Sport is in danger of losing its soul as acts of calculated cheating become more and more common.
2009 was the year when cheating finally triumphed over fair play. The greatest sporting debate was settled. Cheating seduced the sporting world and tossed fair play, honesty and sportsmanship on to the trash heap. It’s official: cheating is now just another part of the game.
When Thierry Henry illegally handled the ball into the path of his right foot and swindled the Republic of Ireland out of a place at the World Cup finals, it was not Henry who was vilified. Far from it. Henry was just doing his job. He did what anyone else would have done in his position. In fact, Henry was even commended for offering sympathy to his opponents. It was a potent image. Henry guiltily slumped beside David Dunne shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders. “Je ne sais quoi, but you would’ve done the same.”
Where sport used to disapprove, protest and object to cheating, sport now accepts cheating as inevitable, unavoidable and wholly acceptable. No-one blamed Henry. It was the fault of the officials. Cheating is no longer a morality problem, it has become an officiating problem. And so football will eventually follow the example of cricket, tennis and rugby by turning to video-technology. Video-technology, the tombstone of sportsmanship. Cheats are inevitable; we may as well get better at catching them.
Henry is a different kind of cheat though. He is an instinctive cheat. A cheat who acted in the spur of the moment. Rather than weighing up the morality of the crime, he drew upon the natural competitive instincts that make him a professional athlete. Footballers diving, rugby players not releasing, tennis players grunting, cricketers not walking: these routine acts of cheating, hushed up under the term ‘gamesmanship’, are now regarded as acceptable because they are so universally committed.
Such offences are so entrenched in sport that officials are criticised for penalising them at all. How dare the line judge penalise Serena Williams for foot-faulting in the semi-final of the U.S Open? Doesn’t she know you don’t do that on important points?! It is sport’s best kept secret that all athletes now cheat each other. However much you can cheat, I can cheat better.
But more recently these cheats have been upstaged by a different kind of cheating. Premeditated cheating. Far from spontaneous, this kind of cheating is conscious, calculated and organised.
Last year saw three such examples of premeditated cheating. The first involved Britain’s racing prodigal son, Lewis Hamilton, during the Melbourne Grand Prix. There was a crash subsequently making overtaking temporarily illegal. Jarno Trulli, one ahead of Hamilton in third position, momentarily slipped onto the kerb. Hamilton took advantage and legally overtook him. The McLaren team however were convinced that Hamilton had made an illegal pass and instructed him to fall back and let Trulli retake his position which Hamilton duly did. Realising that they had made a mistake, McLaren then claimed that Trulli had deliberately and illegally overtaken Hamilton. Trulli took a 25 second penalty whilst Hamilton took his place on the podium.
The second case of premeditated cheating occurred in a Heineken Cup quarter final between Harlequins and Leinster. Harlequins wanted to bring on Nick Evans, a talented kicker, to go for a drop goal but had already used up all their tactical replacements. Thus a substitution could only be made in the event of a blood injury. Tom Williams, the Harlequins winger, used a fake blood capsule given to him by his management team, to fake it. The referee was deceived, the substitution was made, and Evans took his drop goal.
The third and final episode in 2009’s trilogy of premeditated cheating occurred in July, again in Formula One. Nelson Piquet Jr. exposed his former employers, Renault, of instructing him to crash at the Singapore Grand Prix in 2008 in order to allow Fernando Alonso to gain an advantage. Piquet duly crashed his car and Alonso went on to win the race.
That in all three of these cases the details were exposed and the instigators punished is neither here nor there. For every cheat that is rumbled, how many have got away scot-free? These were not instinctive but organised, weighed-up and calculated instances of cheating. Whilst instinctive cheating can to some extent be nullified by technology and neutralised by the opponent, premeditated cheating takes foul play to a whole new level. Premeditated cheating strikes at the heart of what sport is all about. It unhinges the balance that makes every sporting event an uncertainty. It betrays the hopes and expectations of spectators. It kills the spirit of the underdog. It gives ruthless and uncompromising importance to victory, no matter what the cost.
At a time when lucrative reward has made sporting success more valuable than ever before, sport has started to lose sight of what really matters. Sport is forgetting that its charm lies not in judicial accuracy or uncompromising success but in fair play, camaraderie, your lot against our lot and the chance that on the day, anyone can win. After all, the signature image of the unforgettable 2005 Ashes series, for all its moments of technical brilliance and mesmerising drama, was when Andrew Flintoff put his arm around Brett Lee, shook his hand and consoled his vanquished opponent.
And so this next decade will no doubt prove to be one of unprecedented drama and controversy. A decade of replay, repeat and review. Sport is coming to Britain. The Olympics in 2012, the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and perhaps the football World Cup in 2018. We can only hope that for the sake of sport, it is the champions and not the cheats that emerge victorious.