To mark the impending 25th anniversary of the 1988 Seoul Olympic 100-meter final—where as you may recall the winner, Ben Johnson, ran into a spot of bother with the dope testers—a documentary about that fateful race is being released this week entitled, “9.79,” which was the world record set by the Canadian who has since become a byword for cheating in sport.
The film-maker, Daniel Gordon, has managed to speak to all eight competitors and, apparently, each has maintained that he, and he alone, was running drug-free on that occasion. A fascinating, if depressing puzzle.
Reflecting on what might be learned from his latest work, Gordon commented: “We love the Olympics, we love the World Cup, we love these huge events. We always want more. But the idea of purity is absolute nonsense. We’re projecting something onto our heroes when, since the beginning of sport in ancient Greece, it has always been unfair and competitors have always taken whatever advantage they can. So the idea of purity is nonsense. We have to look at sport with our eyes open.”
Which raises two fundamental questions. First—does this mean there is no such thing as purity anywhere within sport? And secondly—why do we expect or wish for that to be the case?
To address the second question first: one of the conundrums of cheating is that its discovery causes such dismay, given that it is as old as time, or at least as old as humans. As Gordon correctly maintains, cheating in sport has its own long history.
Doping and money are the two most influential elements of cheating in sport, the prime movers in foul play. Both were potent forces in the ancient Olympics, although in fairness the doping which steeped much of the activity could not be described at the time as cheating as there was no equivalent of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in existence. Had there been, such a body would doubtless have been involved in lengthy cases involving items such as sheep’s testicles—heavy on the testosterone—which were the supplement of choice for those wishing to improve their strength and endurance back in the day.
Galen, a physician who described the customs of the day in the third century AD, reported that certain Olympic competitors had sought to enhance their performance by drinking “the rear hooves of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil and flavored with rosehips and petals.”
Whether this concoction would find its way into the WADA code nowadays is a moot point. But the anti-doping code would surely have little to say about another of the reputed performance enhancers of ancient sporting times—the practice of drinking a combination of sweat, oil and dust scraped from the skin of Olympic champions immediately after their moment of glory.
Eupolos of Thessaly was the first recorded wrongdoer in the history of the ancient Games—he was found guilty of bribing boxers in the 98th Olympiad.
Fourteen Olympiads later, Callippus Of Athens attempted to buy off his competitors in the pentathlon. And at the 226th Olympics two Egyptian boxers, Didas andSarapammons, were fined for fixing the outcome of their match.
So much for the purity of the ancient Games. But hang on. How do we know about these transgressions? Because they were exposed, and the perpetrators punished. These wrongdoings, and subsequent efforts, were recorded on bronze statues of Zeus erected over the years on the road which athletes took into the stadium at Olympia, where the Games had taken place since 776 BC. These statues were financed through fines levied on Olympic competitors found to have cheated, and were inscribed with the names of the guilty
parties along with the details of their misdeeds.
This information was accompanied by messages warning others not to cheat and insisting that victory was to be earned through skill and effort rather than by money or other underhand means. Here, then, was early graphic evidence of cheating in sport—and also of the desire to eradicate it.
Let’s shift our gaze from BC to AD, onto the sporting events of this very week. Croatian tennis player Marin Čilić is facing a nine-month ban from the sport having been found to have taken a banned stimulant. Meanwhile, there is controversy over the decision to reduce the standard two-year ban on Serbian player Viktor Troicki to 18 months after he refused to take a blood test.
And in snooker, former Tour event winner Stephen Lee has been found guilty of match-fixing charges involving seven games in 2008 and 2009 and faces punishment from the sport’s world governing body.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
But what has also remained constant along with sporting misdemeanours is the desire to eradicate them. Take the Lee case. Once the verdict was confirmed, former world champion Neil Robertson insisted: “There is no other option than a life ban,” adding: “We have to show zero tolerance on match and frame fixing…There may have been players offered things in smaller events, and this should cut all of that out.”
Robertson went on to differentiate fixing in his sport to cheating which has famously occurred in other sports such as cycling and athletics. “It is greed or financial difficulty that makes people fix matches, not gaining an edge over rivals, so it is different from say Lance Armstrong or Ben Johnson.”
There Ben is again, Mr. Byword. But Robertson’s reaction also stands as an archetype of those within sport who do believe in purity, and in maintaining purity. Let’s not be cynical here. Both motivations will always exist within the human frame.
Mike Rowbottom covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames.biz. Contact him at email@example.com. Inside the Games is an online blog of the London Organizing Committee that staged the 2012 London Games. The blog continues to cover issues that are important to the Olympic Movement. This article is reprinted here with permission of the blog editors.