It was Muhammad Ali who coined the phrase “Rope-a-Dope” back in the ‘60s – I always associated it with giving a wrongdoer enough rope to hang himself with. But the greatest boxer the world has ever seen was referring to his tactic of allowing himself to be pinned to the ropes and pummelled until his opponent had worn himself out. Ali would then lunge into action. Both scenarios, however, seem to be equally applicable today.
One of the worst things that can happen to you is to be wrongly accused of a misdemeanour. I have a memory of being dragged out of my room by my father, when I was 13, and being frog-marched down the high street to face a stamp-dealer on trumped-up theft charges. My dear parent had jumped to erroneous conclusions during a casual conversation, and the case turned out to be one of mistaken identity – naturally, the sheepish adults amply compensated me for my trauma! Even more serious though is being found out if you have actually been stealing or cheating. The ground refuses to open up and, no matter what justification you come up with for yourself, the stain and the shame stay with you for the rest of your life. Last month’s fallen Greek heroes are a case in point.
Costas Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou came from nowhere in sprinting terms at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, to take the 200m gold and 100m silver medals respectively – a feat that catapulted both athletes into the international limelight and instant stardom at home. The phenomenal improvements in their personal best times, coupled with curious training schedules under joint coach Christos Tzekos, have long caused lingering suspicions. These were finally confirmed after their ‘cloak of invisibility’ eventually dropped – invisibility because Thanou had already fled from a doping control at her training camp in Germany in 1997, in circumstances similar to those that prevented samples being taken from the two in America earlier this year.
Athens, on the eve of the Olympics, proved to be their undoing. Alerted by telephone to the imminent IOC inspectors’ ‘surprise’ visit, the pair once more took to their heels. This time, the excuse had to be more elaborate and a ‘motorcycle accident’ saw both languish in hospital for 48 hours, unable to attend tests or hearings. In fact, there were no injuries, no crash, no witnesses – only lies and insupportable methods of dragging the Olympic principles through the mud and disadvantaging fellow competitors. Kenteris and Thanou were idols. Now, at the ages of 31 and 29 respectively, even Outer Mongolia may prove less of a haven than it did for Paul Gascoigne’s brief interlude there.
Cheating in sport has a long history that has grown in sophistication. Since the demise of the Iron Curtain, the most blatant abuse has ceased. We will never know what exactly went on in the former Soviet Union to produce super men and women, flag-bearers of an outdated system. But we do know that East German athletes were systematically pumped full of steroids so they might defend an ostracised regime. This left women altered in their whole being, with little choice once their usefulness was over, but to undergo sex-change operations that transformed them into the males that they had become, to all intents and purposes, long before. Athens was the first Olympic Games to let transsexuals compete – there were no remarkable incidents but I am sure the former East German ‘fräuleins’ would have had a field day!
On the subject of sport, cheating and unfair advantage, I leave the last word to Olympic swimming legend Mark Spitz. The winner of a record seven gold medals at the 1972 Games in Munich raced with a full moustache – something unheard of in today’s shaved, competitive environment. Asked about this unusual feature by the Russian head coach, Spitz pointed out that his facial hair deflected water away from his mouth, allowing his rear end to rise and assist his bullet shape in the pool. The following year every (male?) Russian swimmer sported a bushy moustache!
But cheating is not restricted to sport and can be found in all walks of life. It seems to be an accepted practice, as long as you can get away with it – ask any politician at the top of their profession. ‘White lies’ are often similarly acceptable, as long as you occupy the moral high ground.
I myself cheated once, and am not proud of it, although it was necessary. At university we were forced to take a subsidiary subject during the first year, which had to be of a discipline that was totally alien to our field of study. In my case, I was burdened with computer science – a nightmare for someone who thinks a laptop is a dinner tray! Anyway, failure would have meant expulsion and my well-formed, distance runner’s thighs, amply concealed by Bermuda shorts on a particularly hot June day, were covered with useful hints and equations! My heartbeat went off the Richter scale and I cannot describe the discomfort of hairs growing back, but I survived to enjoy the following three years. I am only a small fish in a big pond, however.
You can understand my indiscretion, I hope, which is more than can be said for the likes of David Blunkett, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Peter Mandelson, James Hewitt, or Bill Clinton. Not to mention the naked plumber who chased his police officer wife and her lover down the street, benefit cheats, or the defrocked vicar who had a string of adulterous affairs.
One and all have abused the trust placed in them. But hold on, before you or I climb on our high horse and condemn whomever, we should take a close and careful look in the mirror. “Let him without blame cast the first stone!”