There was lots of talk last week about football and morality, and the old question of whether sporting heroes need to be perfect role models when they are off the pitch and back in the real world. It brought to mind a much more interesting question raised by Simon Barnes as he was looking over the sporting scandals that erupted last year: when does a cheat become a ‘gate’? When, in other words, do the failures and weaknesses of individuals morph into an institutional conspiracy that merits the suffix ‘-gate’?
For me, the interest lies not only in the analysis of modern sport, but in the way it illustrates how corruption can grow within any community or institution — if the pressures are strong enough, and if the individuals involved are without firm moral principles.
When does a cheat become a gate? It’s the most important question of the sporting year. There’ve been an awful lot of cheats in the course of the past 12 months, but only three gates. All the same, it is three more gates than sport needs. Liegate was followed by Bloodgate which was followed by Crashgate. When taken together, they ask a series of devastating questions about sport.
Cheats are much less important. The affair of Thierry Henry’s handball didn’t become Handgate or Henrygate, because it didn’t have the stuff a gate needs. It was a flagrant piece of cheating, but it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time. The only reason it gained such notoriety was because the consequences were greater: Henry’s balloon-bipping double-tap meant that France, rather than Ireland, qualified for the World Cup finals in South Africa next year.
No one within the sport condemned Henry for his lack of morals. Everyone took that for granted. No, the problem was felt to be one of officiating. We can’t expect players to be honest, so we must do something about catching them at it. But then Fifa decided that football was a better game when cheats are given a fair run, and so we move on…
Bloodgate had elements of farce. Harlequins were playing Leinster in a Heineken Cup quarter-final. It was an ultra-tight game of rugby, and they wanted to bring on a talented kicker, Nick Evans, to go for a dropped goal. Alas, they had already used all the tactical replacements they were allowed. So they made a substitution instead. This is permitted in the event of a blood injury — wise precaution in these Aids-conscious times. Evans came on, had his chance for a dropped goal, but missed.
Harlequins were able to make this substitution because Tom Williams used a capsule of fake blood (piquant detail: it was bought in a joke shop near Clapham Junction) to simulate the injury. It was given to him by his team management. He was instructed to burst it and fake an injury. Subsequently, Williams was cut in the mouth with a scalpel to aid conviction.
All this was rumbled. The cover-up was uncovered. Williams decided to come clean. The Harlequins director of rugby, Dean Richards, was banned from the sport for three years, the club were fined £258,000…
In all three of these events, a request — or a demand — for cheating came from people who held positions of authority. This wasn’t a bit of casual skulduggery, this was organised. This was cold-blooded. This was cheating as a matter of official policy.
This is not a crime of passion, this was premeditated plotting. And that changes everything. It’s not naughty boys cheating during the exam, it’s the school-teachers supplying the crib-sheets. The teachers are not just helping their boys to get a result, they are destroying the examination system.
You can argue whether or not that is a good thing — you can’t argue that it is destructive. The system that McLaren, Harlequins and Renault are destroying is called sport.
This kind of organised cheating not only destroys the spectacle of sport, it destroys the meaning of sport. Why watch the races, if every race is fixed?
Sport can’t exist without faith. We know that modern athletes will cheat in hot blood. That’s disappointing, but we are learning to live with it. But when we know that cheating is also fixed, authorised, formalised and institutionalised, our faith is broken. Institutional cheating is not just a scandal. It is the gate to sport’s grave.