10 top sporting fakes, frauds and tricksters (part 2)

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    Sergio Motsoeneng claimed the status of a classic trickster, when he tried the old swapsie that siblings of a younger age have been pulling since time immemorial. In 2001’s ultra-tough 90 km Comrades Marathon in South Africa, Sergio ran the race in shifts with brother Fika, finishing ninth.

    All top-ten places at the Comrades get a gold medal.

    Runners who didn’t remember being overtaken were confused, and the scam was eventually discovered when sharp-eyed photojournalists realised the same runner was wearing a different watch on a different hand at various points in the race.

    Not content with the earlier incident, nine years later Sergio returned to contest the race again, once more clocking a top-ten finish. This time, he had his medal taken back after failing a post-race drug test.

    What’s better than winning a Paralympic gold medal?
    This was a real stunner, when a member of Spain’s gold-medal-winning Paralympic basketball team, in the intellectual disability category, revealed shortly after the Sydney 2000 Paralympics that he was an undercover journalist. He was not disabled, nor were ten of his twelve teammates.

    Quite where the lure of Paralympic gold lay is not clear: was it the vast payout? The hordes of women? The deep sense of achievement in defeating the disabled? But it marked the Spanish authorities in charge as some of the dirtiest shysters in sport.

    The gold medals were of course handed back, but in a classic case of the primary school teacher’s ‘It only takes one person to ruin it for everybody’, the intellectual disability category was abolished for the Athens Paralympics.

    I’ve got a burning sensation in my jocks
    In terms of great impersonations, this is out of the top drawer. In 1956, as the Olympic torch made its way towards its final stop in Melbourne, a bunch of Sydney students decided to waylay it. Disapproving of the torch relay’s association with Nazism – the relay itself having been reanimated by Hitler for the 1936 Munich games – they made their own torch.

    A chair leg painted silver, a plum pudding can, and a pair of jocks soaked in kerosene were all that was required.

    Originally intended as a parody, vet science student Barry Larkin soon found that his joke was being taken seriously. Despite wearing slacks and a tie, after the intended runner had panicked and lived up to his job description, Larkin received a police escort through the growing crowd.

    Eventually he found himself at Sydney Town Hall, with a crowd of thousands watching on. Realising he was in too deep to back out, he handed the torch solemnly to Mayor Pat Hills, then wandered calmly off to one side.

    It wasn’t until Hills had given his welcoming speech that he realised the torch was a fake. Larkin had long since melted into the crowd.

    Phar Lap’s fake
    The enduring mystery of Australian racing, aside from whether Phar Lap was murdered, is the whereabouts of his lost Melbourne Cup. In 2005, a Port Macquarie Holden dealer showed Victoria Racing Club historian Andrew Lemon (whose name may indicate a familial tie with the writer) a trophy.

    The dealer claimed it was Phar Lap’s 1930 cup. He had swapped it for a new car, and had it verified by a Sydney auctioneer.

    Lemon and the VRC quickly proved the dealer had been sold a pup – one can only hope he swapped it for an Astra, not a Statesman. But the case prompted a new search for the real cup, which turned out to be a blinder.

    Generally, a new cup was made each year, at great expense (the current worth is around $175,000 in gold and craftsmanship). In 1980, the financially struggling VRC couldn’t afford a new cup, so re-purchased the 1953 cup won by Wodalla. They re-inscribed it for 1980 winner Beldale Ball, owned by Robert Sangster and his then wife, now Lady Susan Renouf.

    But Lemon discovered this was not the first time that same cup had been recycled. When it was awarded in 1953 it was already a second-hand cup, and details of its make proved it was cast before 1931. With all other cups from that era accounted for, it seemed this must have been Phar Lap’s…until it turned out that Spearfelt’s cup from 1926 is also missing. The jury is still out on which of the two now holds Lady Renouf’s roses.

    A distinct lack of Firepower
    A product with as much scientific credibility as Powerbands, Firepower was supposedly a petrol tank miracle pill that would increase efficiency and cut all harmful emissions. Company boss Tim Johnston spent a frenetic couple of years convincing investors big and small that his prospects were about to explode, and that they should get in on the ground floor.

    A key part of this involved sports sponsorship. It was prominent, visible, gave the impression of solidity. In a short space of time in 2006, Johnston threw money at it like no other.

    He pledged big money to new Super Rugby side the Western Force, agreeing to pay huge salaries to import players. He sponsored South Sydney’s NRL side in a deal worth millions. He bought NBL side the Sydney Kings outright, and asked boxer Paul Briggs what he would want to become Firepower’s man.

    Briggs went away and came up with a quote. “I’ll double it,” said Johnston. Then he flew Briggs and his entourage to the States first-class for a fight.

    The strategy worked. With Firepower’s name all over sporting teams, money over the hundred million mark poured in.

    But of course, there was no next step. And soon enough, the money stopped going out. Briggs stopped hearing anything. Matt Giteau and the rest at the Western Force were getting nothing either. The Kings’ wages not only stopped coming through, but the entire club collapsed.

    Publicly, those owed money claimed nothing was wrong, hoping to salvage their debts. But in reality Johnston was gone, dividing his time between London and Bali. He started a new company called Green Power, selling the same fairy tale and using the same logo.

    In the end, Johnston thought he was sufficiently untouchable that he came back to Australia for his daughter’s 21st birthday. ASIC promptly confiscated his passport, and last year he admitted in a hearing that Firepower was a farce.

    Incredibly, the case to ban him from ever directing a company is ongoing. More incredibly, while people do prison time for breaking and entering, no criminal charges are in the offing.

    Read part one of this article here.

    Follow Geoff Lemon on Twitter: @GeoffLemonSport

    Geoff Lemon
    Geoff Lemon

    Geoff Lemon is a writer, editor and broadcaster covering sport for The Roar, The Guardian and ABC, as well as writing on politics, literature and history for a range of outlets.

    He tweets from @GeoffLemonSport.