The bigwigs who run America's Major League Baseball are gearing up for what has become a sadly familiar rite. They will huff and puff self-righteously about ridding the game of the steroid scourge once and for all (not a chance). This time, executives say, they're not fooling around. Some of the biggest names in the game, including the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, are facing lengthy game suspensions - never mind that baseball helped create the very problem it's now so desperate to eradicate.
Sadly, this is not just baseball's predicament. The steroid issue has dogged sport around the globe. Track and field has seen some of its brightest stars - Marion Jones, Ben Johnson and, just last week, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell - disgraced by doping charges. Cycling is still reeling from the downfall of Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis, whose reputations lie in ruins.
The doping menace is just the most egregious form of cheating covered by Mike Rowbottom in his new book, Foul Play: The Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport. The author, who has written about sport for The Times and The Guardian and is chief features writer for insidethegames.biz, is anything if not comprehensive. He looks at all manner of rule bending, from the subtly cynical to the totally outrageous. From doping to illegal betting to match fixing to ungentlemanly - and womanly - acts, it's all in here. "Misdeeds and shady behaviour exist - and have long existed - in almost every form of contest you care to name," Rowbottom writes. "In the so-called big sports - football, rugby, cricket. And in the so-called minor sports - bowls, real tennis, squash, croquet, conkers." Yes, even conkers.
The fans, when confronted with fraudulent activity, cry "Say it ain't so": Rowbottom counsels, "It was ever thus." Consider the athletes of ancient Greece. Far from the paragons of Olympic ideals, they bent the rules to gain competitive advantage. "Sheep's testicles - heavy on the testosterone - [were] the supplement of choice for those wishing to improve their strength," Rowbottom notes. Others looking for a leg up on the competition took a formula, here described by the physician Galen, composed of "the rear hooves of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil and flavoured with rosehips and petals". In the Olympics of 420 BC, a banned chariot racer from Sparta passed off his winning rig under the banner of another state. And so on.
Rowbottom's catalogue of transgressions from more recent times boggles the mind. Doping may be the worst scourge, but it's only one way of bending the rules. Rowbottom recounts the travails of Ben Johnson and others; such sections will seem familiar to anyone who reads the sports pages. But it is money, Rowbottom suggests, that might have a more pernicious and corrosive effect on sport than performance-enhancing drugs.
"Spot-betting", for example, where you can take odds on specific aspects of a competition - the number of free kicks given in a football match, say, or whether a no-ball will be delivered in cricket - has grown into a multibillion-dollar business, a lot of it in illegal bookmaking operations run out of East Asia. This kind of betting has become pervasive, with punters throwing money at an ever more minute array of actions. The temptation for players is considerable. Former Southampton great Matthew Le Tissier admitted that he put money on the timing of the first throw-in in a 1995 fixture against Wimbledon, and altered his play, trying to kick the ball out of bounds soon after kick-off.