Despicable them: sport’s worst cheaters

Manchester City and the Houston Astros are latest inductees into the sports hall of shame.

Dirty, rotten cheats.

Calculated, cynical, premeditated, habitual, recidivist, despicable cheats.

Committed cheats.

Add Manchester City and the Houston Astros to a gallery of shame occupied for all eternity by Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, the Australian cricket team, Russia, the Eastern Bloc, Harlequins Rugby Club, the Melbourne Storm, the Warriors, the fully-abled Spanish disabled basketball team, Rosie Ruiz, Barry Bonds, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, to name quite a few.

The list of players and entities that have set out to defraud the world, cheat their opponents and dishonour themselves in the pursuit of sporting victory is depressingly extensive.

The eruptions on either side of the Atlantic recently – which have seen Manchester City banned from European competition for two years for cooking the books, and the Astros flailing and failing to defend their legacy for stealing the 2017 World Series – are two of the more egregious examples of mankind’s moral turpitude.

So often lauded for its ability to amplify humanity’s brighter side, sport is equally likely to beam its light into our darker recesses.

Once again, it has been revealed for what it truly is: a haven for morally bankrupt charlatans.

Manchester City’s transgression was depressingly predictable – mainly because they’d committed it before. Owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and a member of Abu Dhabi's royal family, City has never felt any particular compulsion to abide by the rules as it has flat-out purchased success.

In a sport where buying one’s way to glory is standard practice, City perhaps have reason to feel bemused by their fate.

But even in the silly money world of professional football there are rules. In this case, Financial Fair Play (FFP) rule exist to save over-ambitious clubs from themselves.

Introduced in 2011 to prevent clubs spending beyond their means in pursuit of success in a way that might compromise their long-term survival, the FFP rules force clubs to keep losses to within permitted limits over a three-year period.

City first transgressed in 2014, but dodged a ban, instead paying a fine that equated to 1,066,666 barrels of oil – less than a third of the daily production of the UAE, as it happens.

This time around, having been outed by a German newspaper for over-stating the level of sponsorship received by Etihad Airways in 2018, City have had the book thrown at them in the form of a crushing two-year ban.

City insists it will take its case to the highest sporting court on the planet – the Court of Arbitration in Sport – in a bid to overturn UEFA’s unjust ruling.

Two points on that: it isn’t and it won’t.

Having banned Galatasaray and AC Milan and fined Paris St Germain (and City) for similar offences, UEFA has strong precedent on its side.

More importantly, it isn’t CAS that will cast ultimate judgement on City – it is the court of public opinion.

That, as it happens, is where the darlings-turned-dastardly Astros are fighting their losing battle.

A small town team who apparently achieved remarkable success by drafting and nurturing the best young players in the game, the Astros were unmasked (once again by a news organisation) late last year as the most cynical, persistent of cheaters.

The Astros’ crime was the premeditated stealing of opposing teams’ signs – signals made by the catcher to the pitcher to confirm what type of pitch was coming next.

Just like buying big in football, sign stealing in baseball is actually kind of okay. It has always been done, but typically to little effect, and certainly not in any sustained manner.

Enter the Astros of 2017 – who hit upon the idea of stationing a TV camera at centrefield to focus on the catcher, and beaming the feed directly to a monitor in the dugout, placed there to help teams decide whether to challenge close umpiring decisions.

The system was rounded out with a player or club official banging on a trash can to alert the hitter as to what pitch was coming next.

In a sport where identifying the pitch type is crucial to hitting it, the system delivered an outrageous advantage.

The Astros duly won the World Series, and were lauded for their brilliance.

Until they got caught.

The club sacked its general manager and top coach, however no players were punished as they were offered amnesty for co-operating with MLB’s belated investigation.

It’s worth noting here that both of these scandals – like pretty much every sporting scandal – was laid bare by the news media.

In the case of the Astros, sports website The Atlantic used a whistleblower, former pitcher Mike Fiers, to blow the trashcan lid off a programme of systemic cheating employed by the club for at least two full seasons.

Having escaped punishment, and with the baseball season approaching, Astros players are now seeking to minimise their appalling behaviour by claiming that some – such as 2017 batting champion Jose Altuve – didn’t ever want to cheat, didn’t cheat all that much, and ultimately opted out of the cheating.

Oh, and that the cheating wasn’t always the decisive factor in games, anyway.

Parents, tell your children everything is actually okay, then.

It’s hard not to contrast this behaviour with that of Israel Adesanya, the first Kiwi combat sports athlete to be recognised by the Halberg judges.

At the annual gathering of NZ sport’s great and good, Adesanya delivered a stirring speech calling on Kiwis to celebrate all sporting successes, not just those of the codes they were most interested in.

"Understand this, if you see one of us shining – whether it be the netball team, the Black Caps, the sailors – pump them up, embrace them, because if they win, we win. If I win, you win,” he said in a speech clearly aimed over the heads of the attendees and into the lounges of the not-so-great and not-so-good.

If the Halberg set had expected Adesanya to be humbled into submission by their approval and not bite the hand that had just fed him, they picked the wrong Afro-Kiwi KO-artist.

Adesanya and his blood-soaked sport might not be everyone’s cup of Horlicks, but when the UFC Middleweight champion of the world fights, he fights fair. He fights with honour, grace, skill and courage. When he wins, sport wins.

Just as when the cheats prosper, we all lose.

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