Now is the summer of our discontent about cheats made gloriously positive

Notebook by Matthew Syed (THE TIMES, 06/09/2006):

WHEN THE RESULT of Marion Jones’s B-sample is released in the next few days it will almost certainly confirm that one of the world’s greatest athletes, someone who consistently proclaimed her innocence with doe-eyed earnestness, was lying and swindling all along. For many it will provide a fitting finale to what is already being described as the Summer of Cheating.

It’s a label with much to recommend it. A series of headline-grabbing drug busts in athletics have coincided with pervasive match-fixing in Italian football, diving at the World Cup, corruption in horse racing, ball-tampering allegations in cricket, illegal obstruction in Formula One and evidence of widespread blood doping in cycling.

Public cynicism has reached epidemic proportions. When I first competed at table tennis in the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 it was the honour of a lifetime; now many seem to regard the Games as little more than a convention for cheats and junkies. Even some of sport’s most eloquent admirers have resorted to apocalyptic imagery, with one highly regarded columnist concluding that we have reached “the logical end of sport”.

Thankfully, there is no need for such mortal despondency. The idea that sport is in ethical decline is not merely misguided but perverse, stemming from the same rose-tinted view of history that causes Daily Mail leader writers to claim that Britain is losing its moral bearings.

Sport, and, for that matter, wider society, has become more ethical, not less. Consider for a moment that the most popular spectator sport in Ancient Rome — the gladiatorial arena — was an exercise in mass murder masquerading as entertainment for the patrician classes. Consider that the cult of amateurism of the early modern Olympic movement — so beloved of the nostalgia brigade — was a recipe for excluding the working poor and lining the pockets of officials at the expense of the athletes.

Consider that sport in the 19th and early 20th centuries was rife with match-fixing, skulduggery, corruption and chicanery on a scale that makes contemporary scandals seem trivial. Cyclists who took drugs at the Tour de France in the 1900s, for example, were trumped by those who took the train instead.

The rise of commercialism, far from being at the root of recent evils, has improved sport immeasurably. Athletes are now paid under contract rather than by the mob in brown paper envelopes. New income streams have enabled governing bodies to create proper frameworks to combat malpractice. When a cricket umpire asserts ball tampering, it is tested by a committee following due process; when a footballer is sent off, the decision is reviewed through video evidence. Rule by diktat has been replaced by something approaching the rule of law.

Sure, there’s lying, drug taking, nastiness and vanity — but that’s as true of our MPs as it is of our sportsmen. All human institutions are as flawed as the people who participate in them, but it would be absurd to deny that things have improved since the dark days when ethics were considered an optional extra. Those who disagree are misled either by a warped view of history or a pernicious form of moral relativism.

This isn’t to suggest that we should be complacent. Sanctions should be stiffened, detection improved and more done to root out the nihilists who preach that winning is all. It’s simply a call for proportionality in the teeth of unbridled cynicism. It’s a warning that we should temper our fetishistic preoccupation with the likes of Jones before we find ourselves stuck in a cycle of despondency.

Instead, let’s leaven the bitter recriminations of the summer with the memory of Tiger Woods’s virtuosity at the Open. Let’s hail Roger Federer’s transcendent stroke-making at Wimbledon. Let’s cherish Nicole Cooke’s epic victory at the Women’s Tour de France and revel in the wicket-taking, colt-leaping, catch-spilling antics of Monty Panesar.

Sport continues to provide the most vivid manifestation of the human spirit, imbuing modern society with the heroic narrative that so many of us crave. But we shouldn’t confuse heroism with ethical purity nor indulge in unfavourable comparisons with an imaginary past whenever our heroes fall short. The demise of Marion Jones is not a symptom of an ethical malaise but of our beefed-up willingness to combat crookedness.