Organisers of the 2012 London Olympics have been doing the hard sell in recent months. The tickets were handed out and we then entered the home straight, and the build-up will, of course, continue until the opening ceremony next July. Naturally, the focus will be on the myth-making, the feel-good stories, the local heroes, the purity of honest competition, the theatre of elite sport. But, last month, the BBC aired allegations of a plot to fix the boxing event, undermining the official account of all things Olympic.
Newsnight broadcast an in-depth exposé, claiming Azerbaijani officials had paid several million pounds in return for a guarantee that their fighters would win two gold medals at next year’s Games. The allegations are now the subject of an ongoing investigation, but the report still delivered a jarring reminder that, in the realm of elite sport, there will always be dirty tricks.
It was in April 2000 that cricket irreversibly lost its innocence. Sure, there had been whispers of illegal bookmaking and approaches to players on the sub-continent, but few would have predicted that Hansie Cronje (main image), South Africa’s proud captain, would become the biggest casualty of corruption in cricket. Initially, Cronje denied charges that he was in cahoots with an Indian betting syndicate and had accepted large sums of cash to influence results and coax players to under-perform. But the evidence mounted up and, later that year, Cronje was banned for life. In June 2002, he was killed in a plane crash. Because of the shadowy forces surrounding Cronje, there remains speculation the crash was something other than a horrible accident.
Chicago White Sox and ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson
It was nearly 100 years ago, but the so-called ‘Black Sox scandal’ remains a cornerstone of baseball folklore. It was the 1919 World Series, between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. After the Reds won the nine-game series 5-3, it emerged eight Chicago players had conspired to throw games in return for a total of US$100,000. Lifelong bans were dished out to the players involved, including ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, who has come to personify the scandal – there is the apocryphal tale of a kid imploring Jackson, ‘say it ain’t so, Joe’, as well as persistent conjecture about whether Jackson, one of the stars of the game, was in fact involved in the match-fixing.
Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan
It happened 17 years ago, but there remains a uniquely vivid weirdness about this tale of toxic rivalry and thwarted ambition, climaxing in a plume of unexpected violence. If Shakespeare was into ice-skating, he would have been all over this one. In 1994, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were vying for a spot on the US team for the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. One month before the event, though, Kerrigan was attacked at the US Championships and clubbed with a baton on her right knee. It soon emerged that Harding’s ex-husband had been involved in arranging the attack – what Harding knew and when she knew remain disputed, but the governing body of figure skating was sufficiently convinced of her complicity to ban her for life.
When, in the summer of 2010, News Of The World – remember them? – caught a sports agent in a spectacular sting, capturing him on camera counting a pile of money to bribe players, while making detailed predictions about specific deliveries in Pakistan’s match against England, the scourge of spot-fixing was laid bare. Three players, Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer, received lengthy bans as a result. Still, the scandal reinforced two broader concerns: firstly, the disparity in wealth between Pakistani cricketers and those in Australia, England or India means players will always be tempted by a quick buck; secondly, how feckless is the ICC if it falls to a British tabloid to police the integrity of the sport?
Juventus and Serie A
Football supporters the world over have long found themselves muttering under their breath about the “cheating bloody Italians”, and the so-called Calciopoli scandal of 2006 seemed to give credence to persistent suspicions about a culture of dodginess in Italian football. Italian police uncovered a far-reaching network of referees and club officials, who used their contacts to influence the outcome of matches. Five clubs – AC Milan, Juventus, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina – faced charges and, although initially harsh sentences were watered down on appeal, Juventus were stripped of their two Serie A titles and relegated from the top flight. If only the court had been able to prevent Fabio Grosso from diving to milk a penalty against Australia at the 2006 World Cup. Cheating bloody Italians.
The Spanish basketballers who won gold at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney were eventually forced to return their medals after an inquiry found most of the team were, in fact, not disabled at all. Spain beat Russia in the competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities – team members were supposed to have IQs no higher than 70 – but Carlos Ribagorda, an undercover journalist, later revealed no testing had been conducted to confirm eligibility and that the majority of the players, along with competitors in table tennis, athletics and swimming, had no disability. As a result of Spain’s deception, the category for competitors with intellectual disabilities was removed from the Paralympics.