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Keeping the C-word private

It’s not a word sports fans like to use in polite company, but we have seen the C-word an awful lot in the media in recent weeks.

I mean ‘cheating’, obviously. (Did you think I was talking about a different word? Shame on you.)

Bloodgate

We have had ‘Bloodgate’ in rugby union, a very public controversy about Harlequins‘ mainipulation of the blood rule, where a player with a ‘blood injury’ can leave the field, substituted, for treatment and subsequently return. This can certainly confer a small advantage: for instance, a fresh pair of legs is brought on, affording the substituted player a few minutes’ rest before returning. (Compare this to the rule in cricket which allows a substitute fielder to temporarily replace another player, a loophole which teams regularly exploit to the hilt to routinely rotate players on and off the field, bringing on specialist fielders while allowing bowlers to take a breather.)

The Bloodgate scandal has resulted in Harlequins director of rugby Dean Richards resigning in disgrace with a three-year coaching ban, as well as the departure of chairman Charles Jillings and physio Steph Brennan. (The club has also been fined £260,000, a hefty sum in rugby terms.)

This has largely been treated as an isolated incident in an otherwise honourable sport, even though others have come forward to suggest that faking blood injuries and other cunning circumnavigations of the rule-book are far from uncommon practices. Indeed, rugby union is a sport often held up – particularly by the football community – as a model of good behaviour, where players properly respect the referee’s authority and spend their spare time polishing their halos. It is also a sport where gouging, stamping, biting and any number of other unpleasantries more usually associated with a Friday night pub brawl are commonplace in scrums and rucks, where they frequently escape the attention of referees and TV cameras. Some brush off such acts as part and parcel of a physical game; I think of them as systematic cheating. But apparently we don’t talk about that sort of thing in public, do we?

Crashgate

By contrast, Formula 1 is a sport which has historically thrived on the column inches spawned by ongoing controversies, accusations and counter-accusations. Technical arguments over whether so-and-so’s front wing or rear diffuser or energy recovery system is legal are commonplace – pick any season in F1’s history and you will find at least a couple such disputes. Conspiracy theories abound. We have had the controversy over team orders influencing the outcome of races, which came to a head after Ferrari‘s Rubens Barrichello was ordered to pull over in the closing metres of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix to gift teammate Michael Schumacher the win.

But very rarely in F1’s not exactly whiter-than-white history have we seen a case as bizarre as the current ‘Crashgate’ controversy.

The potted summary is thus. At last year’s Singapore Grand PrixRenault‘s Fernando Alonso, starting towards the back of the grid in a very competitive car, won the race courtesy of a safety car period initiated by teammate Nelson Piquet Jr crashing into a wall shortly after Alonso had made an early fuel stop.

Piquet was sacked by Renault last month, ostensibly for being rubbish (which, to be fair, he generally was); the news caused barely a ripple in the media, being largely expected.

What was much less expected was the announcement two weeks ago of an FIA investigation into the events of the Singapore GP, based on claims that Piquet was ordered to crash deliberately by team principal Flavio Briatore and engineering director Pat Symonds as part of a plan to help Alonso win.

Who knows? Renault, naturally, are claiming Piquet is motivated by bitterness and a desire for revenge. But given F1’s chequered history of rule-bending it is far from implausible, particularly given the street circuit nature of the Singapore track, where it would be possible to deliberately crash at relatively low speed with minimal risk to the driver and guarantee the appearance of the safety car by scattering debris across the track.

Regardless, it is a delicious story which the mainstream media have bitten into, and which promises to run and run. F1 aficionados, however, know that such Machiavellian machinations are far from unusual in the sport; ‘cheating’ is just part of F1’s DNA. It always has been; it probably always will be.

Festina-gate the turning point for cycling

Particularly over the last decade or so, cycling has – literally – had cheating in its bloodstream. In a sport as demanding of strength and stamina as road cycling is, it is hardly surprising that cheating has been prevalent among cyclists for decades. In the early days of the Tour de France, we had competitors disqualified for hanging on to trains; in the 60s it was amphetamines; since the late-90s it has been about highly efficient blood-boosting drugs such as EPO and Cera, or even blood swapping.

For the current generation of cyclists and cycling fans, it was the Festina-gate scandal at the 1998 Tour de France which exposed the doping culture in the sport for everyone to see, and which nearly brought one of the world’s great sporting events to its knees. And the roll-call of scandal has been incessant ever since, from Operacion Puerto to the disgrace of Floyd LandisAlexandre VinokourovRiccardo Ricco and Stefan Schumacher (I could go on and on) repeatedly twisting the knife ever deeper into the sport’s reputation.

The recent announcement of positive EPO tests from samples provided by Spaniards Mikel Astarloza and Inigo Landaluze of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team in June barely merits a mention in the context of a sport which continues to inflict collateral damage on itself, but which has at least been open and increasingly vigilant about pursuing the cheats and trying to make itself clean.

Cycling should be applauded rather than damned for its attitude. It is at least confronting reality, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

Football has its head in the sand

Like cycling, cheating has long been endemic in football, whether it is the righteous indignation over Eduardo da Silva‘s diveDiego Maradona‘s celebrated ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in 1986, or the common practice of systematically committing deliberate acts of cheating – such as tugging an opponent’s shirt – which are technically fouls but generally deemed minor enough to escape punishment.

The authorities’ success in enforcing rule changes and purging the game of cheating have been distinctly mixed. By and large, major rule changes such as outlawing back passes and tackles from behind have worked well, as has the practice of issuing a straight red card for professional fouls (not that this has stopped defenders committing them, but at least the punishment now fits the crime). However, ‘cheating’, which runs the whole gamut from shirt-tugging and waving imaginary cards at a referee to diving and other forms of ‘simulation’, remains largely ignored. And the less said the better about the complacent attitude to drug-testing, where football remains steadfastly a decade or more behind sports such as cycling or athletics.

Video technology is available to help punish the cheats – and aid match officials in making correct decisions – either during or after the fact, as it does in both codes of rugby and several other sports. But both FIFA and UEFA remain vehemently opposed to it. Go figure.

In an ideal world there would be no cheating at all. But most of us are realistic enough to know that where there are rules, then sportspeople will always push the boundaries to the very limit, and will continue to systematically commit deliberate but minor infringements to gain an advantage.

Like it or not, cheating is part and parcel of competitive sport. It can never be completely eliminated, but it can be controlled and punished. What is particularly hard to swallow, though, is when sport’s dirty laundry is aired in public to do little more than damp down an outcry or to set an example, with no intention of actually addressing the underlying issue.

It is here that cycling is doing a good job in battling the cheats, backing up words with actions (and results). Football – and I cannot stress this enough – is not. Even though the evidence is there for all to see – frequently from multiple angles in super slow motion – it appears the powers that be would rather keep the C-word private, except where it is convenient and politically expedient.

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