Cheating is a team sport

The women’s 100m in Sydney was the first Olympic final I commentated on for the BBC. Marion Jones streaked to a victory so emphatic that the words that came out were an athlete’s reaction to what I’d witnessed: “Wow! This is the Olympic Games. You’re not supposed to win by that much.”

Of course, like everyone else, I didn’t know then what I really had just witnessed.
A supremely talented individual with ability to spare enhanced to unbeatable levels by the systematic use of substance and subterfuge. Maybe she was being found guilty purely by association. But no, she is as complicit in her own downfall as we could wish. So who do you trust? How do you prove anyone is clean? How many more are hoping never to be caught?

I’m angry and I’m frustrated as I’m sure many in the sport of athletics will be. We are left to pick up the pieces. We have to try to reassure, to convince, to look forward with some contrived confidence—and in doing so maybe we pull the shutters down over our own eyes and hope the bogeyman will go away. But he won’t, because he is everywhere.

He goes by the name of cheat and looks like, sounds like and smells (most of the time) like any normal sportsman or woman. There are usually few hints. Some don’t even know they are cheats until something or someone reveals their true self. The footballer trying to incriminate others. Match-fixing in sports from tennis to football. Ball tampering in cricket. Golfers and snooker players who don’t see all drugs as cheating. Jockeys, trainers and owners who know that prizes in racing can have little to do with the best horses winning. I could go on and on.

So what do we do? I’ve said many times before that sport is a reflection of the society from which it draws its players. If anything, the commercial demands and rewards of professional sports pander to some of our worst traits and provide fertile ground for those with a penchant for rule-bending or breaking. The need to be bigger, stronger and faster is fuelled by a multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry that has no desire to know where the lines are drawn in sport. A steroid-based cortisone injection that gets a player on the pitch is just the same as Human Growth Hormone or EPO, as long as someone pays for it—and plenty do.

Betting companies probably make more money out of sport than anyone and only get energised about results when they think they’ve been obviously fleeced. So sport must find increasingly better ways to police its own borders by working with other agencies. From within they have to be even more stringent about rule enforcement.

In golf, a whole tournament can be lost with a wrong signature, whereas in football a blatant dive or cynical foul attracts no more than a yellow card, if that. Externally the focus must shift more to the peddlers of perniciousness. The Balco saga, which has more fallout to come, involved the FBI and other agencies. Recent Tour de France revelations have involved extensive cooperation between European police forces.

Sportsmen and women such as Jones are not innocent victims but they are often the ones left to carry the can when the authorities come knocking. Managers, agents, doctors, coaches, internet sites and countless peripheral players hide the real cancer of cheating because, for many, the sporting success of others is how they earn their crust. There is always a trail back to them. These are the people who need to be aggressively targeted and the more who end up in prison, like Balco’s Victor Conte, the better. But why only four months?

He told of how he watched Jones inject herself with growth hormone, having coached her in the process. If that were a dealer describing how he coached and watched a young woman shooting up, knowing it could ruin her life, then first I would hope we would not be giving him the chance to spout his opinions and, secondly, he should have been put away for longer.

A year or so before those Games in Sydney I went to interview Jones in her hometown in the United States. The track in Raleigh was no different to a thousand others. Athletes were going through workouts. Jones did hers looking the great athlete she could have been: strong, quick and, afterwards, with an engaging smile as I interviewed her. Jones’s coach, Trevor Graham, kept his distance. We paid no notice to him. Too late now, but I hope that in future people like him are watched closely. — Â

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