Games of deceit

Cheating in sports Corked bats. Corked bodies. Drug scandals. Academic fraud. Athletic fraud. Athletes, it seems, have been looking for a crooked edge forever. And it may be getting worse.

By Ed Graney
Union-Tribune
July 11, 2004

The 2004 Olympics begin Aug. 13 in Athens, and in the oldest part of the sports grounds at Olympia is a temple to Pelops, founder of the Games and grandson to Zeus.

The story goes, Pelops sought the affections of Hippodameia, a princess whose royal father decreed that to win her hand any suitor had to first defeat him in a chariot race. Twelve others had unsuccessfully tried to win such a competition.

You knew this because their skulls were nailed to the palace gates.

Fortunately for Pelops, Hippodameia returned his feelings of love. The two conspired to have the metal wheels of her father's chariot replaced with wax, which would melt during the oppressive heat.

This happened and King Oenomaus was thrown from his chariot, became entangled in the reins and was dragged to his death.

Pelops had won his lady with a strategy that has long been a vital component of sport.

He cheated.

Thousands of years later, those trying to deceive others in hopes of gaining a competitive advantage are more sophisticated in their methods but not their intent. Society, it seems, has become a habitat for dishonesty.

The chairman of a global manufacturing and service company is accused of looting his employees and investors of $600 million. Sixth-graders pirate music and films off the Internet. A celebrated historian plagiarizes another's manuscript. Even the world's most famous gardener, a woman who built a billion-dollar empire by combining the practical with the fantastic for years, was convicted of obstructing justice and lying to investigators about a well-timed stock sale.

And the insatiable hunger to get ahead is no different in sports.

Think about it: Has a day passed the last few years when you haven't read or heard about athletes and cheating?

Corked bats. Steroids. Academic fraud. Illegal recruiting contacts. Shaving points. Even the popular abbreviation RBI has been replaced with the not-so-admired THG. And now, as the world readies to descend upon Athens next month, you can expect more allegations of wrongdoing before, during and after the Games.

In fact, few areas of competition at any level have been spared this massive epidemic. Or don't you remember Danny Almonte, the Little Leaguer old enough to have a thicker five o'clock shadow than Colin Farrell?

"The way I look at it, I don't care what walk of life you're talking about, there is always going to be a subsection of people who are going to try to get ahead by cheating," said Padres second baseman Mark Loretta. "That's why our jails are full of criminals. Baseball or sports of any kind are no different. It's life in general. There always are going to be people who cheat."

History is crammed with instances of such, and athletes have spared zero effort discovering ingenious ways to dupe others, from recreational hack golfers to Olympic gold medalists.

Want gambling? Few scandals have produced the social effect of 1919, when eight players from the Chicago White Sox were allegedly bribed to throw the World Series against Cincinnati. The Black Sox incident not only stained the game's reputation, but also eliminated much of its innocence. Decades later, Pete Rose (even though it took him 15 years to fess up) finally admitted to betting on baseball, including on the Reds while he was manager.

Want criminal? Tonya Harding might have been figure skating's nightmare at the U.S. nationals in 1994, but she was a screenwriter's dream. Harding's sickly pursuit of fame made headlines when she conspired with ex-husband Jeff Gillooly to injure rival skater Nancy Kerrigan.

One club to the leg (administered by a goon named Shane Stant) bought Gillooly two years in prison and Harding a lifetime ban from amateur skating.

Want deception? Maybe those in charge of the Boston Marathon in 1980 should have known something was wrong when Rosie Ruiz reached the finish line without a sweat. Ruiz finished in two hours, 31 minutes, 56 seconds.

A major reason she was the first woman to cross: Ruiz jumped into the race in the last half-mile. She qualified for Boston by posting a terrific time in the New York Marathon by riding the Manhattan subway for much of the distance.

Want bizarre? Stella Walsh was once one of the fastest women in the world and represented her native Poland in the 1932 and '36 Olympics. She had a long and memorable career that included gold and silver medals in the 100 meters, along with 20 world records in various events. But after Walsh was killed in a shooting in 1980, an autopsy revealed she was a he.

Want electronic? Ukrainian Boris Onischenko was a member of the Soviet Army who entered the 1976 Olympics one of the world's leading pentathletes. But in the discipline of fencing, Onischenko wired his sword so that he could register a hit at any time.

The ploy was discovered by a suspicious English opponent named Jim Fox. At the start of his match against Onischenko, Fox leaned back a good six inches on the Ukrainian's first thrust. The scoring light still went on. An investigation followed, and Onischenko was disqualified.

Want pathetic? Take the intellectually disabled Spanish Paralympic basketball team of 2000. The euphoria of winning a gold medal was soon obliterated when it was learned 10 of the team's 12 members had no mental deficiency at all.

On and on, the temptation to cheat has cast unforgettable spells.

The point-shaving scandals of the 1950s within college basketball. The corked bats of Sammy Sosa and Albert Belle. The emery board of Joe Niekro. The envelope of cash meant for a Kentucky basketball recruit in 1988. The "Hand of God" goal of Diego Maradona. The gambling scandal that involved 13 Boston College athletes. The Minnesota booster who ran a bookmaking ring. The alleged vote-swapping deal between figure skating judges from France and Russia in the 2002 Winter Olympics. The death penalty served SMU football in 1986. The misconduct both alleged and acknowledged within the basketball programs at Fresno State, Georgia and St. Bonaventure during the 2003 season.

And here is what experts want you to know: It's not going to stop.

Ever.

"The culture of cheating has become so self-perpetuating in that people think if everyone is doing it, it's a disadvantage not to," said David Callahan, author of "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead."

Added Callahan: "At the broadest level when we go through periods of American history, greed and extreme competition dominate. People will do anything to get on top, to not be considered a chump. They always have. It's human nature to want to be the best, to be the winner."

Callahan's book points out different reasons people cheat among them a culture of sleeping watchdogs (he prefers the letters NCAA) where rules are not enforced. But there is no question what major incentive now compels athletes to dabble in dishonest ways.

Tons and tons of money.

And with cash comes fame. And with fame comes power. And with power comes glory.

The world's best athletes bathe in green water. According to Forbes, the top 50 sports stars in 2004 will earn a collective $1.1 billion, with 40 percent of the take coming from endorsements. Tiger Woods will make an estimated $80.3 million. Peyton Manning is set for $34.5 million.

In Callahan's world, we have become a society divided between a Winning Class (those who are richer than ever and cheat because they can get away with it) and an Anxious Class (those who cheat to stay afloat or move up the financial food chain).

"There is that dynamic fear of falling behind. It's a major problem to have a society where some people get paid so much more than others. It creates envy, and people will do anything not to get left behind. When you're making a few hundred thousand dollars and sitting next to a guy in the locker room who makes $15 million, that creates internal pressures. We are so focused on money. It's a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog world we live in."

So focused on money, many athletes will take the ultimate risk (read: their health and quality of life) to be swimming in the bling, bling.

In fact, some of the world's most accomplished sports stars (Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Jason Giambi) have been linked to a Bay Area-based scandal in which federal indictments charge four men with the distribution of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances.

Welcome to the BALCO era.

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Harry Edwards was about to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago and in a published article he predicted a colossal crisis for sports. He spoke about our greatest athletes and the fields they compete on falling under a dark cloud of suspicion, of a doping disgrace that would achieve ridiculous levels, of steroids becoming as synonymous with athletics as sneakers.

That was 1984.

"You could see it coming even then, that drug use in sports was going to rapidly escalate," said Edwards, a former professor of sociology at Cal. "At the time, there were still just a few bad apples using illegal drugs. But once the money and fame began to expand all of it just got so big."

But long before Bonds' personal trainer was arrested, before the world learned THG stood for the steroid tetrahydrogestrinone, before Mark McGwire educated us on androstenedione, before the state-sanctioned doping of athletes in the former East Germany, before Jones needed high-priced attorneys, before Montgomery's grand jury testimony was leaked, before countless riders in the 1998 Tour de France were fueled up mountain stages by something stronger than Gatorade and before shamed Olympians Ben Johnson and Michelle Smith, there were American marathoners Fred Lorz and Thomas Hicks.

At the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Lorz finished first in the marathon, but it was later discovered he traveled via car from Mile 9 to Mile 20. His gold medal went to Hicks, whom trainers had given a mixture of brandy and strychnine to keep him going.

Hicks won, but nearly died doing so.

In the 1930s, it was about amphetamines. In the 1950s, the Soviets used male hormones to increase the strength and power of their Olympic team. And then came the Americans and the "S" word.

Today, athletes and doping exist in a far more advanced and intricate arena complete with up-to-the-minute masking agents designed to beat tests than when Hicks downed that near-deadly cocktail.

"Look, drugs in sports are only going to get worse because it's impossible to get ahead of the curve," said Edwards. "Reality is, every time they come up with a new test, people have already been working on masking agents for it. I'll guarantee you there are people out there working right now on drugs to beat tests that haven't even been invented.

"Organizations like the USOC and Major League Baseball and the NBA and NFL will only catch so many users. And there are always going to be those athletes who run their risk to get ahead."

Said Padres outfielder Brian Giles: "Obviously, perception of others is something we as athletes can't control, so why let it bother you? People are going to say what they want to say and write what they want to write. But it doesn't mean everyone in sports is doing steroids. It's disappointing when everyone is lumped into the same group."

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Sputnik Monroe was a pro wrestler of the '50s and '60s who defined his style like this: Win if you can, lose if you must, always cheat.

His was considered a narrow viewpoint back then.

Now, it's a prevalent one.

It's a pretty straightforward theory: Fifty years ago, as thousands of servicemen returned to America, our nation's industry expanded to meet peacetime needs. Society was defined by more jobs and corporate development. There wasn't as much pressure to get by and the rewards for cheating were significantly fewer than today. There existed a patriotic sentiment that you could win without cheating.

Today, far more deceitful practices go on, in life and sports.

Which, actually, makes perfect sense.

"It is rational (to cheat) more now than even 20 years ago," said Callahan. "There are no good surveys out there across time about this but there is a mountain of qualitative evidence showing why it is.

"Our culture has changed a lot the last 25 years and not for the better. We have become a more materialistic, more individualistic society. The individualism of the 1960s teamed up with the materialism of the 1980s to create a cultural (environment) hospitable to cutthroat behavior. The 'Me Generation' has met the 'Greed is Good Generation.' "

How many cheaters actually get caught?

If you believe former major league player Chad Curtis, 40-50 percent of baseball players are on steroids. Ken Caminiti, who won the National League MVP Award with the Padres in 1996, admitted to using steroids and called the use by other players "rampant" in a Sports Illustrated article two years ago.

And yet until baseball gets real about its testing policies and the BALCO mess produces more tangible evidence, the public is left only with an athlete's denial.

It's the same with corked bats and shaving points and cheat-sheets for that freshman history final, impossible to really know how much cheating goes on in any area of civilization.

But at some point, don't athletes have to look themselves in the mirror?

"And when that happens at the end of the day," says Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling of those 2002 steroid charges by Caminiti and others, "you would hope that personal morals and ethics come into play."

And if they don't, how much do we really care?

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Maybe you saw "Gladiator." If not, here's one story line: In ancient Rome, gladiator fights were cruel, blood-ridden exhibitions, typically ending in death for the loser. The vanquished could beg for mercy, but the ultimate decision rested with the emperor or hysterical fans.

In other words, followers of their favorite sporting events always have had a stadium in which to voice their opinion.

But whether the rise in cheating has created a sports fan defined by anger or indifference remains debatable. Take your favorite home run hitter who might be juiced out of his mind.

Does it matter he appears more hulk than human if the team is alive in October?

"I think there are people who believe cheating is going on and others who really don't care as long as their team wins," said Richard Lapchick, president and CEO of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. "The majority of American sports fans fall into a category of skepticism. For the most part, it's a broken trust now between fans and athletes.

"Can we win that trust back? It will be a tough road."

Many argue the virtue of sports disappeared when the big money arrived, that our sense of apathy toward the cheating culture will remain stout as long as we are entertained.

Just win, baby. Just win.

"There is just this cynical expectation that athletes will do whatever is necessary to earn the big payoffs," said Jon Entine, author and Emmy-winning television producer who specializes in ethics. "We accept athletes will take greater risks because the rewards are so high. It's the same thing we see when corporate America is willing to fudge its books to stay ahead. It's just the culture out there.

"Sports fans are very fickle depending on how their team is doing."

So we keep paying more for tickets and hot dogs, keep setting attendance records, keep wearing the throwback jerseys, keep purchasing pay-per view packages, keep feeding our addiction, keep raising new generations of fans.

Edwards is most concerned with the young ones.

"Many of our children see professional sports as their way out, as a chance to leave the ghetto and live large," he said. "But many kids don't have the institutional support at home they need to make good decisions. So who are they supposed to emulate in today's world? Not politicians or priests or heads of corporations.

"Often, it's an athlete, the same ones who are involved in a domestic dispute or a cheating scandal of some kind. But athletes are made out to be heroes to kids even before most ever step on the field. LeBron James was worth millions before he ever dribbled a ball in the NBA. It's the world we present children, so of course they are going to want a piece of it.

"And, hey, it's not a pretty world."

Made uglier, it appears, by all the cheating.

"People will do anything to get on top, to not be considered a chump. They always have."