Sport at the highest levels is reeling from global cheating scandals.
English football’s reigning league champions and its wealthiest club, Manchester City, have been banned from the next two seasons of the Uefa Champions League for violations of financial fair play, pending appeals from the owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.
English rugby’s reigning league champions and its wealthiest club, Saracens, have been abruptly relegated and heavily fined for much the same thing. The club, which has strong South African links, has accepted its fate.
Baseball’s 2017 World Series winners, the Houston Astros, have only very recently been rumbled for substantive cheating during their triumphant season through video spying on opposition pitch calls – a $5-million fine, suspensions of managers, and a loss of draft picks were meted out. They too have said they will live with that ruling.
And, in the slightly more distant past, there was the wonderfully-named “DeflateGate” when the all-conquering New England Patriots and their superstar quarterback Tom Brady were found guilty of illegally manipulating ball pressures in a knock-out American football championship game in 2014 en route to winning the Super Bowl. The Pats also only copped a fine and some suspensions. They grumbled loudly but probably knew they were treated gently.
In all of these cases, their rivals, understandably, are arguing that these teams should be retrospectively stripped of their titles as well. If you cheat, and get caught, surely your names should not be in the record books.
There’s plenty of precedent for this.
Italy’s famed Juventus were stripped of their 2005 and 2006 Serie A football titles when their involvement in influencing favourable refereeing appointments was confirmed in late 2006. They were also relegated. The 2005 title officially remains vacant, because the runners-up, AC Milan, were also implicated in the scandal. The 2006 scudetto ultimately was awarded to second-placed Inter Milan.
Australian rugby league authorities were equally brusque with the Melbourne Storm – serial title winners who had cynically breached the salary cap by running a dual contract and bookkeeping system. In delightful Aussie vernacular, they were caught in this rort, and, in 2010, were stripped of their 2007 and 2009 National Rugby League titles, which remain vacant.
Cycling has done the same thing. Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins from 1999-2005 were taken away from him in 2012, after his Oprah confessional, without replacement winners. Floyd Landis, who won in 2006, was stripped three months later with Oscar Perreiro taking over the title. And Andy Schleck only became the 2010 Tour de France winner two years after the race when Alberto Contador’s “I ate dodgy steak” excuse for failing a drugs test finally got thrown out.
Athletics also has a formidable track record in rewriting history. Caster Semenya became the 2011 IAAF 800m world champion six full years after the actual race when Russian athlete Mariya Savinova was belatedly disqualified in 2017 for doping violations. Sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones are the biggest two contemporary Olympic names to be erased from gold for failing drugs’ tests – Johnson was dumped inside 48 hours but in Jones’s case it was only in 2007 that her reluctant admissions cost her three golds and two bronzes from the 2000 Sydney games.
And real students of Olympic history know all about Jim Thorpe. Of native American descent, Thorpe famously won both the pentathlon and decathlon golds at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics – a phenomenal feat – but infamously lost both of his crowns because, in a strictly amateur era, it was later revealed he had played some professional baseball in his past. His gold medals were finally restored 30 years after his death in 1981 and sports history was re-rewritten.
Believe it or not, the World Bridge Federation also has form in this area, revoking all the titles, medals, awards and masterpoints from the 2018 season for a player found guilty of an anti-doping violation. (I am still not sure exactly what drugs would make me a better bridge player!)
So where should that leave City, Sarries and the Astros? With or without their hard-won titles?
As a serious sports fan I am conflicted. A title is a thing won or lost in the moment – it’s bad enough waiting three minutes for VAR or a TMO verdict before celebrating a goal or a try or a wicket, without having to wait three years for the books (or the drugs) to be checked before you can have the victory parade. And winning a championship or a medal post-facto brings no pleasure.
As Andy Schleck said: “This way doesn’t do it for me. My name may be in the record books [as winner] but I will not have experienced the joy. For me, Contador will always remain the winner of the 2010 Tour.”
But, but, but… cheating needs serious punishment and a sport without enforced rules is not a sport at all. I think, in spite of Schleck’s objections, dopers in individual sports should suffer the indignity of being taken out of the story. Team sports are harder to deal with especially if it’s the administrators and not the players who are up to the shenanigans.
But “financial doping”, as former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger calls it, offers an existential crisis to many sports. If it isn’t checked, then in the near future, no top-flight football title will ever be won by any club that isn’t owned, as Manchester City and the French superclub PSG effectively are, by a wealthy nation state. (On that note a Saudi sovereign wealth fund was linked by the Wall Street Journal in January to the purchase of Newcastle United.)
For now, the Champions League suspension feels like a big enough hit on Manchester City for artificially padding their sponsorship revenue by as much as R1-billion to make their balance sheets compliant, assuming the ban is upheld in the face of the legal challenges. In my view, the Citizens should keep their financially tainted 2018 and 2019 English Premier League titles, especially as they played some sublime football in winning them. I suppose the same logic applies to Saracens, although their rugby was more ruthless than joyous.
The Astros are different. Their batters were acting on, and benefiting from, advanced knowledge of what was being pitched at them. That is explicitly illegal, it’s not just an unsporting thing. Surely that type of intel directly affected the outcome of key ball games. The Houston title should be void and the players’ gaudy championship rings should be handed in and melted down. Because, in the US, losing your bling is the ultimate punishment. DM