There's never a good time for scandal, but the departure Sept. 16 of two bosses from the Renault Formula One team over allegations the team had instructed one of its drivers to deliberately crash in a race last year couldn't have come at a worse time for the sport. In the wake of a threatened walkout by teams fuming at new cost-cutting rules, public squabbling over Formula One's leadership and an episode of spying, the latest revelation could tar the image of motor sport's blue-ribbon event irreparably. The collision by Renault's Nelson Piquet Jr. during the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix enabling his teammate to snatch an unlikely victory endangered the driver, his rivals, race marshals and even the spectators. It was, wrote the Times of London's Simon Barnes "the worst single piece of cheating in the history of sport."
And yet it was more than that. In tough economic times, we rely on sport's sense of fairness, its heroes, for much needed relief. The worlds of business and finance and politics seem to be so full of deception that we like to grasp onto the idea naïve though this may be that a football match or a motor race can provide a moment of liberation from all that. So when sportsmen or women cheat scandals have sullied the image of baseball, cricket, cycling, rugby and soccer in recent times the disservice to fans, and the damage done to sports, is far deeper. Cheating doesn't just hurt sports but betrays our sense of what's right, what's fairly attainable. It punches us straight in our optimism.
True, athletes have overstepped the bounds for as long as games have been played: U.S. runner Fred Lorz hitched a ride in a car to win the 1904 Olympic marathon in St Louis; it's 90 years since a handful of Chicago White Sox players threw baseball's World Series. But in hard times, many sports have a history of showing the way. One of the reasons we follow teams is for the neat shot at resolution it can provide. Whatever else you may be struggling with in your life, watching your team fight another fairly and by the same set of rules offers a welcome victory over ambiguity regardless of who wins. In a painful recession it's not surprising that "people find an escape in [sport]," says Richard Crepeau, a history professor specializing in sport at the University of Central Florida. It offers the means "to get away from the difficulties of the moment."
Take the Great Depression of the 1930s. While attendance at U.S. baseball and football fixtures slumped, the games' following through newspapers and radio took off. Stories of gritty players overcoming adversity to triumph on the field were printed "almost ad nausea," says Crepeau. From the economic misery, heroes offered a diversion. When Joe Louis fought back to beat German Max Schmeling for the world heavyweight boxing crown in 1938, he later said, "the whole damned country was depending on me." Australia's greatest Depression heroes were a cricket player and a horse. Populated by local working class heroes, English soccer "provided a sense of national wellbeing at a time when other factors weren't able to do that," says Matthew Taylor, a professor of history at De Montfort University in Leicester.
Professional sports have changed a lot since the dark days of the Depression. Downturn or not, it's no longer cheap to follow a team first hand. Gentrified soccer stadiums and ballparks lean more heavily on corporate dollars than the wallet of the average fan. What's more, figuring out who's a real star, when so many top athletes are marketed as one, has never been trickier. But millions of fans still crave the distraction sport can offer: witness the frenzy that followed Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's electrifying performances at this summer's World Championship in Athletics.
Cheating betrays that following. At a time when its fans most needs their heroes, athletes and football players and racecar drivers have to understand that their responsibilities go beyond just winning a game or collecting their massive pay check. They carry our hopes. When they cheat on the field, they cheat us.