With the Olympics almost upon us our thoughts turn inexorably to the art of cheating. And while we should deplore all malignant efforts to gain an unfair advantage, cheating is an integral part of the Olympic story. After all, if, as Damon Runyon said, all life is six-to-five against, who can blame a few for trying to tilt the balance back a bit? Even the ancients did it. The Romans were said to have used their shields to reflect sunlight on to their testicles. This increased their testosterone, and performance levels rose. I wonder if this still works on everyday domestic tasks where performance can be a problem?
Remember the Ukrainian sisters, Tamara and Irina Press, who picked up five track and field Olympic golds between 1960 and 1964? They would certainly never be mistaken for Gisele Bundchen. They smashed umpteen records but their careers came to an end when gender-testing was introduced. The testing was pretty rudimentary: Mary Peters, Britain’s 1972 pentathlon champ, recalls being ‘ordered to lie on the couch and pull my knees up. The doctors then proceeded to undertake an examination which, in modern parlance,-amounted to a grope. Presumably they were looking for hidden testes. They found none and I left.’
But the best cheats think outside the box. Boris Onischenko, another Ukrainian, had won silver in Munich 1972 in the fencing. But he had wired his epée to trigger the electronic scoring with his hand and register a hit at will. This came to light when the British fencer Jim Fox protested that his opponent was scoring without hitting him. The Ukrainian left in disgrace under headlines such as ‘Disonischenko’ and ‘Boris the Cheat’ (what is it about swordsmen called Boris?)
I have run a couple of marathons and spent most of the time longing to grab a lift. In the 1904 St Louis Olympics, the marathon was held over a hilly course on a very hot afternoon. Only 14 of 32 starters made it to the finish, and first home— in the terrific time of 3 hours 13 minutes — was Fred Lorz, from New York. He was about to be given the gold when word got out that he had covered 11 miles in the passenger seat of a car. Lorz said it was all a practical joke, but still got a lifetime ban.
Whenever cheating is going on you can often find our Russian friends. In the 1980 Moscow Games, officials were accused of opening the stadium’s giant gates when Soviet athletes were throwing the javelin, hoping the tailwind would give their spears an extra kick. Looks like it worked too: the gold went to Dainis Kula, a Latvian representing the USSR.
Good to see that West Ham will be playing at the Tesco stadium this season. Presumably fans trying to smuggle in flares or crowbars will be met by a voice saying: ‘Unexpected item in the bagging area’. But it does mark a significant development in what we sentimentalists like to call the Olympic legacy. First, the-Olympic-Stadium is gifted at a peppercorn rent to a rich Premier League club (with adaptations and upgrades paid for by the taxpayer); then it gets named after a supermarket. Baron de Coubertin is surely spinning in his grave at Olympic-record speeds. I suppose West Ham did win us the World Cup once, so we do owe them one. How many Clubcard points for a West Ham win next season, do you think?
Should you change a winning team? Well, the England Test selectors have clearly decided not to, even though three of the top five aren’t shaking the world. One big signing for the future should be the Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq, who has the air of doing the right thing in the right way. It’s unlikely he will tour here again, as he’s 42. But I do hope that someone sees a way of getting him to coach. He is a class act and a fine leader.
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