Save your outrage. As long as there have been sports, there have been cheaters. And we’re okay with that.

CHARLIE GILLIS August 13 2007


Save your outrage. As long as there have been sports, there have been cheaters. And we’re okay with that.

CHARLIE GILLIS August 13 2007



Save your outrage. As long as there have been sports, there have been cheaters. And we’re okay with that.


Barry Bonds may fill the role of real of villain nicely, but if you want a real sports cheater, go back four decades to yhe Golden Globe yacht race and the remarkable tale of Donald Crowhurst. A 36-year-old Englishman with little sailing experience and a flimsy boat called the Teignmouth Electron, Crowhurst entered the round-the-world contest in 1968 with better odds of accidental drowning than victory. What he lacked as a yachtsman, however, he made up for in deception: for weeks, he radioed false positions to race organizers suggesting he’d rounded the Horn of Africa and was heading east at a breakneck pace of more than 150 nautical miles per day. In fact, Crowhurst had scooted across the Atlantic and holed up on the Argentine coast, where he waited in radio silence for the others to catch up. Then, to the astonishment of competitors who figured he’d dropped out of the race, he slyly slipped into second place for the home stretch back to England.

Britain was electrified by Crowhurst’s supposed success. Newspapers brimmed with coverage of his alleged progress. But the legend would soon morph into a morality tale. Desperate to stay ahead of the upstart Crowhurst, veteran sailor Nigel Tetley was

pushing his own vessel so hard it began to break up, and he was forced to abandon ship. Overcome by guilt over Tetley’s misfortune, and aware his own navigational records would come under scrutiny upon his return to England, Crowhurst confessed all in a series of logbook entries, picked up his ship’s clock for a bit of extra weight and stepped into the Atlantic, never to be seen again. A mail ship later found the empty Electron adrift, about 700 miles southwest of the Azores.

It’s the kind of story that chastens the sports consuming public—at least for a while. If the Crowhurst case has resonance today, it’s in the sense of honour and shame that evidently led the man to claim his own life. That sort of response is unthinkable today. No one expects modern cheaters to fall on their swords, of course. Not, at least, the sort who load up on EPO to win a leg of the Tour de France. But surely they shouldn’t be able to double their fortunes with self-justifying memoirs of the sort published by former baseball star and confessed doper José Canseco, either. When did we become so inured to the sporting frauds among us?

The truth, say ethicists and sports historians, is that we didn’t. We just got better at putting the current rash of scandals into per-

spective. As the accused steroid user Bonds staggers toward Hank Aaron’s home-run record, and as the Tour wallows in its pit of self-loathing, media and doping cops continue to push the notion that performance enhancing drugs are fatal in the long term to the events they taint. Fans appear to see things differently. Baseball attendance is on course to reach record levels for the fourth consecutive year despite a spate of doping allegations, while organizers of the Tour appear confident that France’s beloved event will survive its latest plague of scandals. All of which may explain why even sport ethicists are busy downgrading doping from the realm of mortal sin to the merely venial. “You’re talking about something that doesn’t generally determine the outcome of a game,” says Ken Kirkwood, an expert on health care ethics at the University of Western Ontario, who has studied doping in sport. “It’s more about seeking an advantage, and we understand that. It’s more common, and we don’t think of it as damaging to the outcome of the contest.”

It may also be a nod to history, which suggests an unacknowledged solidarity of fans with athletes who scramble for some small edge in their sports. For years, National Hockey League players have defied curve restrictions on the blades of their sticks with impunity, partly because a deep curve confers limited advantage, but partly because fans enjoy the intrigue. Baseball too has its

lovable cheaters—players whose misdeeds were generally ignored until one of them got too sloppy or arrogant to cover them up. When Minnesota Twins pitcher Joe Niekro was accused by opponents in 1987 of scuffing the ball before his windup, a trick which can produce startling movement in slowpaced pitches, no one seemed especially exercised. An umpire ordered Niekro to empty his pockets, whereupon the cagey knuckleballer threw an emery board and a piece of sandpaper into the dirt. Unfortunately for him, the ump and several television cameras captured the move, and Niekro got a 10-game suspension.

Niekro, as everyone knew, was merely one in a long line of aging “ball doctors” trying to keep up with a new generation of savvy young hitters. The attitude throughout baseball toward these self-styled rogues was typified by Gaylord Perry’s elevation to the Hall of Fame in 1991—an honour which effectively recognized him for perfecting the so-called spitball. “I reckon I tried everything on the old apple,” Perry once said, “but salt and pepper and chocolate sauce topping.” Niekro, too, would dine out on his notoriety, joking during a World Series appearance later that season that he hadn’t forgotten his nail file. His brother Phil, a fellow knuckleballer, was so amused by Joe’s suspension that he sent him a power sander, along with an extension cord long enough to cover the distance to the mound.


Why were we so accommodating of the everyday rule-breakers who came before the dopers? Maybe because their capers were more entertaining than many a pristine athletic performance. Consider for a moment boxing’s famous “cut glove” incident of 1963, when Muhammad Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee was accused of stalling for time during a fight with England’s Henry Cooper. Accounts of this incident vary, but the time-honoured storyline has Ali (then named Cassius Clay) saved by his trainer following a lucky left hook landed by his opponent. With Ali staggered, and the round ending, Dundee, according to the legend, struck upon the idea of slashing his fighter’s glove with a razor to buy an extra minute of rest between rounds while he cast about for a new mitt.

Footage of the fight tells a more prosaic story: Ali was practically shredding Cooper in the fourth round before the wobbly Englishman finally connected with the left. And while the blow stunned Ali, it was hardly enough to tip the balance of the fight: he

dropped Cooper with 45 seconds left in the fifth. As for that “cut” in the glove, Dundee later admitted he’d noticed the small split in the first round. He can be seen on the film drawing the ref’s attention to it after the fourth by sticking in his finger and drawing out some horsehair. None of these facts, of course, has stopped fans from turning Dundee into a rule-flouting folk hero.

These episodes, and the perverse public reaction they provoke, together raise questions about why the sports world is amused by some cheating scandals and outraged by others. More precisely, they demonstrate how fans, media and league officials submit each scandal to a kind of collective smell test, where the operative question is whether the outcome has effectively been fixed. Do we chalk it up to the pressures of fierce competition, laughing the whole thing off? Or do we receive it as an attempt to predetermine the outcome, seeking holy retribution to ensure it never happens again?

David Robertson learned the hard way just how ruthless the moral majority can be when it believes a caper has undermined the spirit of competition. Once a golfer with a promising future on the professional circuit, he became the focus of unwanted attention during a qualifying tournament for the 1985 British Open, when his opponents accused him of skulduggery on the greens. According to official accounts, Robertson would speed ahead of his competitors following his

approach shots and pretend to mark his ball. In fact, he was picking up the ball while surreptitiously placing his marker on his putter. He would then subtly drop the button from the putter to a more advantageous position on the green.

The reaction against Robertson—a garden variety cheat if there ever was one—proved

harsh to the point of irrationality. Outraged that someone would take such liberties in a sport that relies on its players’ sense of honour, tour officials fined him $30,000 and suspended him from the pro circuit for 30 years.

Even in cases where the punishment is light, the court of public opinion can condemn an athlete to long-term ignominy. Just ask Albert Belle. The surly former star of the Cleveland Indians lit up Major League Baseball with 381 home runs over a 12-year career, yet remains forever tainted by a 1994 batcorking incident. For years, hitters had been tempted to cork their bats on the belief that the added impulse from a more resilient core sends the ball further. Belle had the misfortune to cork at a time when sluggers were starting to feast on major league pitchers, raising suspicions of cheating throughout the baseball fraternity. Acting on a tip during a mid-summer game against Cleveland, Chicago White Sox manager Gene Lamont decided to challenge the use of Belle’s bat, leading umpire Dave Phillips to put it in his locker to be sawed up later in search of the alleged cork.

What angered fans and the guardians of the game, however, wasn’t the idea Belle was padding his numbers with an illegal bat. It was the revelation that the Cleveland team tried that night to derail attempts to find the truth. In what he later described as a “mission impossible,” Indians pitcher Jason Grimsley admitted that he grabbed a cork-free bat

belonging to teammate Paul Sorrento and crawled through the ceiling, flashlight in mouth, from the Cleveland clubhouse to a hatch above the umpire’s dressing room. The six-foot-three, 180-lb. player then lowered himself onto a refrigerator and changed the bat in Phillips’ locker with the legal one. “My heart was going 1,000 miles a second,” Grim-


sley told the New York Times in 1999. “I just rolled the dice, a crapshoot.”

Alas, Sorrento’s name was stamped on the replacement bat, which makes Grimsley one of the dumbest gamblers in history (not to mention a double-cheat: in 2003, the hapless pitcher admitted to using human growth hormone, amphetamines and steroids). In the end, under threat of criminal investigation, Belle agreed to turn over the juiced bat. After a lengthy appeal, he received a startlingly light suspension of seven games.

Small wonder, then, that the keepers of baseball history still look askance at the big slugger, secure in the knowledge that precious few fans will rush to his defence. When Belle came up for what should have been a slam-dunk Hall of Fame induction in 2006, he garnered just 77 per cent of the votes—far short of the proportion required. Two years later, he was dropped from the ballot. “Albert Belle was perceived to be a nasty human being,” says Sharon Kay Stoll, a sports ethicist at the University of Idaho. “And we’re a lot more tolerant of athletes we like.”

Certainly our ethical judgments would be made easier if every star were a jerk, or if every case involved a delusional ne’erdo-well like Boris Onischenko, a Soviet fencer who during the 1972 Summer Games in Munich wired the handle of his épée with an electronic trigger. The device allowed him to score points even when he failed to touch

his opponent, but the mysterious success of this hitherto obscure swordsman raised doubts among his competitors. Onischenko was disqualified following an investigation, and fencing authorities later banned grips that could conceal electric switches.

But such gloriously quixotic figures are few and far between in sport. There’s Fred Lorz, an American distance runner who flagged down a motorist during the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis and rode 11 miles as a passenger. He was banned for life from competitive marathon running, but reinstated in time to win the Boston Marathon the following year. Lorz claimed to be pulling a prank, but he blazed the trail for the likes of Rosie Ruiz, the 23-yearold fraudster who in 198O famously stepped out of the crowd and into the race one mile from the end of the Boston Marathon, beating all other women and baffling hard-core runners who had never laid eyes on her. Ruiz was quickly found out and stripped of her title; her actions prompted race officials to adopt everything from crowd barricades to a modern system in which racers run with trackable microchips attached to their shoes.

Doping, by contrast, seldom produces such cut and dried cases, primarily because it’s difficult in most sports to measure how profoundly any given drug affects final results. Followers of the Tour de France, for instance, are only starting to grasp how the event’s inhuman demands practically require some form of performance enhancement. Angela Schneider, a

former Canadian Olympic rower, followed the race in 2002 while researching an article, and came home convinced that illegal tricks like mid-race blood transfusions are as much a survival strategy as a means to victory. “These guys are doing the equivalent of two to three marathons a day, for three weeks, with no days off for rest,” says Schneider, now a professor

of kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario. “I was exhausted by the end of it, and I was following it by car. There is no way most people could complete it without some type of [artificial] assistance.”

Moreover, anyone who traces the history of the event can see that remedial measures to combat cheating do little more than beget more creative forms of cheating. In the Tour’s bygone days, Schneider notes, riders sucked sugar cubes soaked in ether to ease their strain-seared muscles. Others took cocaine to fight the effects of fatigue, presumably until someone came along and ordered them to pee in a cup. And these pioneering dopers were merely improving on the cruder methods of those who rode before them: in 1904, the second year the race was held, several riders were reported to have been towed by automobiles using a barely visible wire that ran from the backs of the cars to corks the cyclists held between their teeth. At the end of the race, the top four competitors, including the defending champion Maurice Garin, were disqualified. “The Tour is finished,” declared French newspapers in an eerie presage of 2007’s headlines.

So the more rational question for an event like the Tour may not be how to stamp out doping, but what kinds of doping to allow, and how much. That’s a difficult conversation to have, says David Malloy, a sports ethicist at the University of Regina, given the widespread acceptance of the World Anti-doping

Agency’s (WADA) message that all performance enhancing drugs carry the potential to destroy the sport they’re used in. “You have movie actors taking growth hormone and steroids, which is a form of performance enhancement, and nobody says anything about that,” he points out. “But as soon as you muck about with sport everyone develops


this moral outrage.” Still, there are signs of reality taking hold. WADA, which oversees doping enforcement for sporting bodies around the globe, has offered to hold a doping “summit” with Tour de France organizers, in which helping athletes deal with the gruelling demands of the race would surely be a topic.

The viewing public, meanwhile, appears ready to go a step further. Fewer than half of Canadians regard professional-level sport any longer as a vehicle of positive community values, according to a 2005 poll commissioned by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. Under the circumstances, it’s not inconceivable that some big-money sports may soon allow some medically supervised performance

enhancement—especially those which exact enormous physical toll on their competitors. If the public no longer sees pro athletes as role models, after all, and if we place doping in the same ethical category as ball-doctoring pitchers, why carry on the charade?

The answer, of course, lies in the very forces that got us here in the first place: legaliz-

ing some forms of doping won’t eliminate the age-old motivation to cheat. The promise of wealth, adulation and a place in sporting history will always propel athletes toward illicit methods, notes Schneider, whether its the latest in undetectable steroids, or the newest and arguably most dangerous wrinkle in performance enhancement, genetic doping. The challenge, she says, is to prevent those forces from wresting control of the game from those who play it. “Sport is something created by humans for the entertainment of humans,” she says. “If we disrespect the rules to the point of destroying their meaning, then we destroy the sport itself.” Did Donald Crowhurst strike upon this truth while floating by himself in the middle of the Atlantic? No one will ever know. But it’s comforting to think he knew he’d crossed some line, some invisible boundary between stealing advantage from an opponent and stealing the entire meaning of a contest from its adoring fans. If so, he left this world with more of his honour intact than many an athlete who basks in applause today. M