If you fancy the mayhem of blatant sports fraud, this has been an all-time champion week. For followers of professional cycling – mistakenly considered by much of the general public to be one of the most dubious sports – it has also been a vindication. You see, despite a major doping case involving nearly an entire Portuguese team, the sport of cycling barely made a ripple – the rest of the world’s sports media had their sights elsewhere, macabre obsessed with two other niche scandals.
So where does the sordid case of W52-FC Porto fall alongside these other villains? Were these alleged cheaters so egregious in their execution? What can we as cyclists learn from the three big cheat moments of the week? And finally, was this entire article a transparent ploy to write about competitive fishing?
We are a cycling website, so we will reluctantly start with the cycling team – the W52-FC Porto team, which has been racing at continental level since 2013. During this period, the team has won many numerous editions of the Volta a Portugal as well as the Volta ao Algarve 2021, often against fancier rivals.
That summit collapsed following an anonymous whistleblower which led to the team being raided in April this year. The 120-person Operation Clean Doping Test actually unearthed quite a few Dirty Tests, with reports at the time suggesting that 10 of the team’s riders were found to be in possession of banned substances. Mechanics, managers and assistants were also involved.
The UCI revoked the team’s sports license in July, preventing the team from starting its home race, the Volta a Portugal. W52-FC Porto had won the last nine editions of this event.
It also triggered a series of dramatic events that shook Portuguese cycling to its core, with four riders from three other top national teams also withdrawn due to their involvement in Operation Clean Test (the race was ultimately won by Uruguayan Mauricio Moreira, driving for one of these other Portuguese teams).
Portugal’s anti-doping chief was also shot in the post, with his entire family in need of police surveillance due to threats of violence. It was, to put it lightly, not a good scene.
Now, all this drama has come to some kind of conclusion, with sanctions handed down by the UCI. Seven W52-FC Porto riders have been banned, with the longest tenure going to João Rodrigues, winner of the 2019 Volta a Portugal and the 2021 Volta ao Algarve. Rodrigues was banned for seven years – three for “possession of ‘a prohibited method’, four more for biological passport anomalies. His teammates Rui Vinhas, Ricardo Mestre, Ricardo Vilela, Daniel Mestre, José Neves and Samuel Caldeira have all been suspended for three years each, with Portuguese officials claiming they were in possession of betamethasone, human growth hormones and others products. Portuguese reports suggest all seven have confessed to receiving sentence reductions and investigations are still ongoing into three other riders and four staff.
It all seems pretty blatant and systemic, and probably would have raised more eyebrows outside of the cycling sphere if it hadn’t been for two much juicier sports dramas going on.
You’ll get a buzz out of this
The first is one you’ve probably heard of – the investigation into the alleged cheating of 19-year-old American chess player Hans Niemann. Niemann, who sensationally beat reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen last month, came under increasing scrutiny due to his unlikely rise as an international chess giant-slayer. Carlsen first hinted that he thought there was something wrong going on, then said so outright late last month.
Meanwhile, the world’s richest man (child), Elon Musk, has promoted a somewhat outrageous conspiracy theory that Niemann was aided in his quest for chess glory by vibrating anal beads. Which certainly looks like some some sort of theory, but not one I expected to have an excuse to write about.
Those fringe suspicions aside, far more compelling evidence came in the form of a 72-page Chess.com report that concluded it was likely that Niemann had “received unlawful assistance in more than 100 games in line,” contrary to Niemann’s own admission that he had cheated only twice, when he was 12 and 16. (There is no conclusive evidence that Niemann cheated in “on-the-board” games, such as the one in which he beat Carlsen, but the fact that a report immediately contradicted Niemann’s confession by a factor of 50 seems to invite more suspicion – possibly even bringing anal beads back into the fray.)
The upshot of all the fuss is that chess, in the words of one columnist, has “deepened further into turmoil and rancor”, with a culture of suspicion descending. Which is a bit like WorldTour cycling about 15 years ago, and Portuguese cycling now.
But there are other depths to plumb in this week’s sports fraud.
Hook, line and sinker
From the genteel world of chess, we now move on to a sport fishing scandal in Cleveland that has been making the rounds on social media. At the Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament over the weekend, the winning anglers — Chase Cominsky and Jake Runyan — were bailed out by outraged rivals suspicious of the weight of their catch.
Much like Niemann and W52-FC Porto, suspicions had been growing for some time over the performance of this duo. The Cominsky/Runyan team had been on a long winning streak, winning over US$400,000 in prize money and a US$150,000 fishing boat. To win a season-long competition and even more money, they had to catch over 16 pounds (7.3 kg) of fish in Lake Erie.
As for the weigh-in at the end of the tournament, something seemed fishy to Tournament Director Jason Fischer. He first weighed the largest fish on the team: “It weighed 7.9 pounds (3.6 kg),” Fischer later told Yahoo. “I thought, there’s no way. I had a hole in my stomach. After he finished measuring the team’s catch – an improbable 34 pounds (15.4 kg) – he probed the side of a fish, found a lump, split it open and found a lead weight. .
Put on your headphones while watching this one:
The very entertaining video above reveals a Fischer showman facing off against Runyan. “We have weights in the fish!”, Fischer bellows at the fisherman. A crowd of fishing rivals surround Runyan, who stands unmoved as countless variations of the F-bomb are hurled at him by countless, harmed alpha males. More and more sinkers are removed from other fish. Fillets of other the fish came out too. A total of four nets and 10 lead sinkers are grouped together in a plastic box.
It is a moment of intense schadenfreude and great drama. It is also a glimpse into a different sport that is being discredited and, in that sense, gives cycling fans a vision of what the rest of the world must have felt and thought at the height of our sport’s doping struggles.
Of course, as long as there’s money involved – or fame, or social status, or self-esteem – people will find a way to outsmart the system. It’s not even unique to sport – in the process of writing this piece, chaos has erupted in the world of Irish dancing due to an omerta of judgment and corruption.
Sometimes life is fair and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the bad guys win, and often there are casualties.
But as chess, fishing and cycling enthusiasts around the world have discovered this week, sometimes there’s a public outburst that corrects the imbalance, puts wrongdoing under scrutiny, brings about consequences and makes the world a little better. And sometimes it’s popcorn-worthy. I love those moments the most.