A leaf out of their book

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SPORTSMEN never cheat - they merely use every means at their disposal to ensure that they win. And the signs are that they are becoming increasingly resourceful.

Only this week, the opening ceremony of the World Series baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Toronto Blue Jays was entertainingly marred when the US Marines paraded on to the field holding the US and Canadian national flags proudly aloft as a symbol of the deep vein of friendship and and mutual respect that runs between the two countries.

Much cheering ensued. Some of it came from the Americans, because they had seen the Stars and Stripes, and it tends to affect them like that. And the rest of it came from the Americans, because the Canadian flag was upside down. The famous maple leaf, Canada's proud emblem, far from standing proudly erect, pointed pitifully towards the sod below, as though resigned to forthcoming defeat.

Canadians were unimpressed. Thousands rang radio and television stations to object, and every newspaper and magazine in the land, from the dailies down to Moose and Moosemen, carried the photo on its front page. The Americans, not surprisingly, tried to laugh it all off as a mistake, although if the Canadians had exhibited the stars and stripes the wrong way up, I'm sure Ontario would now be a smoking mass of post-nuclear rubble.

What's so ingenious about this little wheeze, though, is that whether it was actually a mistake doesn't really matter. If it was intentional, it was a truly inspired piece of gamesmanship. And if it wasn't, the sheer indifference of the Americans to Canadian sensibilities had much the same effect. It irritated the hell out of the Canadians, and nothing cheers up Americans more than irritating the hell out of Canadians.

In this country, we have rather lost touch with the glorious sporting tradition of annoying your opponents. Instead we seem to have become obsessed with cheating - the theory, the practice, and why everyone else is so much better at it than us. There has been much conjugating of irregular verbs - I play to win, you bend the rules, he cheats - and righteous indignation has been produced at such a fevered rate that you could probably run a medium-sized power station on the stuff. Forget coal and gas: if whingeing ran the National Grid, we'd be self-sufficient in energy for ever.

But the maple leaf gag, I'd suggest, posits a happier, kinder sporting future, in which sordid arguments over rule infringements are superseded by simple attempts to wind people up something rotten. The British may have given gamesmanship to the world, but the world has now clearly taken it to its breast, and is now refining the practice to levels of previously unimagined subtlety.

After all, whoever thought of rigging the opening ceremony? And because this opening ceremony is - I presume - only one of several opening ceremonies as the World Series meanders along, it means that every opening ceremony will be overshadowed by the anticipation of diplomatic slights and national insults. Next time the US Marines may march with the national flag of Guam, or perhaps the maple leaf will have had a smiley face drawn on it. The suspense is unendurable.

And it also bodes well for both the next football World Cup and the next Olympics, both of which take place in the States. Now that opening ceremonies are fair game, we can but wait for the multiple indignities that will surely befall every country that doesn't take proper precautions. The march of the athletes as the Olympics begin can only be enhanced by the slight but worrying possibility that banana-skins and similar Beano artefacts may be introduced to the track at crucial moments.

Better still, can you imagine the uproar when someone wins a gold medal, stands on the rostrum, looks proudly into the middle distance and puts the tear-ducts on standby, only to find that the tape of the national anthem has been clandestinely replaced by one of 'The Smurf Song'? These would be moments to cherish.

There's only one snag: after the maple leaf gag, the Toronto Braves went on to win 5-4. In other words, it didn't work. But the Americans, I suspect, are playing a longer game. Mere defeat won't deflect them. The Olympics will definitely be worth waiting for.