Honestly! Why do so many of us cheat at sport?

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IN AN age when a government can comfortably win a general election after admitting it misled the public over the reasons for taking the country to war, why should anyone be concerned about cheating in mere games? Yet a summer of shame in sport has sparked a moral debate about the psychology of the cheat.

There are plenty of cheats around, it seems. There are the cyclists who dope their way to the yellow jersey then get caught. And the England international cricketers who - bizarre as it might seem - scatter jelly beans on the wicket to psyche out portly opponents.

Closer to home, the Scottish Football Association has declared war on the growing army of strikers who think it is acceptable to take a dive to win a penalty. And then there is the Scottish banker who last week found out in a very expensive way that the law court is no place to clear your name when you are accused of cheating at golf.

Lindsay Smith, a 45-year-old senior executive with the Royal Bank of Scotland, almost lost his job after he was suspended for a year by Nairn Golf Club for allegedly cheating in a match against Alex Scott, former professional at the course. After the match in September 2006, Scott accused Smith of twice replacing his ball nearer the hole after it had been marked. The advantage to Smith was measured in millimetres, but the damage to his reputation from the accusation was incalculable.

So what exactly constitutes a cheat? Where does gamesmanship stop and cheating begin? And, controversially, should we even try to stop cheating in sport?

Cheating is as old as sport itself. The Tour de France has been the tour de farce across the Channel in recent weeks with entire teams dropping out because of doping offences, but cheating in sport's toughest event is nothing new - the very first winner back in 1903, Maurice Garin, was disqualified after winning the 1904 race. He took a train for part of the route.

Another train-hopper was Rose Ruiz, who 'won' the Boston Marathon in 1980. Ruiz has never explained exactly what she did, but she apparently started the race, diverted on to the subway, emerged near the finish and certainly crossed the line in first place.

Ruiz wasn't even the first to 'win' a marathon with artificial assistance. In 1904, Fred Lorz had already been given the gold medal for the marathon at the St Louis Olympics when it was discovered he had covered 11 of the 26 miles in a car. The American crowd almost lynched him.

The Olympian idea is meant to be the loftiest in sport, but the history of the games is littered with cheats. Back in 1976, Soviet army officer Boris Onischenko got his team disqualified from the Olympic pentathlon after he was found to have altered his fencing epee to allow him to literally score at will. All he had to do was press a button inside the sword to register a hit.

Given sport's high profile it was only a matter of time before cheating became a political issue. In Italy and Spain, certain kinds of cheating in sport are criminal offences. That could never happen here, of course. Or could it? Next month the criminal offence of cheating comes onto the statute book as part of the Blair government's Gambling Act of 2005. Basically, the new law means that anyone who cheats in any sport and profits by betting on their action will be subject to a criminal investigation and tried in court. If found guilty, cheats will be sentenced to a large fine or up to two years in jail.

But is recourse to law really the answer to this age-old problem? Golf, for example, is supposed to be self-policing, and cheating is seen as a deformity of character and a heinous offence. For instance, Scotland's most famous golfer, Colin Montgomerie, has never been able to shrug off the dirt that was thrown his way after the Indonesian Open of 2005. He replaced his ball in the wrong spot following the abandonment of play due to a thunderstorm, and was accused of cheating. Monty was cleared of any deliberate offence, but admitted a mistake and donated his 24,000 prize to the local tsunami appeal.

Had he been found guilty, the Scot's career might have ended, as happened to David Robertson of Dunbar, banned from professional golf for 20 years after being caught cheating in 1985.

Being accused of cheating at golf is such a slur on a public reputation that Lindsay Smith felt he had to clear his name, and took the case to the Court of Session for judicial review. Lord Macphail found against him, emphasising that he was not considering the accusation of cheating, but only whether the club had acted properly. The banker now faces costs running into tens of thousands.

Jeffrey Standen, professor of sports law at Williamette University, Oregon, does not believe that regular legal intervention in sport is necessary or wanted. He said: "There's not much we should do legally. The rules of sport are private law and matter only to the game's participants. Sports contests offer little of public concern to justify public expenditure of money on prosecution and punishment."

In the language of cheating, someone straying from the rules is "stepping over the line". But is there an argument for actually allowing people to step over that line? Professor Standen says there may well be. "Sports leagues could offer either or both 'steroid-free' or 'steroid-using' player leagues, as is done in competitive bodybuilding, for instance, without that choice mattering to the public."

One notable commentator goes further, arguing that the most common form of cheating - the taking of performance- enhancing drugs - should not be banned.

Professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, says: "Taking drugs is not necessarily cheating.

We have two choices: to vainly try to turn the clock back, or to rethink who we are and what sport is. Our crusade against drugs in sport has failed. Rather than fearing drugs in sport, we should embrace them. Performance enhancement is not against the spirit of sport; it is the spirit of sport. To choose to be better is to be human."

In most minds, however, such a view is just not cricket. More than that, it is inextricably bound up with questions of personal morality. Dr Sharon Stoll, director of the Centre for Ethics at Idaho University, said:

"Should we just say: 'Let them cheat?' I can't go there. I have experience of cheating on a personal level. And it is hurtful and damaging. We surely as people don't want that complete tolerance of all things."

Most people will agree with Stoll. The trouble is that a great many sportsmen and sportswomen have long ago decided that cheating is necessary to win. Convincing them otherwise may take a very long time.

Roll of dishonour

1: Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God'

In the World Cup quarter-final between England and Argentina in Mexico in 1986, the 5ft 4in Maradona out-jumped 6ft goalkeeper Peter Shilton to 'head' the ball home. But the camera showed that Maradona had used his hand to score. "It was partly the hand of Maradona," said the Argentinian captain, "and partly the hand of God." However, his second goal was one of the greatest the World Cup has ever seen and Argentina went on to win 2-1, and ultimately lift the cup.

2: Chicago White Sox

Eight players from one of America's greatest baseball teams were charged with taking colossal sums from gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series, which the 'Black Sox', as they became known, duly lost 5-3 to the Cincinnati Reds.

3: Tonya Harding

Harding was a trailer trash brassy blonde. Nancy Kerrigan was the beautiful all-American queen of the ice. Together they dominated American skating in the early Nineties. In January, 1994, Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gilhooly arranged for a hitman to attack Kerrigan's legs before the US skating championships. Harding knew of the plan, but said nothing, and was later banned for life.

4: Ben Johnson

The worst scandal ever to mar the Olympics was the disgrace of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. He set a world record in the 100m final in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, only to be disqualified hours later and banned for two years when a post-race urine sample was found to contain an anabolic steroid.

5: David Robertson

Scotland's most infamous case of cheating in sport concerned golfer Robertson from East Lothian. While playing in the final qualifying tournament for the 1985 Open, he repeatedly replaced his ball in different positions on the green, moving it up to 20ft closer to the pin on occasion. He was banned from the PGA Tour for 20 years.