September 2, 2010

Sport's greatest evil

Match-fixing erodes the basis on which sport is founded, because it undermines uncertainty; which is why it is a bigger crime than the use of performance-enhancing drugs

Amid all the angst and anger that followed News of the World's allegations of spot-fixing against Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, there are doubtless many who have been tempted to find succour in the fact that, for all Asif's own seemingly sterling efforts, cricket has yet to be scarred by a damaging drugs scandal. At the risk of tempting fate and unleashing a rash of steroid-nourished bowlers cracking skulls at 120mph, this should be resisted.

Once promoted as training for war, sport, thanks in good part to Baron de Coubertin's original Olympic mission statement, evolved in its principles into an idealised version of society. On several levels it has been an improvement - respect for opponents and rules, teamwork, courage, persistence, patience and, in most cases, an abiding meritocracy. Unfortunately, if inevitably, the more businesslike sport becomes, the more it embraces society's deadliest weakness, greed. And the greedier it becomes, the more it betrays us, the audience without whose passion and pockets it could not exist in any worthwhile way.

Despite the impressive recent inroads made by corporate corruption, notably the owners who see nothing whatsoever amiss in fixing player auctions, putting profits before on-field success, milking public funds for new stadia or using their plaything for religious and political ends, the most destructive manifestations of sporting greed are still considered to be match-fixing and performance-enhancing drugs. The question is not so much "How could this happen?" as "Why doesn't it happen more often?"

To highlight the differences between match-fixing and PEDs, let's compare the two current causes celebre - the Lord's no-balls and the perjury charges facing Roger Clemens, the most decorated pitcher in the history of American baseball.

The Mitchell Report into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, published in 2007, mentioned Clemens, one of scores of players cited, no fewer than 85 times. It gave substance to long-held doubts about the cause of his astonishing durability (he was still chinning batters with fastballs when he retired at 45). Brian McNamee, his former strength and conditioning coach at the Toronto Bluejays and New York Yankees, testified that he had injected Clemens with human growth hormone and other steroids; Andy Pettitte, once a team-mate in New York and Houston, told Congress that Clemens had admitted to him that he had taken HGH. Last month Clemens, consistently vehement in his denials, was indicted for perjury, false statement and obstruction of Congress, which could see him spend 15 to 21 months in jail. On Tuesday he pleaded not guilty on all counts. Indeed, he was adamant that he was looking forward to his day in court. The prosecution claims to have "extensive scientific evidence" and a "voluminous" case.

Let's be candid. Clemens is not a likeable chap. While his generosity towards fans is seldom acknowledged, even rarer have been the occasions when he has he felt any compunction to endear himself. Being an intensely proud, no-nonsense Texan is not something for which he is about to apologise. Self-love comes easy. He refers to himself not in the first person, or even the third, but by his nickname. The names of all four of his sons begin with a K, the symbol for a strikeout - Koby, Kory, Kacy and Kody. All of which explains why, for all the fans whose trust and illusions would be smithereened, many others would be delighted should the charges stick.

Like Barry Bonds, another baseball god battling perjury charges over HGH use, Clemens has attracted a fraction of the sympathy heaped on Amir. The Pakistani is a seemingly naïve teenager on the launchpad to greatness, whom no true lover of the game wants to see fall; Bonds and Clemens are perceived as arrogant, cynical multi-millionaires who have achieved virtually everything they set out to do.

Granted, accusing fingers should also be pointed at the managers and owners who turned a blind eye while the drug abusers were doing such a grand job resurrecting interest, filling grounds and hoisting profits following the players' strike of 1994-95, but it is still impossible to imagine that Clemens and Bonds, if guilty, could have acted as they did out of fear. It is all too easy to believe that Amir, if he did agree to deliver those notorious no-balls, was spurred by precisely that.

TRUST IS THE KEY. In contrast with all other popular cultural pursuits, a sporting contest stands or falls on uncertainty. We, the audience, are buying admission, via turnstile or cable channel, into a world of comparative innocence. We want to check in our scepticism at the door, want to know that even the smallest David has a chance of felling the biggest Goliath. We take it on trust, whatever the final score, that the result has not been perverted, distorted or pre-determined, that we are not about to be deceived. We trust that the protagonists are on the level. We trust that whenever they do cheat they do so visibly, and can therefore be punished appropriately and quickly (even, sometimes, when the cheating benefits our own team). We also trust that their objectives are transparent. Wherein lies the difference between using drugs to boost performance and seeking to profit from purposeful failure.

How often can the joy of watching a riveting match be swept away by an unstemmable tide of suspicion before trust becomes unfeasible?

Notwithstanding the world records and championships pirated by the likes of Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, and for all that widespread abuse has destroyed the credibility of athletics and cycling for many others besides this ex-observer, drugs guarantee nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. And until the day an Olympic favourite knowingly injects his backside with a potion that makes him run slower (yes, horses have been treated thus, but that's hardly their choice), the very least we can say in favour of PEDs is that taking them is evidence of the taker's determination to win, however unsavoury.

Which is why match-fixing gnaws even more insistently and deeply at the sporting soul. And why spot-fixing, micro-fixing, call it what you will, is barely the lesser of two evils. The word "fix" is no accident: the aim is to eliminate uncertainty. When a player intentionally underperforms by adhering to a preconceived script, whether for an entire match or for the split-second it takes to overstep a crease, when the objective is no longer doing his job to the best of his ability, in pursuit of victory - or at least a draw - he erodes our trust. Even when the motivation is not greed. One hundred summers ago, Philadelphia's Napoleon Lajoie and Detroit's Ty Cobb were competing for the American League batting title: so reviled was Cobb, the greatest baseballer of the era, that Jack O'Connor, manager of the St Louis Browns, ordered his third baseman to play deep and hence allow Lajoie to obtain enough hits to pip his arch rival. O'Connor was speedily sacked, and justly so. However many people might have empathised with the motive, he had still defrauded the public.

A violent racist with few friends, who carried a gun wherever he went and wielded the spikes on his boots to intimidate and maim opponents, Cobb has been labelled baseball's "Black Stain". Hansie Cronje is his cricketing counterpart, albeit for contrasting reasons. His enthusiasm for scriptwriting left a dark legacy: we no longer know what, or who, to trust. That is why, whenever we hear allegations about the ethics of his successors, we are so quick to assume guilt, so willing to uncover the fire beneath the smoke. That's what happens when trust erodes.

Yes, much the same applies to the Ben Johnson legacy, but again, there is a vital difference. Plenty of sane voices have advocated that PEDs be permitted - nobody cares if Bob Dylan wrote "Like A Rolling Stone" on acid or Martin Scorsese directed Raging Bull between cocaine binges; besides, wouldn't it be kinder and wiser to invest the millions spent on testing in helping the casualties? Allowing match-fixing, conversely, is hardly the sort of suggestion one expects from the owner of a fully functioning brain.

How often can the joy of watching a riveting match be swept away by an unstemmable tide of suspicion before trust becomes unfeasible? Ten years after Cronjegate, thus does cricket's principal dilemma remain.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton