Over the last few days yet more examples of cheating in sport have been revealed: in the Tour de France (with blood doping etc.) and possibly in motor racing (with competitors having access to confidential information about their opponent's car design)...so I thought I'd wheel out a piece I wrote about sports ethics just before the last soccer World Cup - this was broadcast on Radio 4's Sports Programme in 2006:
Getting to Sports Heaven
In the next five weeks, alongside the athleticism and grace on show in a plethora of sporting arenas, we are going to witness, deception, dissent, gamesmanship and bone-crunching, ligament-twisting, on-pitch violence. I guarantee it. Some players will be out to win at any cost. The end of victory will justify almost about any means and the cheat’s craft will once more take to the world stage. Balancing out the elation of success, many fans will be left with a bitter sense of injustice.
Close-up and slow motion have made us armchair connoisseurs of the theatrical and sometimes cruel skills that were once a secret art - much as surveillance cameras have opened our eyes to street deceptions of pickpockets and bag-snatchers…
And contrary to the misplaced faith of the wide-eyed optimists, (as in other areas of life), cheats often do prosper. You don’t need to look to anything as dramatic as Maradona’s hand-of-god goal to see this: a well-timed dive in the box, or a few stolen yards on the placement of a free kick can turn a game just as easily – (and is sooner forgotten). If there’s something wrong with cheating it can’t be that it never works! There can be no doubt: cheats have changed the course of sporting history – and will do again.
The more extreme kinds of pre-planned cheating rely on their invisibility – once exposed, there is no way out for the perpetrator except the path of shame and ignominy. Maurice Garin, for example, winner of the first Tour de France in 1903, was disqualified the next year for taking a train ride during the race!. The Russian pentathlete-fencer Boris Onishchenko was caught out at the 1972 Olympics in possession of a rewired foil that registered false hits..(and was rapidly renamed ‘Disonishchenko’).
But the word ‘cheat’ is too crude to cover the full spectrum from match-fixing and drug taking, through to shirt pulling and niggling at referees. Sports have the complexity of most areas of life, and we shouldn’t take the existence of formulated rules as a mark of simple black/white answers about sports ethics. Nor should we blame all cheats to the same degree. Some ‘cheating’ even occurs within the stated rules. When the Tongan rugby league player Hopowatte got suspended for trying to put his finger into the anus of tackled opponents he was accused of ‘unsportmanlike behaviour’ – and it certainly did unsettle the opposition – But what he did was more obviously against the spirit of the game than the letter. But is taking a quick penalty kick ‘unsporting’ or What about deliberately targeting the weakest player in a team? There are marginal cases that need subtle policing.
As a philosopher I’m intrigued by what I see, (perhaps crudely), as a tension between a virtue-based approach and a shameless win-at-any-cost morality that treats the professional foul as a pragmatic solution. The Victorian public school attitude to games – as providing an arena in which to cultivate and display the virtues of honesty, nobility-in-defeat and modesty-in-victory, is easily parodied, but still relevant. It doesn’t, however, sit comfortably with the demands of professional sport. There are, though very occasional, exceptional acts of sporting morality – acts beyond the call of duty.
One that stands out is tennis star Andy Roddick’s honesty in last years’ Rome Masters where he was the number one seed. He was on match point and about to win. The Umpire called that his opponent had served a double fault. Roddick, however, corrected the umpire – pointing out that the ball had nicked the line and so was in. Roddick’s beyond-the-call-of duty honesty cost him dearly, as he went on to lose the match.
It’s easy to run through the clichés about pressure put on sportsmen and women to win at any cost. Yet it’s true that stars are selected for their ability to win. They don’t get picked as exemplars of fairness and moral virtue. We may want sports stars to be role models – but often that will be asking too much of them. Such character traits can even be obstacles to progress in the ‘red in tooth and claw’ world of professional sports: honesty is likely to result in fewer wins in competition with players who are more self-interested. Admirable as moral rectitude is, it is not what takes people to the top of the pyramid in their chosen sport, where getting an edge on your opponent is the key to success. Fairplay, could even work against ascent to the highest levels…So those who do manage both to excel in their sport, and to do so with exemplary fairness, are truly remarkable, and we should celebrate them: they are the ones who will get to sit next to Bobby Moore and Andy Roddick in sport heaven…