Earl Warren, a former US chief justice, is reported to have once said: "I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures." Warren is long dead and sport is long changed and yet he is still partially right. The bigger the sporting cheat (Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Russian athletics), the better chance they have of making the front pages.
We are not surprised by chicanery in sport for legend has it that Nero fell from his chariot in AD67, did not finish the race and still fiddled his way to victory at the Ancient Olympics. "Winning is everything" isn't as new as we think.
From twins exchanging places in a marathon to plaster of Paris inside boxing gloves, sport is well versed with the unfair advantage. A few years ago, Australian and Canadian researchers asked 212 elite track and field athletes if they would "take an undetectable, illegal performance-enhancing substance that guaranteed you would win an Olympic gold medal" and 11.79 per cent said yes.
Decent people don't approve of any of this, apart, of course, from defending our teams when they dive in football. Perhaps we are more complicit in cheating than we think. There can, surely, be no compromise with deceit.
Cheating is to be abhorred because it steals from sport whatever little romance and innocence that is left. It makes sport like everything else in life when in fact sport was where we went to escape life. It makes us - especially in less complex sports like cycling and running - reconsider the entire idea of human achievement. Can a man legally leap that far? Seeing used to be believing but not any more.
"The credit," said Theodore Roosevelt famously, "belongs to the man who is actually in the arena whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error."
Nice, Mr President, but effort and devotion are not enough of a pleasure now. Only the prize is. If athletes have changed, it is also because we have changed. We have fostered a culture where second-best is failure; where the tin cup on the mantelpiece has been replaced with a place in annual rich lists; where athletes and nations and fans justify cheating because everyone cheats; where medal tables trigger jingoistic celebration to the delight of governments who invest heavily in Games.
Athletes are free to earn well and winning is beautiful but we've made it very expensive to lose. It's a culture that slyly encourages the dubious short cut.
This week the fine writer Owen Gibson revealed in the Guardian that the World Anti-Doping Agency's pitiful income in the past 10 years was US$242 million (S$343 million). In the business of sport, it is a minor figure - boxer Floyd Mayweather earned more than that in a single year. In short, the testers are fighting with their arms tied and legs bound. How can they take on nations unless nations fund them? Irony is at work here.
The Russian episode is scary because the individual cheat is more bearable than a system accused of acting as injector-in-chief. In 2013, Ines Geipel, the former East German sprinter, gave the BBC a searing reminder of what happened to them in the 1970s-80s: "We were a large experiment, a big chemical field test." Now comes the smell of something vaguely similar and sport appears warped when coaches and athletes are penalised by a system if they do not cheat.
"What has happened with Russia is really bad," said Andy Murray recently to the Daily Mail, "but I don't think it's just a Russia problem or just an athletics problem." It's a drug problem. And always the innocent athletes suffer for they wear guilt by suspicion. Some, who lose to cheats, receive medals retroactively but it is their moment which is forever lost.
We should fight for clean sport for them. Fight for athletes, unknown perhaps to the world, like Singapore sprinter Calvin Kang who runs "because I love it" and thus keeps track and field alive. Fight for young folk who are commanded by old men - Lamine Diack, 82, was IAAF head for 16 years - who run fiefdoms.
We need more testing, harder punishment, a stronger Wada, more Murrays. He does what every great athlete must: Give the issue their voice and testers their blood. But it's not everyone else's job but also ours. Kick the cheats out of our own teams. Punish drug takers from our own nations. If we insist athletes must be role models, then why not fans and nations and clubs as well? Sport, after all, belongs to all of us.
Entertainment and art, business and challenge, sport is all this but one thing more. When Lionel Messi plays, we might want him to score, and win, but really what he leaves us with is far more profound: He fulfils our expectation to be amazed. Our eyes go wide and we say "impossible" with a sense of childish wonder. But the more people cheat, the more we later and cynically wonder how they ever got to impossible.
This article was first published on November 14, 2015.
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