Saracens’ fall from grace this week is no laughing matter but how could you not chuckle when Exeter Chiefs CEO Tony Rowe let loose at rivals accused of skirting the Premiership’s salary cap and, in the process, capturing the last two domestic league titles.
“There is no room in professional sport for cheats,” said Rowe. Well now, if that doesn’t make you think of a certain Stanley Kubrick Cold War spoof then you need to brush up on your celluloid classics.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here,” said Peter Seller’s US president in Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. “This is the War Room!”
You can’t help but sympathise with Rowe. He has dragged Exeter up by their boot straps, from lower tier layabouts to one of the best club sides in England and Europe, and he has done it by running a small profit in a business sector that is usually a bottomless pit for those brave enough to open their wallets.
Rowe’s indignation is fully merited. His call for Saracens to be demoted and the opinion that their last two domestic titles be awarded to the Chiefs, who Saracens beat in both finals, is perfectly reasonable, although the competition’s rules don’t allow for any such retrospective punishments.
But his claims for the sanctity of professional sport are laughable. So is therighteousness of Chris Robshaw who, as has been pointed out more than once this week, was a Harlequins player when they lost 6-5 to Leinster in 2009 in a game that would spawn the infamous ‘Bloodgate’ scandal.
What Saracens’ fall from grace shows us, again, is that sport is a true reflection of us all as human beings, even if we like to think that it shines a light on only our sympathetic sides or that we turn to the front of the paper for news of our failures and to the back for reports on our triumphs.
The recent Rugby World Cup was another example of this whitewashing with a litany of social media posts showing a player handing his boots to fan or a victor comforting a defeated opponent.
All accompanied by the obligatory notice that “THIS is what rugby is all about”.
The GAA is guilty of the same tosh. It’s all nonsense.
Rugby and Gaelic games and every other sport is about respect and camaraderie and excellence, but all of that is entwined with skulduggery and cheating and lying, illicit gambling and, in the case of some sports, a touch (or a mountain) of corruption and other modes of criminality.
Some of sport’s ‘best’ stories have been acts of downright awfulness.
Fred Lorz was the Olympic marathon champion who was disqualified after the 1904 race in St Louis when it was discovered he had travelled 11 miles of the course by car. Less well-known is the fact that Thomas Hicks, the man promoted to gold, had sustained himself on brandy and strychnine along the way.
Skip ahead 86 years and Sylvester Carmouche and his mount Landing Officer were dropping out of the fog-enclosed mile-long race at Louisiana’s Delta Downs Racetrack before resuming and winning by an immediately suspicious 24 lengths. He, at least, eventually admitted to what he had done.
No sport is immune to treachery. Few events are more worthy of our acclaim and attention than the Paralympic Games and yet even these have been dogged by tales and whispers of athletes faking or exaggerating physical impairments in order to get a head start on others.
Maybe the most distasteful instance of all occurred in 2000 in Sydney where a Spanish team comprising 200 athletes that finished third in the medal table was discovered to include a number of competitors who did not suffer from any manner of disability.
The game was up when members of the public saw pictures of people they knew had no physical or mental impairments on the pages of La Marca. A member of the basketball team that won gold subsequently admitted he and other athletes in disciplines that included track and field, table tennis, and swimming were not mentally deficient.
That was an episode that, 13 years later, led to the boss of the Spanish Federation for Mentally Handicapped Sports being found guilty of fraud, various resignations and medals handed back.
Plenty more wrongdoers have been given passes for bad behaviour.
So much of what we know is wrong or improper goes unnoticed in sport or, at the very least, unpunished. Diving is wrong, yet football enables it. Racism is horrifying yet football’s governing bodies are spineless in the face of it. Surrounding sport with gambling ads and partnerships is plain wrong but it gets a free pass.
Everywhere we look there is evidence of issues that should corrode our relationships with sport: Major events held in environmentally unsuitable or undemocratic states, feeble attempts at detecting policing drug cheats, apologists for reprehensible actions on the basis the culprits wear a certain set of colours.
Accountability and an acceptance of blame are rare enough imposters.
Ben Johnson continued to insist he had never taken illegal drugs long after he was stripped of his Olympic 100m medal from the 1988 Games.
Diego Maradona once described his goal against England — the first one — as a ‘a little bit Hand of God and a little bit the head of Maradona’.
If professional sport has no room for cheats then it’s only because it is already awash with them.