Cheating in sports: Same as it ever was

08/09/2013 3:17 PM

05/16/2014 3:59 PM

Even with the rash of rulings coming down this week on Alex Rodriguez and the other dirty dozen in baseball, doping issues lurking over the world track and field championships and Lance Armstrong back in the news in a lawsuit hinging on his right to lie in his autobiography, no one really could be jarred any more by any of this unless it’s along the lines of Claude Rains in “Casablanca”:

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” he says as he orders Rick’s Café closed and is handed his winnings.

So what’s happened to sports?

Nothing that hasn’t been happening all along. The methods have evolved, and we know more about it because of saturation 24-7 news coverage.

But it’s the same as it ever was.

And, alas, ever will be, especially with the financial stakes now astronomical.

Any tsk-tsking or lamenting is simply naïve, a submission to a concept known as “the fallacy of the innocent past.”

Cheating has been a part of sports from the ancient Olympics, at which competitors might ingest suspicious performance-enhancing potions or, say, lizard’s flesh.

“Eaten a certain way (it) became magic,” ancient Olympic historian Tony Perrottet said in a 2012 interview with National Geographic.

In 480 B.C., as Michael Poliakoff wrote in “Combat Sports In The Ancient World,” a Greek vase rendered the image of a trainer flogging competitors in the combat sport known as pankration.

Why? They had violated one of apparently just two rules of the sport: not to bite and, in this case, not to gouge each other’s eyes.

In 388 B.C., Eupholus of Thessaly bribed three boxers to take dives, and his fine was used to erect a statue to warn others that nevertheless became just the first in a rogue’s gallery.

“Thereafter, cheats were heavily fined, and the cash used to erect statues with moral inscriptions reminding athletes that `you win at Olympia with the speed of your feet and the strength of your body, not with money,’” wrote Perrottet in his book, “The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.”

In A.D. 67, the Roman emperor Nero bribed judges to award him first prize in the chariot race — despite the inconvenient truth that he had tumbled out of his chariot and didn’t finish the race.

Nero, incidentally, was juiced at the time: He had consumed a potion of wild boars’ manure said to be a boost for charioteers.

“Apparently, Nero wasn’t the only one doing it. But is that like taking vitamins? Is that like taking an illegal drug? The distinction is not made,” Hugh Ming Lee, a classics professor at the University of Maryland, told Reuters in 2008.

In a more modern context, American football itself is derived from rugby, which apparently was born in 1823 when William Webb Ellis just decided to pick up the ball and run with it during a soccer match. A plaque on the site in England reads:

“This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football, as played in his time, first took the ball and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive features of the rugby game. A.D. 1823.”

That there is a fine disregard for the rules should be least eye-opening with baseball, which has an entire culture of viewing rules more as guidelines. See: Black Sox, emery boards, spitballs and corked bats, for starters.

That’s why the animated production of selling a trapped ball, for instance, is seen as a virtue.

“I’ve been in pro baseball since 1914, and I’ve cheated, or watched someone on my team cheat, in practically every game,” baseball great Rogers Hornsby, whose .358 career batting average is second only to Ty Cobb, wrote for True magazine in 1961. “You’ve got to cheat. I know if I had played strictly by the rules, I’d have been home feeding my dogs a long time ago instead of earning a good living in baseball for 47 years.”

All sad, but all true — and certainly nothing new.

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