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The Zen of Cheating

Marion Jones

While cheating is allegedly the bane of every sportsperson and sports fan’s existence, the only crime, from the cheater’s point of view, is being caught.

“When the one great scorer comes to write against your name, he marks, not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.” - Grantland Rice

Wrong. Horribly, terribly, decades out of date, wrong.

“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” - Vince Lombardi.

Now you’re talking.

Allow me to illustrate with a true, if slightly superfluous story. Spring 1994, and your correspondent is an exchange student at the University of North Carolina (Go Heels!). The academic year is coming to an end and to celebrate there’s a festival on campus celebrating something or other (sorry, I can’t quite remember exactly what that occasion was). On a sunny quadrangle near Franklin Street a small crowd has gathered around a pair of bongo players, banging out some African beats. A hippyish female student, entranced by the infectious rhythms, is dancing along. Your correspondent, unmoved, refrains for getting jiggy with it.

It was at this point that I realised I was standing next to one of the freshman on the women’s basketball team, Miss Marion Jones, and a friend. Although she wasn’t the star of the team that won the NCAA title that year, she was instantly recognisable as she was, let’s not be overly analytical here, the hottest girl on the team.

‘Wow,’ I thought to myself. ‘That’s Marion Jones’.

Which was the exact moment Jones nodded at the dancing hippy, nudged her friend and uttered the immortal words,

“What the fuck does she think she looks like?”

This random blast of minor-celebrity cattiness was seared into my mind. Permanently, I thought. But I was watching Jones, allegedly the world’s greatest sprinter, for years when it took a random piece of TV commentary about her basketball past to make the connection. The potty-mouthed point guard was, as I’ve already mentioned, a good-looking girl. The multiple medal-winning destroyer of the world’s finest female sprinters looked like, let’s not mince words here, a dude.

So when the powers that be finally caught up with her and exposed her as a liar and a serial drug cheat I, for one, wasn’t surprised. What I did find slightly shocking, however, was the tearful plea for forgiveness outside the court.

“It is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust,” she wept.

The confirmed cheat was admitting she’d done wrong. She’d deceived us. And now she was very, very sorry.

So how, exactly, did she feel when she was winning all those races and medals, soaking up the adulation and endorsements, knowing her muscles were full of chemicals? Was she in tears every day, knowing that she was in the wrong and waiting for the day when she could cast off the chains of dishonesty? Of course she wasn’t. She was glad to be a winner. And she was glad to be one of the best-paid sportswomen on the planet. Nike does not hand out the big bucks to runners up.

Performance-enhancing drugs may be the sporting cheat’s first port of call, but the really devious cheat can dig far deeper.

The cutthroat world of Formula One was rocked in 2007 by the revelation that in a sport that’s essentially a two-horse race one of the top teams, McLaren, was spying on the technology of the other, Ferrari.

‘Oh, no,’ said McLaren’s chiefs as the accusations started flying. ‘Not us. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Totally unfounded. No, no, no. Oh no.’

This was the story they stuck to, right until the moment when Formula One’s governing body unveiled a 780-page technical document of Ferrari engineering secrets, retrieved from the McLaren offices. You had to laugh. Although, one would imagine McLaren found the $100million fine less amusing.

The point being laboriously made is that, while cheating is allegedly the bane of every sportsperson and sports fan’s existence, the only crime, from the cheater’s point of view, is being caught. In fact, as Samantha Jones correctly pointed out to Carrie Bradshaw in the first series of Sex and The City, if you don’t get caught, then cheating doesn’t even exist.

That’s the difference between Jones and Florence Griffith-Joyner. Flo-Jo never got caught, even though her long-standing 100-metre world record was obviously achieved with more chemicals than Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn. She won the medals, retired young, and died prematurely. You join the dots. Was she a cheat, though? Prove it.

Actually, it runs a bit deeper than that. Because cheating, like so much of life, depends on the context of when it arrives and the culture in which it happens.

Barry Bonds, it would appear, is up shit creek with rapidly shrinking paddles. His crime, in a very literal sense, is having the temerity to shake up the hallowed record book for America’s ‘National Pastime’ with a big old helping hand from some pretty potent chemicals. And fibbing about it to some people who weren’t too pleased about being fed a sack of bull by a baseball player with the physique of The Ultimate Warrior.

Perjury? Perhaps. A cheater getting his comeuppance? It depends on how you look at it. Bonds’ problem, it would appear, is not that he cheated the other baseball teams to gain victories for The Giants. He cheated baseball, its record books and, if you accept that this is something Congress should be worrying about, America. Whoops.

What about those moments of unplanned spontaneous cheating? Perhaps the most famous of these came in the quarterfinals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup. The game was Argentina v England, the teams’ first meeting on the pitch since the Falklands War four years earlier. The moment, forever tattooed in the mind everyone who was watching, came when Diego Maradona, the greatest player of his generation, realised that he was not going to be able to out-jump the England goalkeeper to head in a high ball. And so, feigning with his head, Maradona knocked the ball into the England goal with his hand before running off in mock celebration, encouraging his teammates to join him, as if to complete the illusion. Remarkably, the referee allowed the goal.

After the game, and despite photographic evidence to the contrary, Maradona claimed that the goal was “The Hand of God, but the Head of Maradona”.

In England, ‘The Hand of God’ incident is still viewed as the ultimate in sporting ignominy. But in Argentina, it was revered as a moment of brilliance. Not only did Maradona’s audacity enable Argentina to triumph over its most hated rival, but he did it in a sly, devious manner. He didn’t just outplay them. He tricked them. The English were dumped out of the World Cup, rightfully convinced they’d been hard done by. English football fans are still fuming about it today. Marvellous.

Less well known, but equally devious, was the ‘Hand of Back’ incident in the Heineken Cup Final (the rugby equivalent of the UEFA Champions League) of 2002. With time running out and Irish province Munster poised to take the lead Leicester Tigers flanker Neil Back, at the precise moment the referee turned his back, illegally knocked the ball out of Munster’s Peter Stringer’s hands – and 80,000 people in the stadium spotted it. The referee didn’t. Englishman Brian Moore (no angel himself in his playing days) was commentating on game for BBC TV. His assessment of this clear breach of the game’s laws and ethics was unequivocal.


Indeed, Neil Back was at his peak as one of England’s all-time great rugby players, perfecting a game always on the verge on legality. He’s not alone. It’s an accepted part of the sport. The rules are there to be bent.

Across the football/soccer world it’s a similar story. And although the lawmakers at FIFA are continually tweaking their instructions to referees, it’s questionable who’s actually paying attention. Indeed, where 25 years ago fans were happy to see teams kick lumps out of each other and red cards were rare, today’s disease is the opposite problem. Diving – feigning a foul or injury to win a penalty, free kick or getting an opponent sent off – is, if you listen to talk radio, the blight infecting the game and, quite possibly, the planet. Barely a post-match interview goes by without players and coaches slinging mud at the opposition’s ethics, while only the most naïve of observers would believe that every coach, in the privacy of the dressing room, isn’t saying ‘if you even think he’s touched you, go down’.

Football’s issue with making an incidental contact seem worse than it is isn’t shared with basketball, where ‘the flop’ is an accepted part of defensive strategy. Could it be that the importance of a single possession in basketball doesn’t rival the significance of a sending off or a penalty in football, where so many games are decided by a single goal or decision? Possibly, but if the issue is cheating, why the difference?

Of course, it’s all about culture. Basketball fans, although hardly enamoured with the move, accept flopping as a part of the game. Diving, in Britain at least, represents everything Britain’s sense of fair play stands against. In so many other soccer cultures, diving, like everything else, is just another tool to help your team get the result.

Reading this column you’ll be forgiven if I come over as riddled with pessimism, having accepted that cheating is a sporting pandemic. It’s hard not to be. Cycling and track and field appear to be riddled with athletes competing with the unfair advantage of performance enhancing drugs. In the NFL, steroid abusers get a slap on the wrist and even Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a god in certain circles, gets away with a fine after getting caught filming the New York Jets’ defensive signals. Sports around the world are infected by the epidemic of cheating.

What did you expect? You want to win? You’ve got to be prepared to fight your ground. Those guys in the other colour shirts would cheat without giving it a second thought. Why the hell shouldn’t you? And anyone who thinks otherwise obviously hasn’t weighed up the difference between winning and losing. On one side: money, fame and adulation. On the other: the very real possibility of a trip to the job centre.

Perhaps there are still a few shreds of dignity left in the sports world.

In August 2006 during the deciding Test Match in a cricket series between England and Pakistan, Australian Umpire Darrell Hair pulled aside Pakistan captain Inzamam ul-Huq and told him that he believed that Pakistan had been illegally tampering with the ball (for the purpose of making it move irregularly through the air). The ball would be changed and Hair would be docking them runs for it. In effect, Hair was accusing Pakistan of cheating. Inzamam asked all his players if they had tampered with the ball. They all denied it. There was a small break in the game, and both sides retired to the pavilion for the 15-minute tea break. (Non-cricket watchers note, this is a natural break in a day’s play. It’s unlikely that in this age of hydration and dietary consultants international teams sit down for tea and cakes).

On the resumption of the play, Inzamam refused to bring his team onto the field unless Umpire Hair withdrew the accusation that they had cheated. That withdrawal never arrived, and Pakistan became the first team in 130 years of Test Match cricket to forfeit a game. Pakistan lost and game and the series. It was more important to Inzamam to not be labelled a cheat. He remains one of the most respected players in the world and a hero in his troubled country.

Maybe Lombardi was wrong all along.

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