Book review: Cheating in sport driven in part by fans

In Foul Play, author Mike Rowbottom distinguishes between different types of cheating, from old-fashioned mind games to pervasive and highly damaging doping scandals. All of them seem designed to satisfy a human need, Matthew Price writes

Italian cyclist Marco Pantani, right, wins a stage of the 87th Tour de France in 2000, ahead of the American Lance Armstrong, who would later admit to doping and be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. Pascal George / AFP
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The bigwigs who run America's Major League Baseball are gearing up for what has become a sadly familiar rite. They will huff and puff self-righteously about ridding the game of the steroid scourge once and for all (not a chance). This time, executives say, they're not fooling around. Some of the biggest names in the game, including the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, are facing lengthy game suspensions - never mind that baseball helped create the very problem it's now so desperate to eradicate.

Sadly, this is not just baseball's predicament. The steroid issue has dogged sport around the globe. Track and field has seen some of its brightest stars - Marion Jones, Ben Johnson and, just last week, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell - disgraced by doping charges. Cycling is still reeling from the downfall of Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis, whose reputations lie in ruins.

The doping menace is just the most egregious form of cheating covered by Mike Rowbottom in his new book, Foul Play: The Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport. The author, who has written about sport for The Times and The Guardian and is chief features writer for, is anything if not comprehensive. He looks at all manner of rule bending, from the subtly cynical to the totally outrageous. From doping to illegal betting to match fixing to ungentlemanly - and womanly - acts, it's all in here. "Misdeeds and shady behaviour exist - and have long existed - in almost every form of contest you care to name," Rowbottom writes. "In the so-called big sports - football, rugby, cricket. And in the so-called minor sports - bowls, real tennis, squash, croquet, conkers." Yes, even conkers.

The fans, when confronted with fraudulent activity, cry "Say it ain't so": Rowbottom counsels, "It was ever thus." Consider the athletes of ancient Greece. Far from the paragons of Olympic ideals, they bent the rules to gain competitive advantage. "Sheep's testicles - heavy on the testosterone - [were] the supplement of choice for those wishing to improve their strength," Rowbottom notes. Others looking for a leg up on the competition took a formula, here described by the physician Galen, composed of "the rear hooves of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil and flavoured with rosehips and petals". In the Olympics of 420 BC, a banned chariot racer from Sparta passed off his winning rig under the banner of another state. And so on.

Rowbottom's catalogue of transgressions from more recent times boggles the mind. Doping may be the worst scourge, but it's only one way of bending the rules. Rowbottom recounts the travails of Ben Johnson and others; such sections will seem familiar to anyone who reads the sports pages. But it is money, Rowbottom suggests, that might have a more pernicious and corrosive effect on sport than performance-enhancing drugs.

"Spot-betting", for example, where you can take odds on specific aspects of a competition - the number of free kicks given in a football match, say, or whether a no-ball will be delivered in cricket - has grown into a multibillion-dollar business, a lot of it in illegal bookmaking operations run out of East Asia. This kind of betting has become pervasive, with punters throwing money at an ever more minute array of actions. The temptation for players is considerable. Former Southampton great Matthew Le Tissier admitted that he put money on the timing of the first throw-in in a 1995 fixture against Wimbledon, and altered his play, trying to kick the ball out of bounds soon after kick-off.

Rowbottom contends that such seemingly innocuous behaviour - it was just one throw-in, one might argue, hardly a game changer - is actually corrosive. "What gives the manipulation of spot-betting a profound and insidious power is the fact that in the minds of sporting protagonists considering such manipulation, it can be separated from the suggestion that they are doing something seriously wrong." Cricket has been particularly susceptible to spot-betting problems. The Indian Premier League has been roiled by allegations of illegal betting, and three Pakistani players were suspended and given prison sentences for spot-fixing of no-balls during the Pakistan-England Test Match in 2011.

The money issue worries Rowbottom, but he maintains a levity throughout the book; indeed, one can almost see him writing with a twinkle in his eye, so ridiculous are some of the examples he cites. Among the most hilarious are from the smash-mouth sport of rugby. Take the "bloodgate" scandal from the 2009 Heineken Cup match between Harlequins and Irish side Leinster. A Harlequins winger chewed fake blood capsules to fake an injury, and thus manipulate the substitution system and bring back on another player. An investigation revealed that Harlequins had used fake blood on other occasions.

As Rowbottom admits, the art of getting away with it has always been a part of sport. But not all cheating is the result of conspiratorial conniving a la bloodgate. Much of it is situational and spontaneous.

Perhaps the most celebrated (and still controversial) instance of the latter is Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match between Argentina and England. Though he clearly laid a hand on the ball before it went in, the crucial goal was allowed (Argentina won 2-1). Afterwards, Maradona waggishly said the goal was scored "un poco con la cabeza de Maradona, y otro poco con la mano de Dios (a little on the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God)." More recently, a handball by Thierry Henry set up a game winning score when France faced off against Ireland in a 2010 play-off for a World Cup spot. Despite howls of protest from the Irish side, "the Hand of Gaul" goal was allowed.

What makes Foul Play a worthy contribution to the debate over cheating in athletic competitions is the way Rowbottom parses distinctions between different kinds of rule-bending. Not all of it is necessarily bad or immoral. Mind games are part of the deal in just about any game - psychological manipulation, wearing an opponent down with taunts or teases, is a skill just like passing a football or wielding a cricket bat. There was a beauty to the way boxer Muhammad Ali could get under the skin of his opponents. A distasteful tactic at times, maybe - whatever Marco Materazzi said to Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final was surely disgusting, caused the Frenchman to lose his head, and arguably cost France the game altogether, but the Italian player's foul utterance was hardly equivalent to throwing a match.

More importantly, Rowbottom does not let the fans off the hook. Indeed, we spectators, he argues - fairly, I think - are a large part of the problem of cheating in any sport. "There is pressure on top sportsmen and women to win," he writes, "particularly when they represent their country. Here is a factor which, at times, towers over the lure of money in the mind of sporting protagonists. Sport becomes a visceral, tribal affair. Or it becomes a political thing - equally potent. But the generating force is us, the sporting followers, willing and even demanding our representative to win on our behalf, or else demanding that performances reach ever-increasing levels." Athletes, "no matter how many drugs they put into our system, gain nothing unless their performance is valued. Only that monetises it. And the valuation comes from us, the sporting followers".

It is easy to point the finger at the likes of Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds, the tainted all-time leader in home runs whose grotesque body bulged with steroid-enhanced muscles as he bore down on record after record in the first decade of the 21st century. But they are merely convenient villains. Look in the mirror, Rowbottom suggests: that is where you will find the real enemy.

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globeand the Financial Times.