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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 9 July, 2020

The Magnificent Seven: Sporting corruption

For some reason, we felt that this might be an appropriate week for the Magnificent Seven to take a look at some moments of sporting corruption.

Jean-Claude Blanc, the man who replaced Luciano Moggi as Juventus President, addresses the media.
Jean-Claude Blanc, the man who replaced Luciano Moggi as Juventus President, addresses the media.
Image: MASSIMO PINCA/AP/Press Association Images

1. Eight men out – the “Black Sox” throw the World Series (1919)

Over 90 years after the fact, the “Black Sox” scandal is seen in America as the single most corrupt happening in the history of organized sport.

As with most of the events featured in this week’s column, it was all about the money – what else could convince a bunch of professionals to throw the biggest game in baseball?

The story of the 1919 World Series is one which fits the lore and mythology of early twentieth-century America seamlessly – an era in which money talked and gangsters pulled the strings behind the scenes.

Two years previously, in 1917, the Chicago White Sox had swept through the league with ease, coasting to 100 wins and a second World Series title. The honour and glory wasn’t enough however; the Sox’s star men resented the fact that the league’s other players were being paid well in excess of what they earned while Chicago’s miserly owner, Charles Comiskey, did everything in his power to keep their wages low and avoid paying them the bonuses which they deserved.

When the Sox won the American League pennant and booked their place in the 1919 Series against the Cincinnati Reds, some elements of the country’s unscrupulous underbelly smelt an opportunity. The underpaid Sox players were offered cash bribes, reported to be $5,000 per player, in order to lose the Series.

Unsurprisingly, Cincinnati won the series 5-3. Eight White Sox players, according to the findings of a Chicago grand jury the following year, took the cash and were subsequently banned for life.

“The Curse of the Black Sox,” the only way that the baseball-loving American public could rationalise the deed, was born. It would be 85 years before Chicago won the World Series again.

2. Juve relegated following Moggiopoli scandal (2006)

Italian football and corruption allegations have long been familiar bedfellows but the 2006 investigation into Juventus chairman Luciano Moggi was a stark reminder of just how powerful one man can be.

Dubbed “Lucky Luciano” by the Italian media, Moggi’s Juventus had developed a reputation for being the beneficiaries of plenty of good fortune over the years, particularly when it came to referees’ decisions.

However, as police wiretaps on Moggi’s phone soon discovered, there was nothing “lucky” about the decisions.

In 2006, the Juventus chairman was exposed as the major player in an informal scheme designed to ensure that favourable match officials were appointed to specific fixtures. Whenever Moggi wanted to make sure that the contentious decisions and 50/50s would go the way of the bianconeri, he would simply pick up the phone, call referee nominator Pierluigi Pairetto, and tell him who the man in black should be.

Juve weren’t the only side on the fiddle – Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina were all punished for similar misdeeds – but, as 2005/2006 Serie A Champions, they did have the most to lose once their crime was exposed.

Stripped of their title and relegated to Serie B, it now seems that the club escaped lightly in comparison to Moggi himself. Yesterday, after lengthy deliberation, Italian magistrates recommended that the 63-year-old be sentenced to almost six years in prison for his role in one of the country’s largest cases of sporting fraud.

3. Salt Lake City “buys” the Olympics? (1998)

When FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke appeared to accuse Qatar of “buying” the 2022 World Cup earlier this week, many observers were quick to recall the IOC’s decision to award the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City .

Crestfallen that they had been overlooked in favour of the Japanese city of Nagano as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, the Salt Lake Bid Committee resolved to do everything in their power to ensure that they would not miss out on the 2002 games.

And, if contemporary reports are to be believed, “everything in their power” included quite a lot – cash gifts, real estate deals, health care benefits. Even Browning guns worth $2,000, allegedly given to the then IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch.

When the decision was formally announced in 1995, it appeared that the plan had worked – the Winter Olympics were heading to Utah.

The whole dubious process was blown sky-high in 1998 when Marc Hodler, an IOC member, decided that the time had come to blow the whistle.

No fewer than four investigations were opened but, because the gift-giving was merely “morally dubious” rather than actually illegal, there was precious little that anybody could do. Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, the joint chairpeople of Salt Lake City’s bid committee, were eventually acquitted of the charges of bribery and fraud levelled against them by the US Department of Justice.

And, though the IOC expelled and sanctioned a number of its more culpable members and promised to clean up its act, the show had to go on. On 8 February 2002, the sporting world watched as the Salt Lake Olympics got underway.

4. Spain’s basketball side fake disability to win Paralympic Gold (2000)

How far will you go to win a gold medal?

Well, if you’re part of a group of particularly unscrupulous Spanish basketball players, it seems that you’ll fake intellectual disability so as to win at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000.

A few weeks after Spain’s 87-63 victory over Russia in the gold medal final, one of the players, Carlos Ribagorda took his ill-gotten prize and sent it back to the competition’s organizers, informing them that he, a journalist and a published author, had never been tested for any sort of intellectual disability.

What’s more, neither had nine of his team-mates in the 12-man Spanish squad.

Instead, as Ribargorda confessed to the Paralympic Committee, they had simply been asked to join the team in the hope that they would put in a performance which might encourage some new sponsors to come on board.

In Sydney, their coach was savvy enough to know not to attract too much attention, encouraging his players to take their foot off the gas and let the opposition back into games which they were winning by a huge margin.

Yet, they still went and won the gold, a move which was bound to get them on the front pages of the Spanish newspapers if nothing else.

Hats, beards and dark glasses were uniformly donned for what should have been a triumphant homecoming at Madrid’s Barajas Airport, but the attempt to shield the players’ true identities hardly deterred the mounting suspicions.

Fernando Martín Vicente, the Vice-President of Spain’s International Paralympic Committee, claimed that there was no malicious intent and that the lack of testing was merely an administrative oversight, but by December of that year, Spain had rightly been stripped of their prize.

5. Festina & Le Tour de Dopage (1998)

On 11 July 1998, crowds lined the streets of Dublin for the prologue stage of the 1998 Tour de France.

By the time yellow jersey bearer Marco Pantani embarked on his victorious ride down the Champs-Elysees just three weeks later, cycling’s biggest race had been left reeling from the blow of one of the biggest doping scandals the sport had ever seen.

The “Festina Affair,” as the 1998 investigation subsequently came to be known, came to life in the days before the Tour began when Willy Voet, a soigneur (team assistant) with the French team Festina, was stopped by customs in possession of a significant amount of doping products. Though Bruno Roussel, Festina’s sporting director, attempted to wash his hands of the issue by declaring that Voet was not working with the team at that time, he was powerless to stop the subsequent police investigation.

From that point on, the lid was blown on the culture of systematic doping within the Tour peloton. Hotel searches led to the arrest and questioning of no fewer than nine Festina riders and five officials, as well as Roussel’s management licence being ripped up. Gradually, the investigation was extended beyond Roussel and his crew to many of the other teams, including Dutch crew TVM.

All the while, under the cloud of scandal and suspicion, the Tour continued, galvanising the peloton into an angry mass as they attempted to defend their profession against accusations of criminal activity. As riders withdrew, were arrested, or confessed to doping, the race’s remaining competitors demonstrated their solidarity by dismounting during the stage to Aix-les-Bains and walking the route, forcing organisers to nullify that day’s result.

As Pantani claimed his only Tour victory, the future of cycling remained in grave danger. Following a trial in October 2000, Festina ceased to exist as a team, with the watch-making corporation whose name it bore reassigning its sponsorship to the the newly-created anti-doping organisation, the Fondation d’Entreprise Festina.

6. Pete Rose backs his players to win (1987)

He scored more hits than any other player in the history of baseball. He won three World Series rings. And yet, Pete Rose’s legacy in American society is still a source of much contention.

After establishing himself as one of the sport’s true greats, Rose managed to throw it all away when he was found to have placed a series of bets on the Cincinnati Reds, the team which he was manager of, in 1987.

Now, sports stars are generally banned from placing bets on in which they are involved for fear that they might not try as hard or negatively manipulate the game’s outcome so as to win their bet.

In Rose’s case, however, the evidence and allegations seemed to indicate that he never bet that the Reds would lose, only that they would win. The success of the 52 bets uncovered – each wager worth a reported $10,000 – all hinged on victory for the Reds.

Which, presumably, is the result which Rose and his players should have been trying to achieve, irrespective of any bets.

Ultimately, it is that detail which makes the whole scandal all the more poignant. What Rose did was clearly against the rules, but there was no malice involved. No attempt to deceive or to bring the game into disrepute.

This was a man who just couldn’t help himself, who just had to back his boys to win.

7. Cronje fixes match, gets leather jacket (2000)

As with Pete Rose, South African cricketer Hansie Cronje had it all to lose when he was found to have accepted bribes in return for fixing the outcomes of certain tests.

Captain of the national side and one of his country’s most-loved sportspeople, Cronje’s reputation was irreparably damaged when the full details of his dodgy dealings came to light during the King Commission’s investigation in 2000.

Of all the ill-judged decisions which Cronje made, the decision to declare early in the Centurion Test against England in 2000 is probably the most baffling.

Promised R500,000 by Marlon Aronstam to “make a game” of the test which seemed destined to end in a weather-disrupted draw, Cronje gave England the chance to bat for the win, allowing them to pull off a dramatic final-day victory.

The promised bounty never arrived either with Aronstam giving him a mere R50,000 and a leather jacket for his troubles.

What’s more, as the King Commission revealed, Cronje had little problem drawing his team-mates into his crooked schemes, promising them large sums to put in performances which would ensure that his bookmaker “friends” would get the results they desired.

When the Commission’s investigation was concluded, there was little option but to suspend Cronje, a South African national icon. Match-fixing and corruption, rather than the skillful cricket which had initially propelled him into the spotlight, was to be his parting legacy. He died tragically in June 2002 in a turboprop aircraft crash.

Read more of The Magnificent Seven series here >

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About the author:

Niall Kelly

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