Why sport has always played fast and loose with rules

To cheat or not to cheat? That has been a sporting question for centuries, says Paul Newman
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The Independent Online

The cynics might argue that Bernie Ecclestone's words earlier this week sum up the morality of much of modern sport. As the motor racing authorities prepared to consider whether the BAR-Honda team had broken the rules when Jenson Button drove an underweight car with a hidden secondary fuel tank at the San Marino Grand Prix, the sport's most powerful figure proclaimed: "The biggest crime when you are cheating is getting caught."

The cynics might argue that Bernie Ecclestone's words earlier this week sum up the morality of much of modern sport. As the motor racing authorities prepared to consider whether the BAR-Honda team had broken the rules when Jenson Button drove an underweight car with a hidden secondary fuel tank at the San Marino Grand Prix, the sport's most powerful figure proclaimed: "The biggest crime when you are cheating is getting caught."

In an age when the rewards for success have reached levels that could hardly have been contemplated even 10 years ago, it should perhaps be no surprise that competitors should try to push the rules as far as they can.

Pushing the rules is one thing, but how prevelent is cheating today? It should be remembered, after all, that it was such a problem at the Ancient Olympics that athletes and judges had to make solemn vows that they would not cheat. The greatest fears were the use of "magic", though corruption was also rife. Even the modern Olympics began in ignominy. Spiridon Belokas finished third in the Athens marathon of 1896 but was subsequently stripped of his prize when it was discovered that he had hitched a ride on a carriage for part of the route.

The short answer is that, with one or two honourable exceptions, if there is scope to cheat with little chance of being caught, then some sportsmen will always do so.

Being away from the prying eye of judges and officials is always a help, particularly in marathons. Fred Lorz, first past the post in the 1904 Olympic marathon, had already been given the gold medal when it was revealed that he had travelled 11 of the 26 miles in a car.

Rosie Ruiz, a 23-year-old New Yorker, crossed the line in the 1980 Boston Marathon in the third fastest time ever recorded for a female runner. It was later discovered that she had joined the race in the final mile and simply sprinted to the line. Eleven years later spectators noticed that the winner of the Brussels marathon, Abbes Tehami, had apparently shaved off his moustache during the race. It turned out that Tehami's coach had run the first part of the race in disguise.

Perhaps the most prevalent form of cheating these days is the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Such drugs were not banned at the Olympics until the 1968 Games, but despite huge advances in the ways they are detected, the suspicion remains that the cheats have always found a way to move at least one step ahead of the testers. Indeed, testing failed to stop East Germany from systematically doping its best sportsmen and women throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Fingers were also regularly pointed at the Soviet Union, though one of the country's most outrageous and inventive cheats did not seek chemical assistance. Boris Onischenko, a Ukrainian army officer competing in the modern pentathlon at the 1976 Games, wired up his sword in the fencing competition so that he could trigger the electronic scoring system with his hand.

Even the Paralympics have not escaped controversy. Spain won gold in the 2000 basketball tournament for players with intellectual disability. It was later revealed that 10 out of the 12 players had no disability at all.

The sport which justifiably prides itself more than any other for its reputation for fair play is golf. As David Rickman, director of rules at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, explained, the fact that players have to apply the rules themselves is the key.

"Except at the very highest level golfers don't have a referee or an umpire to adjudicate for them," he said yesterday. "If people aren't quite certain of the rules they often take a worse punishment than necessary. That's the way the game has been played for hundreds of years and I'm pleased to say by and large that attitude survives. Cheating is absolutely the worst thing you could accuse anybody of in golf."

The penalties show how seriously golf views cheating. David Robertson, a former Scottish boys champion, was banned from playing professionally for 20 years in 1985 after being accused of moving his ball on the green during qualifying for the 1985 Open, while in 1982 Sweden's Johan Tumba was banned for 10 years by the European PGA Tour for altering his scorecard.

Snooker has a similar moral code. In the recent world championship Mark Williams was leading Ian McCulloch 6-4 and had an excellent chance of winning the next frame when he called a foul shot against himself. He had brushed a ball with his thumb, though the contact was so slight that nobody else had noticed it and not even television cameras could detect it. McCulloch won the frame and match.

Other sports which might like to consider themselves as havens of fair play do not always stand up to such scrutiny. "It's not cricket" may have been a phrase built on the sport's reputation for sportsmanship, but the match-fixing scandals that emerged in the wake of the Hansie Cronje affair caused serious damage to the game's image.

"Chucking" - bowling with an illegal action - has also become a major issue, while Mike Atherton, the former England captain, was one of a number of players to find themselves at the centre of ball-tampering controversies.

Football has had plenty of famous cheats, including Diego Maradona and his "Hand of God" goal against England in the 1986 World Cup and Chile's Roberto Rojas, who cut himself with a razor blade and successfully got a World Cup qualifier against Brazil abandoned in 1989.

In recent times diving and shirt-pulling have become so commonplace that they have almost become an accepted part of the game, as Frank Clark, vice-chairman of the League Managers' Association, admitted.

"Diving is much more widespread than it used to be," he said. "That's developed as the laws of the game have changed. The game has been cleaned up to some extent, but that has meant that it's now more difficult for players to tackle. Human nature being what it is people find other ways of stopping opponents. I think shirt-pulling has come in partly as a compensation for not being able to tackle."

Craig Brown, the former Scotland manager, said: "Cheating is worse than it was in the past. People have always cheated by stealing a few yards at a free-kick or a throw-in, but I think a lot of the cheating today is more underhand than that.

"In Scotland we call it 'sleekit' cheating: feigning injury, diving, trying to con the referee. Diving is the form of cheating that annoys me most. It's definitely increased. It makes referees' jobs very difficult. I can't believe that any managers actually encourage their players to dive, but I think some of them don't discourage it.

However, Brown admits he used to encourage certain forms of cheating. "I used to say to my wall: 'Never go back 10 yards. Go back seven or eight yards. And when the referee pushes you back, make your feet go up and down a lot but only get back a yard.' When I was manager of Clyde the whole wall got booked because of my instruction.

"But I would never condone a lot of the other things that go on and people should look back at the example Brian Clough set. His teams were not even allowed to appeal for a throw-in. He would fine players for raising their arms to appeal for a throw or a free-kick. They won the European Cup playing to the letter of the law."

Shock tactics Three of sport's most elaborate scams

Boris Onischenko

Otherwise known as "Boris the Cheat", and, in one memorable headline, "Disonischenko". An army officer from Ukraine, he had won an Olympic silver medal in the modern pentathlon in Munich in 1972. Four years later, he wanted to go one better. The British team were the first to notice something was wrong, during his fencing bout against Adrian Parker. When Jim Fox, his next opponent, protested that the Soviet athlete was scoring without hitting him, officials found that Onischenko had wired his épée so he could trigger the electronic scoring system with his hand. He was disqualified, while Britain went on to win gold. The rules were changed so that grips could not hide wires or switches.

Donald Crowhurst

Competing in the 1968 Golden Globe, a non-stop, round-the-world single-handed race, the 36-year-old Crowhurst was in a leaking boat with a bilge pump that did not work. He was supposed to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, through the treacherous Southern Ocean and past Cape Horn. Realising he would never make it, Crowhurst kept two log books, one recording his actual journey, the other his fabricated one. Then he realised that he was in the running to finish second, and would be open to the judges' scrutiny. He suffered a breakdown, and in a 150-hour bout of writing he produced 25,000 words of frenzied gibberish. Then he abandoned ship and drowned in the Atlantic.

Michel Pollentier

Cyclists have never been backward in coming forward in the pharmaceutical department, but Michel Pollentier was surely due some kind of prize for barefaced cheek. During the 1978 Tour de France, he had just taken the yellow jersey after winning the mountain stage to l'Alpe d'Huez and was in the caravan taking the mandatory drugs test, when an official noticed him "pumping his elbow in and out as if playing a set of bagpipes". Closer inspection revealed a rubber, urine-filled bulb under his arm running down to a cork-stopped test tube at his wrist. He was banned for two months, but was merely thought to be one of the unlucky ones who had been caught in his deception.