Day At The Track

Sports debased by cheating will die

03:16 PM 03 Feb 2016 NZDT
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The prevailing view is that cheating in sport is more commonplace and more egregious now than ever before. Cheating in sport comes in two basic forms — doping and match or spot fixing.

The former relies on the scenario where the alchemists will always be one step ahead of the chemists, where those who use illicit performance enhancing drugs will beat the overseers and continue to compete under an unfair advantage.

In this year’s Olympics in Rio, the Russian track and field team will almost certainly have to sit it out in the bleachers after the Russian governing body accepted an indefinite ban from competition after the alleged cover-up of positive doping tests. The Kenyans, the doyens of long distance running, are under a cloud of suspicion.

Yet for all the headlines, one could mount a sound argument that doping in sport had reached its acme almost thirty years ago and the introduction of the WADA Code in 2004 combined with more effective policing and pro secution of athletes taking banned substances is leading to what we all hope for when we watch sport — a level playing field.

That is not to say professional sport in terms of doping is clean but it is cleaner than it was.

Last month UK Athletics called for world track and field records to be reset because of the great suspicion that surrounds those that sit on the books now.

Take women’s track and field events. From the 1500m down all records were set in the 1980s and 90s with the exception of one event, the 400m hurdles.

There are a number of world records in women’s track and field events that are clearly not legitimate.

The record for the women’s discus throw was set in 1988 by East German athlete, Gabriele Reinsch with a throw of 76.80 metres. Not one female thrower has broken 70 metres this century.

American sprinter, Florence Griffith-Joyner, still holds the 100m and 200m sprint records, both obtained in 1988 — the latter set at the Seoul Olympics, the so-called ‘Dirty Games’. Griffith-Joyner maintained she never took drugs but the dramatic changes to her physique told a different tale. She retired from competition after the Seoul Games. Random drug testing of IAAF athletes commenced the following year.

She died in 1998 aged 38.

East German athlete, Marita Koch broke the 400m world record at the World Championships in Canberra in 1985 with a time of 47.60 seconds. Her recorded 100 and 200 metre splits of 11.3 and 22.4 seconds would have qualified her for the women’s 100m and 200m sprints at the 2012 Olympics in London.

One of the great ironies of communist East Germany’s State Plan 14.25 — a program designed to shovel performance enhancing drugs into their athletes, is you couldn’t run Koch’s time driving around in a Trabant then or now.

These records need to stand both as a testament to cheating and as a marker for questionable achievement in future.

Doping may be on the decline while the pernicious effects of match and spot fixing are clearly still with us.

Match fixing is pervasive and difficult to police by nature. Last night the ABC’s Four Corners program ran an exposé on match and spot fixing on the professional tennis circuit. The show made some claims about tennis players on the fringes of the ITP circuit without naming many but went on to uncover what stands as the biggest threat to the integrity of professional sport — unregulated betting agencies taking millions of dollars in bets on sporting events around the world.

The Australian has been reporting on some questionable matches, including one played at the Australian Open less than a fortnight ago.

Not only do these illicit betting agencies refuse to co-operate with authorities, they engage in money laundering with organised criminal syndicates.

For many years gambling has been used as a means of laundering money, taking the black money from various criminal activities and washing it clean through a bookmaker. It was a rule of thumb that if $60 came back clean from a $100 of dirty money wagered, that was a decent outcome for those involved.

Forty years ago, greyhound racing was literally awash with black money. Harness racing faced a similar problem in the 1980s. Legal casinos now face the problem everyday and are inclined to take the gambler’s money without caring much about where the dough has come from.

Indeed it was said of harness racing that when Australia’s king of race fixing, George Freeman was about, there wasn’t a trotting meet anywhere in the country where one or more race on the card was bent.

The important lesson here is that level of contrivance and cheating effectively destroyed what integrity harness racing may have had. Legitimate punters simply walked away from the sport. Harness racing has never recovered.

The online unregulated bookmakers offer a similar service to that which Freeman enjoyed in the 1970s and 80s; the opportunity not just of washing money and obtaining a smaller return but where crime groups are able to predetermine the outcome of a sporting event, they not only come away with clean money but more of it.

In practical terms there is little Australian authorities can do about online unregulated bookmakers who run off shore, often out of hotel rooms with a handful of laptops and a bank of plasma screen TVs. The best option is to co-operate and share information with other jurisdictions and hope for the broad sweep of US federal investigators to move in. Even then it’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole.

But the rules are the same as they were in Freeman’s day. If a sport loses its integrity through match fixing or widespread doping, spectators and television audiences simply move on.

We have the template for this via one of the world’s most lucrative sports, Major-league Baseball.

The problems can be traced back to the players’ strike of 1994-95. It was only when the dispute was resolved that the governing body, MLB, believed the industrial landscape was too fraught to consider implementing an anti-doping policy. An anti-doping policy had not been in place in the MLB since 1985.

And so it became open slather on doping. Big hitters became bigger hitters. For a brief moment, the US was gripped with a fascinating dual over a number of seasons between Mark McGwire at the St Louis Cardinals and Barry Bonds at the San Francisco Giants tonking the ball out of the park on a regular basis. McGwire broke the season home run record in 1998 with 70 home runs. Three years later Bonds smashed it with 73.

Both men were juiced up on steroids.

In 2004, the MLB agreed to a moratorium on drug testing. In that season players in the major and minor leagues were tested but no punishments were applied. Results from that period reveal seven per cent of players were using steroids and an astonishing 78 per cent were using some type of banned substance.

To this day the National Baseball Hall of Fame has chosen to avoid handing hall of fame status to players from that period.

Most importantly, attendances at games went into a deep trough and television audiences shrank. People knew they were being conned and wouldn’t have a bar of it.

This is the soundest argument you can make for the WADA code and the tough policing of doping in professional sport and why the match fixers need to be sent packing.

The salutary lesson for all sports administrators is if you build it they will come but if you degrade and debase it, they will turn away.

By Jack The Insider

Reprinted with permission of The Australian

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