Liam Morgan

A common moral dilemma I find myself having from time to time is the extent and limits to which I am willing the teams and athletes I support to go to in order to win.

This sometimes occurs when I watch football with my dad. Born in the 1960s and raised in the 1970s, where you could literally kick someone up in the air safe in the knowledge you were not going to get sent-off for it, he is always lamenting the diving antics of the modern player.

When we watch a Premier League match, for example, he is often angry when someone goes to ground too easily to gain an advantage over their opponent, even if the culprit is part of the team he is supporting.

At this point, I usually offer a simple question: If that player was to dive to win a penalty in a Champions League final, would you berate him or forget the offence he has committed when he converts to win your team European football’s most coveted trophy?

A hypothetical scenario it may be but its answer offers an opening in to our psyche and how, in a way, we can all be hypocritical.

The answer is unquestionably the latter. As a fan of any team or sport, you want them to win. You want them to succeed. Often how they do so is irrelevant.

England's James Anderson was accused of tampering with the ball during the fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne ©Getty Images
England's James Anderson was accused of tampering with the ball during the fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne ©Getty Images

I was thinking about this recently when watching the fourth day of the fourth Ashes Test between Australia and England in Melbourne.

England bowler James Anderson, the country’s highest Test wicket-taker, was criticised at the end of the day’s play for alleged ball tampering. Australian television footage appeared to show Anderson digging his thumb into one side of the ball, prompting claims he was doing so deliberately in an effort to get it to reverse swing.

While many former professionals now acting as television pundits dismissed any suggestion of wrongdoing, the issue provided another example of how some players can look to gain that extra advantage over their rivals, even if it means towing the line and straying into rule-breaking territory.

This has, unfortunately, been a common theme throughout 2017.

Ball tampering in cricket is on one end of the scale, on a similar level to diving and the conning of match officials in football, with doping at the other end.

Late in 2016, a more extreme example of illicit behaviour was highlighted in the damning McLaren Report, a document used to form the basis of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to force Russian athletes to compete as neutrals at Pyeongchang 2018.

The report outlined how Russia was willing to corrupt the anti-doping system, through mouseholes in walls and swapping dirty samples with clean ones, to achieve glory on the international sporting stage.

Richard McLaren's report outlined the worst possible deception of the anti-doping system ©Getty Images
Richard McLaren's report outlined the worst possible deception of the anti-doping system ©Getty Images

With McLaren’s initial allegations now corroborated in every way by the IOC’s Oswald and Schmid ommissions, the extent of the Russian cheating has been laid bare.

This was a country which would clearly do anything to see its athletes stand on top of the podium at an Olympic Games, proudly wearing the Russian colours and belting out the national anthem.

Fortunately, this will not be the case at Pyeongchang 2018. 

Of course, it is not just Russian athletes who dope in order to get the edge on their opponents. 

We have seen athletes from other countries, notably China and Kenya, fail drugs tests this year, while a cloud of suspicion still hangs over British cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins for that now infamous package he was given at the Criterium du Dauphine in 2011.

We are now even seeing cases of mechanical doping in cycling – or "technological fraud" to use its official title – where riders use a hidden motor in their bikes to boost their performance.

Those cyclists have the same mindset as a footballer who throws himself to the ground to try to win a penalty; they are willing to do everything in their power to succeed.

Sometimes this is not a bad thing. There are athletes and coaches out there who are so dedicated, so committed to striving for victory that they sacrifice everything and work tirelessly until they get there.

The winning at all costs mentality, which has seemingly been a buzzword this year, strikes a particularly powerful chord in Britain, where 2017 has been dominated by welfare scandals at national governing bodies in top-level Olympic sports such as cycling and swimming.

Accusations of intentional misrepresentation – where an athlete or coach attempts to cheat the system by gaining a more favourable classification – do not seem to be going away in Paralympic sport either.

This is not limited to swimming, although the sport often finds itself at the centre of such claims due to the sheer number of categories and classifications for the various impairments.

Mechanical doping has become an issue in cycling in recent years ©Getty Images
Mechanical doping has become an issue in cycling in recent years ©Getty Images

Claims that competitors who dare speak out about classification or other welfare issues faced losing their funding were perhaps the most abhorrent. 

The motive of the high-performance directors and those behind the scenes who believed this was the right thing to do cannot be explained purely by wanting to win.

Is elite sport about winning and nothing else?

"In looking ahead, we need to change the culture of sport from a win at all costs mentality to one that endorses fair competition," said McLaren.

Will 2018 see the balance of power move in that direction? Can we not have both? 

The upcoming year, with the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast among the sporting highlights, may provide the answer.