Fair or foul?

By: Elite Soccer

Most team sports contain within their fabric a boundary of fairness. It’s a line that can be kept tight, or stretched, moved and manipulated to extremes, but where does the point between fair play and foul play actually sit? Players, managers, referees and commentators expend huge amounts of time and effort investigating, exploring and sometimes justifying the actions of players – when a footballer gets a touch in the box is it okay to fall to the ground given that his stride pattern has been affected, or should he keep on just as he might if in a different area of the pitch?

‘Foul Play: The Dart Arts of Cheating in Sport’ aims to investigate this subject. Not once does it condone the idea of gaining an unfair advantage, but instead presents a widescale debate on how, when and where competitors can and should cross the line. And this isn’t conducive to soccer – the book explores every element, from rugby to squash, the athletics track to the Subbuteo table.

The result is an exploration into the mind of those who want to win, sometimes at any cost. The author carefully treads his way around ‘advantage’, ‘skulduggery’ and downright ‘cheating’, opening up the mind maze and addressing the morality of competition. The conclusions from Rowbottom’s extensive tome is two-fold – firstly, working an advantage is a lot more common than you may think, and not just on the field of play (away teams having L-shaped changing rooms or being provided with an old, battered tactics board, for instance). Secondly, the act of gaining an advantage is more accepted in modern sport than we may imagine. And actually, if the letter of the law was applied to its strictest relevance, what we may end up with is a stunted, staid, stop-start product that pleases no-one other than the rulebook jobsworths.

Sport, through the ages, has been built on working in any extra advantage. Where sportsmanship is broken down we have a problem – the sport of cycling takes a particular battering – but Rowbottom, on the whole, believes we have the balance right, and there are some terrific examples contained within ‘Foul Play’ that offer comfort, belief and faith in the idea that what we oversee is honest and worthwhile, and surely that’s what we’re all working towards?


“When cyclist Floyd Landis – whose 2006 victory in the Tour de France was annulled when he was shown to have doped – went public four years later with other riders whom he alleged had also been involved in illegal performance-enhancing activity, he was effectively shunned by the sport. It was as if speaking about wrongdoing was seen as being worse than doing wrong. When the biggest scandal in the sport broke in 2012 and Lance Armstrong was stripped of the Tour de France titles he had won a record seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005, the Texan eventually confessed to his doping misdeeds. But that confession contained no other names. Armstrong was rightly execrated throughout the world of cycling for his cynical betrayal of the rules. But could there by an argument that he gained an element of honour for his reluctance to grass anyone else up?

“Here’s another moral conundrum for you. Erythropoietin (EPO) is a naturally occurring hormone that controls and stimulates the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Why is it that athletes found to have supplemented that process – and hence to have improved their levels of endurance – by taking artificial EPO are penalised, whereas those who can afford to train at altitude, where the body naturally responds to the relative lack of oxygen by creating more red blood cells, are deemed to be acting within the rules?”

Foul Play: The Dark Arts Of Cheating In Sport, Mike Rowbottom. Bloomsbury Sport.