Book review: Cheat by Titus O'Reily

Celebrating a history of cheating

When Pakistani cricket great Imran Khan was caught tampering with a ball in 1981, he showed no remorse, saying everybody did it.

"This was the first indication Khan would go on to have a highly successful career in politics."

Not satisfied with a brilliant exposé into Australia's infatuation with gambling, Melbourne author, comedian and unofficial AFL watchdog Titus O'Reily has turned his unique perspective on another sporting vice.

Cheat ($34.99, Penguin) is an entertaining chronicle of the full gamut of result manipulation, from fiendish to foolish, subtle to stupid.

For instance, get this ...

A century ago, Bob Skelton was one of Australia's best known racehorse owners and gamblers. But when he sent a horse out at Randwick with a jockey called John Nugent who nobody had heard of, punters stayed well clear, allowing Skelton to back the horse so heavily that it soon became favourite. After it cantered to victory, observers noticed that Nugent bore more than a passing resemblance to top jockey Mick Hayes. At the resulting stewards' inquiry, Skelton produced a legal document showing that Hayes had changed his name to Nugent by deed poll the day before.

Stewards could show no rule they had broken and with his winnings, Skelton paid for Nugent to change his name back to Hayes.

Mastering the art of result manipulation

Contrast that ingenuity to the sorry tale of Tom Williams, the rugby winger instructed to use a fake blood capsule bought from a local joke shop in order to allow specialist kicker Nick Evans on the ground as Harlequins chased a late drop goal. Not only did Williams do as instructed, but then winked at the bench while on film, allowed the club doctor to cut his lip in the changerooms to produce some real blood and then went along with the doomed lengthy club cover-up.

As would be expected, there's the rogues' gallery of the usual cheat suspects: Lance Armstrong (a lengthy chapter called 'Possibly the worst person in sport'), Ben Johnson, Tonya Harding, the Spanish Paralympic basketball team who were devoid of both disability and shame, John Hopoate, Diego Maradona, Fine Cotton, East Germany, Russia, six of the top nine finishers (and counting) from the women's 1500m at the 2012 Olympics and cricket's finest from Douglas Jardine to Cameron Bancroft.

But there are also plenty of lesser known examples equally deserving of recognition, such as: Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas who took a leaf out of Tom Williams' book and faked injury with a concealed razor blade; a whole host of glue-sniffing table tennis players; world champion pentathlete Boris Onischenko and his self-scoring sword; colourful Olympique de Marseille owner and match-fixer Bernard Tapie ("colourful" is a regular euphemism for corrupt); Cincinnati Reds pitcher Pedro Borbon, who bit so many opponents that he became known as "the Dominican Dracula"; and the 1904 Olympic marathon in St Louis - surely the Mona Lisa of sport cheating,

It becomes apparent that O'Reily has genuine admiration for the cheats.

"We really should acknowledge the inventiveness of the world's best sporting cheats. Creatively, they're right up there with the world's great artists - they see things differently. Their imagination is not constrained by pesky moral boundaries. Natural ability doesn't constrain them, it's something for them to overcome."

And he doesn't hold back when it comes to the planet's biggest sporting events.

"Some things just go together. Bacon and eggs, mac and cheese, politicians and lying, and perhaps the best combination of all, the Olympic Games and cheating."

And as for the Tour de France: "Every form of cheating has been tried over time: transport, sabotage, violence, illegal equipment, substance abuse and systematic doping programs are as much a part of the race as the beautiful French scenery."

In addition to exposing cheating, this also sheds light on the often equally-contemptible attempts by authorities to excuse it.

This ranges from the International Paralympic Committee responding to the Spanish basketball fiasco by banning all intellectually-impaired athletes to WADA's decision to simply forward all of whistle-blowing discus thrower Darya Pishchalnikova's emails to the Russian authorities - who promptly banned her for 10 years.

"The problem is that not only does cheating happen in the shadows, far too often when sporting administrators discover it and try to tackle it, the investigations continue in the shadows too.

"When it comes to sporting administrators and cheating, they are like someone who is surprised each morning when the sun comes up."

Subtitled "The not-so subtle art of conning your way to sporting glory", this is a splendid read, every bit as enjoyable as O'Reily's last offering, Please Gamble Irresponsibly.

As with his previous projects, it combines extensive research with trademark O'Reily observations such as how professional athletes talk about gamesmanship like banks talk about customer care or this about spectators at car rallies: "Standing next to a road where almost out-of-control cars are being driven at breakneck speed seems to me to be natural selection at work."

He also dispels the accepted theory of which athletes are inclined to bend the rules.

"Most cheating, you would assume, is done by athletes struggling to stay up with the competition, or to get that final edge to make them the best. Illogically, this isn't always the case. Quite regularly, it is the best athletes who cheat, even though they're already good enough to beat everyone else."

Cheat ($34.99, Penguin) by Titus O'Reily

This story Celebrating a history of cheating first appeared on The Examiner.