2009 Year of the cheats
From the hand of Henry to 'Bloodgate', sport is still blighted by deceit, writes Liam Kelly
NOBODY ever heard of Alexander The Average -- but is that any excuse for a 'win-at-all-costs' attitude in the pursuit of greatness and success?
You'd be forgiven for thinking there are no holds barred as we reflect on 2009: 'Year of Exposure'.
When we mention exposure, one name comes to mind: Tiger Woods.
But while the Tiger saga has seen the World's No 1 golfer exposed as a cheat, his transgressions were away from golf course.
Other big names have broken the rules on the field of conflict.
In the last 12 months sport has witnessed some outrageous examples of cheating, stamping, eye gouging and diving. Step forward Thierry Henry, John Hayes, Schalk Burger, David Ngog.
Clear a space too for Tom Williams and Dean Richards, the Harlequins player and coach, who were involved in 'Bloodgate' as they attempted to con Leinster out of a Heineken Cup quarter-final win.
Their friends rally round. "He's not that sort of guy," they say, in defence of Thierry, Schalk, John and Tom.
In Liverpool striker Ngog's case, he has taken it upon himself to say: "I'm not that kind of player."
But he is. And they all are. Because they broke the rules, and in some cases, inflicted bodily harm on opponents. Who else was doing it?
The bigger the name, the bigger the fall from grace.
In another high-profile scandal, Renault's F1 racing team was given a two-year suspended sentence in September as punishment for an outrageous breach of sporting ethics.
Driver Nelson Piquet Junior was ordered to deliberately crash his car in Singapore in 2008, thus ensuring team-mate Fernando Alonso would win.
Only sackings of key figures in the Renault F1 team and an admission of guilt saved the French racing outfit from a permanent ban.
These examples are, sadly, only the tip of the iceberg of sporting chicanery, but there is a common denominator.
All of those mentioned, bar Tiger, committed their offences under the all-seeing eye of the God Television.
That's not much consolation for Woods, as US website TMZ, which also has a TV show, has been to the forefront of revelations as the previously rigidly-controlled world of Woods descends into a soap opera of epic proportions.
Thus, television, the vehicle by which multi-billions of euro and dollars have been pumped into golf, soccer, rugby, and other sports, has extracted a pound of flesh that its rulers, and certainly the men in the eye of the storm, never anticipated.
Television close-ups and replays exposed the follies of Henry (handball), Burger (gouging), Hayes (stamping), and Ngog (diving).
Isn't it ironic that TV, which hypes up the various sports and the stars that play them, should be central to smashing the image of some of its leading practitioners and benefactors?
TV money translates into multi-million earnings for soccer stars, golfers, tennis players and Formula 1 drivers. But given the excellent, all-angles coverage, transgressions missed by match officials are now fair game for public scrutiny.
And thank heaven for that.
The consequences for the victims of the cheats can be enormous. In the case of Thierry Henry, the Irish soccer team and the nation were denied at least a penalty shoot-out with a place in the World Cup in South Africa at stake.
The FAI missed out on a bumper pay day, which has implications for the entire soccer structure in this country.
How appalling it would have been if Harlequins had won the match against Leinster by such underhand and foul means. There would have been no victory for Brian O'Driscoll and a team which has laboured long in search of the Holy Grail that is rugby's Heineken Cup.
It doesn't bear thinking about.
Fair enough if you lose a match to a better team, or if you under-perform on the day. Losing to those who either spontaneously or premeditatedly cheat is entirely different.
Sporting success by subterfuge is unfortunately venerated by those with no shame and no scruples about the way they win, but it's not a new phenomenon. This year has featured some spectacular examples of deception, but competitive sport and human nature all too often combine to bring out the dark side of athletic performers.
How far back do you want to go? Let's start at the beginning of this decade.
If anyone thought that the Millennium would herald a new dawn for sportsmanship, it didn't take too long to disabuse them of that notion.
Enter stage left, the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Marion Jones of the USA was the star of the show, winning the gold medal in the women's 100m, 200m and 4 x 400m relay, plus bronze in the long jump and 4 x 100m relays.
She was the first female to win five track and field medals at a single Olympics.
Ah, but ... Marion was supping on the steroids, was eventually found out, and served a six-month prison sentence for lying about it.
She was stripped of her medals in 2007 by the International Olympic Committee.
Reuters recently reported that Jones' medals in the individual sprint and long jump were being re-allocated to those placed immediately behind her -- bar the 100m medal.
Runner-up to Jones in that 100m was Greek Katerina Thanou, who in 2004 missed a doping test just before the Athens Olympic.
Thanou was banned from the 2008 Olympics as she was judged to have brought her sport into disrepute by her actions at Athens -- so no "consolation" gold from '04 for her.
And while on the subject of the year 2000, what about the fake Paralympians?
The Spanish team won the gold medal in the Sydney Paralympics learning-disabled basketball -- with ten of the 12 team members in no way learning-disabled.
Mind boggling stuff, indeed. And it should be noted that the Paralympics is separate to the Special Olympics which has been untouched by any controversy.
Tennis star Andre Agassi revealed in his autobiography that he lied to authorities when crystal meth showed up in a drug test back in the late '90s.
Agassi managed to persuade officials that he had unwittingly taken a drink which his assistant had spiked with crystal meth.
The authorities bought the story and Agassi got off the hook.
Of course the most famous drugs cheat in athletics has to be Ben Johnson, "the fastest man on earth" after scorching to victory in the 100m at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
Johnson got his timing wrong, as there was enough Stanozolol left in his system to show up when the testers did their work.
Big mistake for Ben, big result in the war against the drug-takers.
It is a war that cannot be won, but it goes on as it must, because for every cheat that has been exposed, who knows how many have been just as guilty but have escaped?
Personally, I get no pleasure from watching Olympic Games athletics, cycling, or swimming, because these sports have been so consistently and deeply tarnished by drugs scandals.
And any realistic appraisal of football -- soccer, rugby, and Gaelic -- has to include a healthy scepticism that these sports are drug-free.
Golf? They say there isn't a drug that will keep you calm enough yet alert enough to play your best under the pressure of competing for a top tournament.
Logic, however, suggests that the money is so big and chemistry so advanced that somebody, somewhere, either has developed, or is in the process of developing, a drug to do everything a golfer requires when the chips are down.
That's why golf needs drug testing, and indeed, currently one player is under investigation after a failed test.
As for the moral arguments, there are widely divergent views.
Is diving in a penalty area, or a handball that leads to a crucial goal (yes, Thierry again), cheating or gamesmanship?
One argument is that such transgressions occur in the heat of the moment, as does a punch to the face when a brawl breaks out, therefore they should come under the "lesser" offence of gamesmanship.
That argument depends on where you stand. The Irish soccer team, who were the biggest victims of Henry's handball, have not condemned the French player as vehemently as the Irish public.
To the former, it was, essentially, an act of gamesmanship that was certainly not pre-meditated.
The players knew they, too, could have reacted in the same way as Henry given a similar situation, and their main complaint was with the officials.
Indeed, players are remarkably tolerant about opponents who break the rules. Leo Cullen of Leinster didn't condemn Alan Quinlan of Munster for his 'making contact' with Cullen's eye area, and Cian Healy didn't make any fuss about John Hayes' boot cutting his head open.
Quinlan and Hayes were dealt with by officialdom in the form of suspension.
However, even players who live by a code of omerta, and those members of the public who view foul play as "gamesmanship" and "spur-of-the-moment" incidents, surely cannot excuse systematic, cold-blooded, organised intent to break rules and to win at all costs.
Eastern bloc athletes, particularly those from East Germany, in the late '60s and '70s, were fed all kinds of steroids and drugs designed to enhance their performance.
It was a state policy that their athletes should triumph over the "decadent" Westerners, and there was no choice for the athletes.
The Americans made much noise about that, but looking at what the East Germans were doing, it's difficult to believe that American coaches were unaware of the pharmaceutical help that could assist USA athletes.
Considering the profile of top Americans caught by drug testing in the '80s, '90s and noughties, it's fair to assume that at least some of the stars of the most competitive nation on earth were 'juiced up' in the '70s.
What we do know is that key figures in the Spanish Basketball Paralympic team of 2000, the Renault F1 team of 2008, and the Harlequins Heineken Cup quarter-finalists of 2009, indulged in a cold-blooded, conspiracy to defraud the sport and their opponents.
Sadly, most culprits have no real remorse for their actions. They're only sorry they were caught. Isn't that right, Thierry?