrayed himself when he was caught on camera leaving the field, apparently bloodied and bruised, but winking at a member of the Harlequins coaching staff. The subsequent furore led to the suspension of the rugby club’s managerial team, as well as the player himself, and much soul-searching amongst devotees of the game. Apparently if a rugby player flaps his eyelids in West London, a whirlwind does indeed gather in Fleet Street.

Yet for all the epileptic handwringing in the media, one suspects that the general public—albeit secretly or begrudgingly—finds these stories of cheating appealing. It may be, as ESPN’s Pat Forde wrote in 2007, that we are simply too emotionally involved in sports, and that as a result we are relieved of our moral scruples.

But the fascination seems to go further. It isn’t so much that we tolerate cheating amidst the emotions of the game. Academics Ian Preston and Stefan Szymansi were overcautious when they argued that “there certainly does not seem to be any clear evidence that scandals related to cheating have reduced interest” in sports. The public interest is piqued—and an important aspect of fandom is satiated—by cheating. We are inordinately fascinated by it. We want more of it.

Part of this collective idée fixe is surely bound up in the human love of theater, the inclination to divide public figures into good and bad character types and to revel in the moments when sportsmen adhere to these roles. But sporting cheats, unlike, say, criminals, have a special type of attraction (the glorification of violence and crime notwithstanding). For though their rule breaking is taboo, sport stars’ willingness to sacrifice morality for victory can be seen as heroic, an all-consuming longing for glory. In short, we may not approve of a cheat’s methods—though hats off to something as ingenious as a blood capsule—but we often admire his motivation.

This is not, as some might argue, merely gross titillation for Joe Public. Even sensible and erudite commentators get swept up in a quasi-romantic reaction toward a sporting cheat. To coincide with the 2008 Beijing Games, Simon Barnes, widely regarded as one of the Times’s best sportswriters, was asked to name his favourite Olympic moment of all time.

“The same image fills my mind”, Barnes mused. “It is burnt into my retina: that blazing day in Seoul, the light hurting your eyes and the yellow-eyed, shaven-head human bullet taking the stage to turn the world upside down.”

That’s right, Barnes chose the greatest cheat of them all, Ben Johnson, who ran a world-record 9.79 seconds in the final of the 100-meter in 1988 only to test positive for anabolic steroids days later. Add Barnes’s case to a growing list that includes the “Hand of God”, the 1919 Chicago Black Sox, Tonya Harding—all have gone down in history as infamous, and yet somehow fetishised, exponents of the art of cheating.

The question—which, for obvious reasons, nobody in sport wants to ask—is whether cheating is in fact good for sport.

There is no doubt that tales of intrigue and deceit help to keep sport top of the public agenda. Juicy stories of how far sportsmen are willing to go for victory turn heads and get tongues wagging, drawing in viewers picky about what they watch, read, and discuss. Particularly now, in an age of professionalism where money and audience share rule, sport benefits from the added exposure generated by cheating controversies, even if that means sacrificing some of the integrity of sporting competition.

It’s a tough moral maze to navigate: the desire to punish those who refuse to play by the rules pitted against the natural human tendency to marvel, however reluctantly, at acts of daring villainy. This paradox has led some in the debate to propose an amnesty on certain types of cheating. Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture, media, and sport at Staffordshire University and a regular contributor to British sporting discussion, argues in favour of legalising performance-enhancing drugs in sporting competition: “There are no moral absolutes in sport”, Cashmore declared in a 2003 editorial for the Observer, for purity and fairness are anachronistic “amateur ideals”.

But as much as cheating constitutes a notable part of modern sport’s rich tapestry, there are good reasons for fighting this rather revisionist approach.

Never mind Tom Williams’s faked injury; in some cases, cheats actively put themselves in the way of physical harm. Take another episode from this summer, when Brazilian Formula One driver Nelson Piquet Jr purposely crashed his racing car to allow Renault teammate Fernando Alonso to win the Singapore Grand Prix. Executing highly dubious team instructions, Piquet Jr put himself—and the other drivers—at enormous risk.

Moreover, there are grounds for arguing that the sportsman vilified as a cheat is more justly understood as a victim. Both Williams and Piquet Jr can legitimately argue that they were following instructions. No matter how distasteful that particular excuse has become, it can be a persuasive one, confer Stanley Milgram’s research.

Demonstrating this point in horrific fashion, former communist East Germany fed its unwitting athletes potent cocktails of hormones and steroids. Shot-putter Heidi Krieger was so affected by the drugs she was forced to imbibe that she opted to undergo a sex change and is now known as Andreas. Swimmer Rica Reinisch, who won three gold medals at the 1980 Olympics, depicted the real sadness of the East German case when she told her story to the Guardian in 2005. “The worst thing was that I didn’t know I was being doped”, she said. “I was lied to and deceived. Whenever I asked my coach what the tablets were I was told they were vitamins and preparations.”

And then there is the point that, for all the hype generated by a cheat, there is nothing more glorious than a great winner. The sports story of the summer was undoubtedly Usain Bolt’s achievements on the track: smashing two sprint world records in times that seem, frankly, ludicrous. It is when these historic moments occur—sporting genius, and not of the evil variety—that people really sit up and take notice of sport, and the public profile of sport truly benefits.

Let’s all hope, therefore, that Bolt’s performances have been absolutely spotless. If not, cheating will have been proven, yet again, to be professional sport’s biggest crowd-pleaser.

James Appell graduated from St Antony’s College, Oxford in 2009 with an MPhil in Russian and Eastern European Studies. He is a travel journalist and freelance sportswriter living in London.