(Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Welcome to Niche Sport Cheating Week

Systemic doping, fishy fish, and checkered chess: niche sports have had quite a week of it.

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If you crave the chaos of blatant sporting fraud, it’s been an all-time champion week. For followers of professional cycling – mistakenly regarded by much of the broader public as one of the dodgier sports – it’s been a vindicating one, too. You see, despite a major doping case implicating almost an entire Portuguese team coming to a head, the sport of cycling barely made a ripple – the rest of the world’s sporting media had its sights elsewhere, ghoulishly fixated on two other niche scandals. 

So where does the sordid case of W52-FC Porto’s downfall rank alongside these other villains? Were those alleged cheats as blatant in their execution? What can we, as bicycle cyclists, learn from the week’s three big cheating moments? And finally, was this entire article a transparent ploy to write about competitive fishing?

Portu-geese

We’re a cycling website so we’ll start, begrudgingly, with the cycling team – the W52-FC Porto squad, racing at the Continental level since 2013. In that time, the team has won numerous editions of the Volta a Portugal as well as the 2021 Volta ao Algarve, often against more fancied rivals. 

That high came crashing down following an anonymous tipoff which led to the team being raided in April of this year. The 120-person anti-doping Operation Clean Test in fact unearthed quite a few Dirty Tests, with reports at the time suggesting that 10 of the team’s riders were found in possession of banned substances. Mechanics, directors, and assistants were also implicated. 

The UCI revoked the team’s sporting license in July, blocking the team from starting its home race, the Volta a Portugal. W52-FC Porto had won the last nine editions of that event.

It also set off a dramatic chain of events that rattled Portuguese cycling to its core, with four riders from three other top domestic teams also withdrawn due to their implication in Operation Clean Test (the race was eventually won by Uruguayan Mauricio Moreira, riding for one of those other Portuguese squads).

The head of Portuguese anti-doping also got a bullet in the post, with his entire family needing police surveillance due to threats of violence. It was, to put it lightly, Not A Good Scene

João Rodrigues is happy (a feeling perhaps tinged with a lingering sense of guilt) after winning the 2021 Volta ao Algarve. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Now, all that drama has come to some sort of a conclusion, with sanctions handed down by the UCI. Seven W52-FC Porto riders were banned, with the longest term handed to João Rodrigues, winner of the 2019 Volta a Portugal and 2021 Volta ao Algarve. Rodrigues was banned for seven years – three for “possession of a banned method”, four more for biological passport anomalies. His teammates Rui Vinhas, Ricardo Mestre, Ricardo Vilela, Daniel Mestre, José Neves, and Samuel Caldeira were all suspended for three years apiece, with Portuguese officials saying that they variously were in possession of betamethasone, human growth hormones, and other products. Portuguese reports suggest that all seven confessed to receive reduced sentences, and that investigations are still underway into a further three riders and four staff members.

All of which sounds quite blatant and systemic, and would probably have raised more eyebrows outside of the cycling sphere if there weren’t two much juicier sporting dramas underway. 

You’ll get a buzz out of this

The first is one you’ve probably heard of – the investigation into alleged cheating by 19-year-old US chess player Hans Niemann. Niemann, who sensationally beat reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen last month, had been under growing scrutiny due to his improbable rise as a giant-killer of international chess. Carlsen initially hinted that he thought that there was something improper afoot, then said it outright late last month.

Meanwhile, world’s richest man(-child) Elon Musk promoted a somewhat outré conspiracy theory that Niemann had been aided in his quest for chess glory by vibrating anal beads. Which certainly sounds like some sort of theory, but not one that I’d expected to have an excuse to write about.

Musk’s now-deleted tweets.

Those fringe suspicions aside, much more compelling evidence came in the form of a 72-page report from Chess.com that found it likely that Niemann had “received illegal assistance in more than 100 online games”, contrary to Niemann’s own admission that he had cheated just twice, at the ages of 12 and 16. (There is no conclusive evidence that Niemann cheated in any ‘over the board’ games, such as the one he beat Carlsen in, but the fact that a report immediately contradicted Niemann’s admissions by a factor of 50 does seem to invite further suspicion – potentially even ushering anal beads back into the fray.)

The consequence of the entire hullabaloo is that chess, in the words of one columnist, has “lurched further into turmoil and rancour”, with a culture of suspicion descending. Which sounds kinda like WorldTour cycling about 15 years ago, and Portuguese cycling now.

But there are further depths to plumb in this week’s sporting fraud. 

Hook, line and sinker

From the genteel world of chess, we now go to a Cleveland sport fishing scandal that has been doing the rounds on social media. At the Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament on the weekend, the winning anglers – Chase Cominsky and Jake Runyan – were bailed up by outraged rivals, suspicious of the weight of their catch.

Not unlike Niemann and W52-FC Porto, suspicion had been growing over this duo’s performance for some time. Team Cominsky/Runyan had been on an extended winning streak, taking in more than US$400,000 in prize money and a US$150,000 fishing boat. To win a season-spanning competition and yet more money, they needed to catch over 16 pounds (7.3 kg) of fish at Lake Erie. 

When it came to weigh-in at tournament’s end, something seemed fishy to tournament director Jason Fischer. He weighed the biggest of the team’s fish first: “It weighed 7.9 pounds (3.6 kg),” Fischer later told Yahoo. “I thought, there’s no way. I had a pit in my stomach.” After finishing measuring the team’s catch – an improbable 34 pounds (15.4 kg) – he felt down the side of one fish, found a lump, slit it open and found a lead weight. 

Pop your headphones on while watching this one:

The above very entertaining video reveals a showmanlike Fischer confronting Runyan. “We’ve got weights in fish!,” Fischer bellows at the fisher. A crowd of angling rivals surround Runyan, who stands impassively as very many variants of the f-bomb are thrown at him by very many aggrieved alpha males. More and more lead weights are pulled from the other fish. Fillets of other fish are pulled out too. In total, four fillets and 10 lead sinkers are bundled into a plastic crate.

It is a moment of intense schadenfreude and high drama. It’s also a glimpse of a different sport being brought into disrepute, and in that sense, gives cycling fans a view of what the rest of the world must have felt and thought during the height of our sport’s doping travails. 

Of course, as long as there’s prize money on the line – or glory, or social standing, or self-worth – people will find a way to game the system. It’s not even unique to sport – in the process of writing this piece, chaos erupted in the Irish Dancing world over a judging and bribery omerta.

Sometimes life’s fair and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the bad guys win, and often there are victims.

But as the world’s chess, fishing, and cycling aficionados have found this week, sometimes there’s a public blow-up that rights the imbalance, puts misdeeds under scrutiny, delivers consequences, and makes the world a slightly better place. And sometimes it’s popcorn-worthy. I like those times the most.

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