Is cheating ruining sport? The lament for a lost Golden Age of sporting fair play is a recurring modern motif. But while there is lamenting aplenty, there’s precious little evidence of ruin.
The case for the prosecution can be summarised like this: sport isn’t just a set of rules, it is underpinned by a moral contract - something we call ‘integrity’ - which ensures that the contest is fair. If you cheat you break this contract, you damage the integrity of sport and traduce its reputation. As Guardian columnist Marina Hyde puts it: ‘[T]hey [cheats] ruin it for everyone else – participants, spectators – in many and diverse ways. They ruin it for years, for everyone. They turn expert observers into pained inquisitors; they make kids who should be dreamers into cynics; they retain the power to turn age-old human contests into an irrelevance.’
So, where’s the evidence that sport is going to hell in a handcart? A series of high-profile cheating controversies have rocked the sporting world in recent years: Pakistani cricketers jailed for spot fixing; Jamaican sprinters failing drugs tests; snooker star John Higgins suspended for match-fixing; the Calciopoli scandal in Italian football which led to Juventus being stripped of two Serie A titles; a series of high-profile ‘simulation’ incidents in English football, involving Luis Suárez, Ashley Young and Gareth Bale; and, unquestionably the most damaging scandal of all, Lance Armstrong fessing up to doping and being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.
Cheating scandals abound, but does it follow that sport is ruined? I don’t think so. Firstly, we should ask ourselves: ‘ruined for whom?’ Just because sanctimonious hacks and phone-in show saddos bemoan the corrosion of the sporting ethos, it doesn’t mean that the rest of us have become disenchanted with sport. If sport were ruined we’d expect to see deserted stadiums, fans ripping up their season tickets and TV viewers cancelling their Sky subscriptions. The reality, however, is that Britain remains resolutely sports-obsessed.
Let’s look at Britain’s most popular sport, football. In this country, we tend to frown on diving and feigning injury. It’s not manly or British to roll around crying like a girl. Diving is arguably much more commonplace in the cosmopolitan melting pot of the Premier League. But, by any measure, whether it is TV audiences or matchday attendances, public affection for our national game appears undimmed. Premiership stadiums are packed to the gills and millions more watch live football on pay TV. Although simulation is conflated with cheating in this country, I’d argue that it’s just a form of gamesmanship. It’s bending the rules to gain an advantage, but it’s hardly comparable to match-rigging. If we consider the more serious charge of match-fixing, British football is remarkably clean. The last notable scandal in England was in 1964, which led to eight professional footballers being jailed. Football’s popularity wasn’t seriously affected by that scandal so it’s hard to see how a few theatrical belly flops will dampen our enthusiasm for our national game now.