"Say it ain't so, Joe." When the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series in return for bookmakers' money, Shoeless Joe Jackson emerged from the courtroom to hear that plea from a heartbroken boy, words which summed up every lost illusion about sport. If only we could share that heartbreak; sports of every kind are now tainted almost beyond redemption.
All those who watched Floyd Landis' jaw-dropping ride last Thursday in the Tour de France felt that they were witnessing something quite extraordinary, heroic and redemptive.
This year's race had begun under a huge cloud, with several of the favorites, including Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, thrown out when they were implicated in a story which had erupted in Madrid, where another hateful "sports doctor" had allegedly been charging his customers tens of thousands of euros for each illicit treatment with drugs or blood transfusions.
After a complete collapse the previous day with "the bonk," as cyclists call it when the exhaustion of body sugar almost paralyzes a rider, Landis made a magnificent escape over the Alps to claw back most of the time he had lost and put himself in a position to win the race. He duly did so. Yet less than a week later, we learned that his urine sample after that epic ride showed an artificially high level of testosterone. If the B sample confirms this -- and he vigorously denies cheating -- he will be stripped of his title.
However startling this particular case is, there is by now almost a dull inevitability about doping allegations. After Marion Jones won five medals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, she was accused of using steroids by her ex-husband, claims which she has always denied. Shane Warne was sent home from the cricket World Cup when he tested positive for a diuretic, harmless in itself, but which acts as a masking agent.
Some tennis aficionados privately complain that, thanks to chemical body building, a game of skill and intelligence has become just another endurance sport, and one leading tennis player at the moment certainly has a physique reminiscent of Barry Bonds.
He is the baseball player who has been breaking home-run records since he emerged eight summers ago looking, as one writer put it, as though someone had stuck a bicycle pump into him to blow him up, a transformation which has since been explained by his consumption of synthetic steroids which he said he thought was flaxseed oil.
And yet doping is only one kind of cheating. So many sports today are so corrupt, so brutal and so dishonest that even those of us who dearly loved them before now find them hard to enjoy and their players impossible to admire.
We have become inured to soccer paid as much each week as a doctor in a year, and who behave like psychopathic criminals. If they aren't hitting each other with abandon on the field, then they are accused off it of raping -- or merely "roasting" -- young women.
As regards the World Cup, apart from being a bitterly disappointing soccer tournament, what we saw from Germany was an orgy of violence, gamesmanship and plain fraud, notably the kind known as diving or simulation. The winners were Italy, who had earlier been unable to beat Australia until gaining a last-minute goal with an outrageous dive. Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal is a wonderfully gifted player, but he and his teammates showed in the game against the Netherlands how frankly disgusting a spectacle, more street brawl than match, soccer has become.