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Top 10 sporting scandals of this millennium

FIFA President Sepp Blatter (left) is heckled prior to a press conference by Simon Brodkin AKA Lee Nelson
FIFA President Sepp Blatter (left) is heckled prior to a press conference by Simon Brodkin AKA Lee Nelson

Sport truly is a beautiful spectacle that can bring people from all walks of life together. From the casual follower to the avid fan, sport in its many different forms has been the salvation for many.

It has the ability to take a bad day at the office and turn it into a memorable win against a fierce rival. It can also morph into a walk on an emotional tightrope for fans who take it too seriously and elevate sports stars to levels of adornment normally reserved for deities.

The real essence that draws many of us in, however, is the spontaneity of competition. Any game can reel people in because we all want to know the outcome and see who comes out on top.

However, what if things aren't as pure and unscripted as they seem? What if there are forces at play that are actually pulling the strings? What if you aren't watching sporting greatness unfold but an elaborate puppet show? What do you do when your heroes turn out to be lesser mortals with flaws? Where do you go?

Sport, like most things in the modern world, is tainted to a sizeable extent by controversies that sully the spectacle. Over the years, there have been many different incidents where fans have been left aghast after scandals have unravelled leaving many famous personalities to incur the wrath of the public that believes in a fair and just world.

In this piece, we will go through some of the biggest scandals to rock the sporting world since the turn of the new century. So, in no particular order, let us get started.


Houston Astros electronic sign stealing scandal in 2017 and 2018

The Houston Astros celebrate their 2017 World Series Game 7 win over the Dodgers at Minute Maid Park.
The Houston Astros celebrate their 2017 World Series Game 7 win over the Dodgers at Minute Maid Park.

We get started with the most recent scandal to come out of Major League Baseball and bring a whole lot of unwanted attention to 'America's favourite pass-time'. The Houston Astros, a talented side that played some scintillating baseball and had a really good record at home.

They led the AL West before going on to beat the likes of the Boston Rex Sox, the New York Yankees and the LA Dodgers to clinch the 2017 World Series title apparently had an elaborate scheme going to steal the signs of opposing teams that visited them at Minute Maid Park in Houston during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

While baseball is no stranger to controversies like the 1919 Chicago 'Black Sox' scandal, Pete Rose's betting scandal, the BALCO scandal and the infamous 'Steroid Era' where players began hitting in a truly ungodly manner, nothing has been as bad as what the Astros did.

In a detailed report in The Athletic, baseball analysts Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich revealed that the Astros had a camera pointed at centre field illegally providing a live feed to a monitor in their dugout. With this, the Astros then relayed information about significant changes from the catcher by banging on a trash can with a bat.

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Former Astros man Mike Fiers, who pitched for the franchise and was part of the World Series winning side in 2017 was the first to break the silence and get the dominoes toppling. General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Field Manager AJ Hinch lost their jobs after the subsequent MLB investigation in January 2020.

The Astros were also fined $5 million by the MLB and have lost their draft picks for the next two years. There was also talks of players wearing electronic bandages that would buzz and tell them what sort of pitch was coming but nothing was proven.

In addition to the Astros, the Boston Red Sox are also under investigation at the time of writing for the same infringement. Alex Cora, who was Hinch's Bench Manager in 2017 before becoming the Red Sox's GM was also found guilty and relieved of his duties in Boston. Carlos Beltran was the only Astros player who was named in the MLB report and he too lost his job as GM of the New York Mets soon after the news became public.

Australian ball-tampering scandal (Sandpaper Gate) in 2018

Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner faced the brunt of Sandpaper Gate
Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner faced the brunt of Sandpaper Gate

This is one scandal every cricket fan worth their salt will see coming a mile away. Australia, one of the juggernauts in international cricket, were caught in the eye of an ugly story after Cameron Bancroft was seen using sandpaper to alter the ball on Day 3 of the third Test in Cape Town against South Africa.

Bancroft wanted to try and roughen up one side of the ball so it could swing better and was seen doing so with a piece of sandpaper on camera much to the shock and disgust of fans watching around the world. However, that was not all.

Soon after, it was revealed that Bancroft was acting under the directions of skipper Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner, both of whom had full knowledge and did not discourage Bancroft. Warner was found guilty of hatching the plan and teaching Bancroft how to tamper the ball. Smith, on the other hand, was found guilty of knowing about the plan and not doing enough to stop it. He was also found guilty of telling Bancroft to conceal the sandpaper, misleading match officials and the public about the incident.

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Both Smith and Warner were given 12-month bans from both domestic and international cricket and would not be considered for leadership roles by Cricket Australia in the future while Cameron Bancroft was given a 9-month long ban for his role in the unfortunate incident. Even though there was no official proof of involvement, coach Darren Lehmann stepped down from his role soon after.

Warner and Smith have used their cricketing abilities to bounce back in fine fashion and return to the good graces of fans across the world but this is one scandal that will be hard to shake off.


Tiger Woods' sexual infidelity scandal in 2009

Tiger Woods was at the peak of his powers when the news of his scandal broke
Tiger Woods was at the peak of his powers when the news of his scandal broke

This seems like a lifetime ago, yet the memory of the entire episode remains etched in the memory of many fans as if it were only yesterday. Tiger Woods, arguably one of the greatest golfers of all time was at the peak of his powers in 2009 when a story claiming he had an extra-marital affair in New York turned his world upside down.

That began a chain of events that could not have been fathomed even by the most sceptical fiction lover. Two days after the report, Woods was involved in a fender bender near his home and given a ticket for reckless driving. Soon after, he withdrew from his own charity tournament while multiple women started coming out and claimed to have been physically involved with the hot-shot golfer.

Woods released a statement admitting to sexual infidelity and took an indefinite break from the sport as sponsors began to drop him to save their brand image. If that wasn't all, his wife Elin Nordegren, who was pregnant at the time decided to end their six-year-long marriage.

Woods has since then gone from strength to strength to return to winning ways and try and get his personal life back on track. He came out on top at the 2019 Masters, a tournament he last won in 2005. Even though it was not a hole-in-one, Tiger has managed to come out of the woods and keep his career-relevant.


Tom Brady, New England Patriots and 'Deflategate' in 2015

Tom Brady was put through the ringer during 'Deflategate'.
Tom Brady was put through the ringer during 'Deflategate'.

The New England Patriots have been one of the most enigmatic NFL franchises in modern times. However, their successes have come hand in hand with spades of controversy. One could point to the signing of running back Antonio Brown for one game or the tragic suicide of Junior Seau or even the curious case of their star tight end Aaron Hernandez and his arrest, trial and incarceration for murder but they will all pale in comparison when met by 'Deflategate'.

During an AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts in January in 2015, officials were made aware of the fact that 11 of the 12 match balls provided by the Patriots were considerably underinflated. The Patriots romped to victory with a 45-7 scoreline in their favour.

Later, it was alleged that Tom Brady was directly involved in the ploy since he was the starting quarterback and would by definition know everything about the footballs being used by the team.

Brady and the organisation vehemently denied any knowledge about the matter but he was still suspended for four games (after much drama one might add) while the franchise was fined $1 million and lost two draft picks in 2016. Brady also served the suspension in 2016 after a long and drawn out court battle with the NFL.

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This didn't dampen the Patriots' spirit as they ended up winning Super Bowl LI in truly dramatic fashion against the Atlanta Falcons. In a match where the Falcons led 21-3 at half-time, the Patriots pulled off an unreal comeback to win 34-28 and break Falcons' hearts. Brady for all his troubles was clutch in the death and was named Super Bowl MVP that year.

FIFA corruption scandal in 2015

Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter resigned soon after the scandal broke.
Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter resigned soon after the scandal broke.

Even the beautiful game is not immune to controversies. Over the year, many have plagued the world of football but none have had ramifications as severe as this. FIFA, the governing body for world football, was found guilty of multiple counts of bribery after an investigation conducted by US federal agents in tandem with the FBI and the IRS opened up a can of worms too big for anyone to sweep under the rug.

According to the investigation, FIFA was involved in wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering and even corrupting the marketing and media rights for FIFA games in the Americas and was concentrated on collusion between members from different continental football governing bodies.

Allegations ranged from bribes to get South Africa their maiden World Cup bid in 2010 to bring 2016's Copa America Centenario to the United States of America and even accepting hefty sums to award the 2022 World Cup bid to Qatar, a decision that has not sat well with the footballing community ever since it was made in 2011.

A total of 22 individual indictments were made initially targeting many bigwigs from FIFA before another 17 were picked up in the second indictment. Two companies were also indicted in the process.

Blatter was hounded during the process and even had a stack of money thrown at him by a comedian during a press conference but as you can see below, he failed to see the humour in the situation.

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Blatter eventually resigned a disgraced former president and has not been anywhere near administrative football since.


Lance Armstrong's doping scandal in 2012

Lance Armstrong had 7 Tour de France titles stripped from him.
Lance Armstrong had 7 Tour de France titles stripped from him.

Perhaps the biggest fall from grace for one individual has to go to Lance Armstrong. A man who was at one point in the time the embodiment of willpower and determination, Armstrong was a hero not just to cycling enthusiasts but millions around the world for his incredulous story.

Here was a man who had battled testicular cancer and lived to tell the tale. If that wasn't enough, he then one-upped himself by winning the Tour de France, the world's most prestigious multi-stage cycle race 7 times in a row, becoming only the second American to win the title with his first triumph in 1999.

At that time, Armstrong was an inspiration known worldwide for his superlative feats on two wheels and his Livestrong Foundation that looks to help people battling cancer across the world.

The American dominated the sport during the first half of the new millennium and always maintained that he always rode clean. It was also said that throughout his career, Armstrong had never tested positive in a drug test. Sadly, for him, his lies were found out.

In 2004, he was owed a bonus amount of $5 million from SCA Promotions for winning his 6th tour title but they didn't want to pay because they believed Armstrong was indeed doping. This snowballed into what became a federal investigation led by the US Department of Justice that ran for two years.

Former teammates of his were called to testify against Armstrong. The United States Anti Doping Agency also got involved before finally finding Armstrong guilty of using performance enhancing drugs, steroids and blood transfusions, going back all the way to 1996.

Armstrong was banned from participating in cycling and triathlon and stripped of the 7 Tour titles he won between 1999 and 2005, before finally admitting to using PEDs in 2013.


Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix crash scandal (Crashgate) in 2009

Nelson Piquet Jr.
Nelson Piquet Jr.

Well, where do we begin for this one? How about the starting grid of the Marina Bay Street Circuit in Singapore in 2008. It was the maiden Grand Prix in the South East Asian nation, set to play out under the dazzling city lights and bring glitz and glamour to the sport. Instead, it became one of the most dastardly acts of cheating Formula 1 has ever seen.

Renault were a team struggling to keep pace with the likes of Ferrari, McLaren and BMW on the track and one waiting for their first win since Suzuka in 2006. After a dismal 2007 campaign with no podiums, the team brought back Fernando Alonso to try and be competitive again. That was a hill too steep even for the two-time champion to climb given how far ahead the competition was. So, Renault's managing director, Flavio Briatore and executive director of engineering, Pat Symonds got creative.

Enter Alonso's teammate, Nelson Piquet Jr.. Son of a three-time world champion, the Brazilian came in ahead of Heikki Kovalainen because the latter could have been a threat for Alonso in the title race. Renault wanted a yes man at the wheel of their second car who would drive for the team and do whatever was asked of him and they got just that in Piquet Jr.

Going into the 15th race of the season in Singapore, Renault did not manage to score anything better than the fourth position and even Toro Rosso had won the race prior to Singapore. Sebastian Vettel took an unfancied backmarker and mastered the rain-marred Monza to truly announce himself to the world and also pick up Toro Rosso's only F1 win to this day.

Things didn't go to plan in qualifying for the French side, with Alonso starting 15th and his teammate right behind him in 16th. The race began and all seemed normal till Alonso made his way to the pits on Lap 12 to change tires. People seemed baffled by his early pitstop but their focus soon shifted to the other Renault that rammed into a barrier at Turn 17 two laps later, bringing the Safety Car out.

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All of a sudden, Alonso's early stop became a turning point as he shot up the grid to take the lead while everyone else pitted and he held on for the win.

Nothing was made of it at the time, especially with Alonso getting a win in Suzuka in the next round but when Piquet Jr. was dropped by the team post the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009, he decided to come out and say that the crash in Singapore was deliberate and caused at the instructions of Briatore. The FIA launched an investigation and ultimately found Renault to be guilty of conspiracy in September of that year.

Briatore and Symonds were initially banned for life but later that ruling was overturned. They did, however, agree not to be a part of any FIA sanctioned events for a certain amount of time. Alonso remained in Formula 1 but never did become world champion again.

He did win the Indy Car 500 and is still looking for a Le Mans win to complete the triple crown, having already won the Monaco Grand Prix as an F1 driver. Piquet went on to become a Formula E world champion and is currently pursuing stock car racing in his native Brazil.

Pakistan's spot-fixing scandal in England - 2010

Pakistani cricketers accused of spot-fixing
Pakistani cricketers accused of spot-fixing

Some could say this was Pakistan cricket's darkest moment in a long time. The Pakistani team was in a 4-match Test series with the English with the hosts leading 2-1 going into the fourth Test at Lord's. With a chance to level the series, after their win in the third Test, many thought Pakistan would take the fight to the English in London.

Instead, the world saw how a nefarious plot to influence betting was hatched between Pakistani players and sports agent Mazhar Majeed that would see Pakistani players deliberately deliver no-balls during the match.

The now defunct News of the World launched an elaborate sting operation to learn that on Majeed's instructions, Mohammad Amir would bowl the third over of the match and the first delivery would be a no-ball.

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Lo and behold, Amir overstepped by a mile and the prediction came true. Majeed also said that Mohammad Asif would get the 10th over and the final delivery would be a no-ball. Once again, like the soothsayer in Julius Caesar, his words came through.

The explosive expose sent shockwaves across the cricketing world and got Scotland Yard involved in the proceedings. Majeed was arrested for attempting to defraud bookmakers while Amir, Asif and then captain Salman Butt were all found guilty and received prison sentences while also being banned by the ICC from taking part in any cricketing events. Asif and Butt were banned for 7 years while Amir was banned for 5 on the account that he confessed.

The incident raised questions about a plethora of Pakistan matches which could have had similar incidents of fixing and Pakistani cricket has been under a magnifying glass ever since.


Russian state-sponsored doping scandal - 2010 onwards

Mariya Savinova celebrates winning the 800m race at the 2012 London Olympics
Mariya Savinova celebrates winning the 800m race at the 2012 London Olympics

This one is probably the biggest scandal in terms of magnitude simply because of the number of athletes and sports affected by it. Suspicions about Russian athletes using Performance Enhancing Drugs had been around for years, and this was brought to light when German channel ARD released a documentary.

That documentary claimed that the Russian state was neck-deep in an operation that involves state-sponsored doping and covering up positive tests in their World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) accredited lab.

The Russian Anti Doping Agency (RUSADA) denied the allegations put forward but that didn't stop WADA from setting up a commission to investigate the Russian Federation. Moscow tried to cover it up by dismissing Grigory Rodchenkov, head of the Moscow lab, who ended up becoming a whistleblower and revealing to the New York Times how the Russian Federation, led by sports minister Vitaly Mutko was participating in systematic doping and falsifying samples primarily to perform well at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

WADA brought in Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren to investigate the allegations brought forward by Rodchenkov and in 2016 his report concluded that there was overwhelming evidence against the Russians.

The Russians were accused of tampering with urine samples to get positive tests and WADA subsequently suggested they be banned from the 2016 Olympic games before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) turned that notion down and Russian athletes featured at the Olympic Games in Rio. Out of a total of 379 athletes, the IOC only gave clearance to 268 of them while the remaining 111 were removed by the IAAF.

After the Games and the 2018 FIFA World Cup held in the country, Russia was ordered to hand over all data from their labs and after missing deadlines and tampering with information, WADA declared Russia non-compliant and in 2019 banned them from taking part in any sporting events including the 2019 World Athletics Championships, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as well as the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. They have also been banned from hosting any major sporting events as a result of the scandal.


Calciopoli scandal - 2006

The Calciopoli scandal saw Juventus get relegated to Serie B
The Calciopoli scandal saw Juventus get relegated to Serie B

The final scandal on this list is a biggie that sent shockwaves through Italian football. It all started when an ongoing investigation into an agency called GEA World by the police for doping in Italian football led prosecutors to find a cache of phone call recordings between top executives from teams like Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio, Fiorentina and Reggina and the referee designators in the Italian top-flight.

While Calciopoli is considered by many a match-fixing scandal, in actuality it was more of a situation where the bigwigs at clubs would try and pick certain referees to influence games and get favourable results from them.

Juventus general managers Luciano Moggi and Antonio Giraudo were recorded having conversations during the 2004-05 season where they would discuss the different officials. There was even an instance where the pair spoke about legendary referees Pierluigi Collina and Roberto Rosetti, seeking punishment on account of them being 'too objective'.

In July of 2006, Stefano Palazzi, the Italian Football federation's main prosecutor suggested Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina all be demoted to the second division with varying points penalties as a punishment. This was appealed extensively but when the dust settled, Juventus were given the harshest punishment of all the sides involved.

Moggi and Giraudo were found guilty of creating a system to change the outcome of games with the help of referee designators in Serie A. The Bianconeri was relegated to Serie B, stripped off the tow Serie A titles it won in 2004-05 and 2005-06. The 05-06 title was given to Inter Milan instead. Juventus also had 9 points deducted going into the 2006-07 season. Moggi was banned for life while Giraudo was fined €20,000 and banned from football for 5 years.

Milan had 8 points deducted from the 2006-07 season and a staggering 30 points from the 2005-06 campaign. In addition to that, they also had to play one match behind closed doors. Lazio were docked 3 points from the 2006-07 season and had to play two matches behind closed doors aside from being removed from the UEFA Cup (now Europa League).

Fiorentina were docked 15 points from the 2006-7 season, had to play two matches behind closed doors and were removed from the UEFA Champions League. Reggina were handed a 9 point deduction and a fine of €20,000 was imposed.

Calciopoli was a wake up call for football fans in Italy and across Europe. It led to a mass exodus at Juventus as the Old Lady prepared for life in the second division. Many would argue that the Calciopoli scandal marked the beginning of the end of the Serie A's unnerving relevance in world football.

What was once considered the best league in the world had seen its name dragged through the mud by its best teams. While Italy winning the 2006 FIFA World Cup did serve as a soothing ointment, the scars left by the Calciopoli scandal were never truly eradicated.

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Edited by Prasen Moudgal
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