The disgraced jockey Kieren Fallon is riding Double Standards this week.
It's easy to forgive a winner
The disgraced jockey Kieren Fallon is riding Double Standards this week. No, that's not the name of his first mount at Kempton Park on Friday evening, when he will return to the saddle after an 18-month ban. Rather, it is the term for the deliciously topsy-turvy manner in which we judge our sportsmen. Fallon, lest we forget, was banned from racing for the first half of 2007 after testing positive for a banned substance. He had barely been back in the saddle for three months when he again failed a dope test - leading to the 18-month ban imposed back in January 2008. The Irishman also stood trial in the UK for race-fixing, although it was halted due to insufficient evidence and the charges were dropped.
Such a chequered history would be enough to finish a career in many other sectors of life: politics, industry, the Boy Scouts. Instead, whether he wins or loses on Friday (and history suggests he will probably win) Fallon will be given a hero's welcome back to flat racing. What is it with sports fans and our demented logic? Why do we shower dubious characters like Fallon with unconditional love while refusing to even feign affection for better behaved athletes?
Perhaps it is a British thing. Poor old Tim Henman never failed a drug test in his life as he made his way to being the fourth best tennis player in the world, but his name still prompts hoots of derision in his native land outside SW19. His equally clean-living successor Andy Murray - currently ranked No 2 in the world - is only slightly more popular, and that rests on a knife edge. Just one bad match, or another ill-advised joke about the England football team, and he will once again find himself unwelcome at SW19.
Michael Owen scored 118 goals for Liverpool but the Kop's love for him was always lukewarm, at best, even before he signed for arch rivals Manchester United. David Beckham used to run more kilometres per match than any of his England teammates, yet he was regularly accused of being a lazy, self-serving poseur by his countrymen. These, by the way, were the same countrymen who would lavish universal praise on the likes of darts player Phil Taylor (convicted of indecent assault), cricketer Geoffrey Boycott (convicted of assaulting his ex-girlfriend) and snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan (a former drug user with a troubled personal history).
British sports fans will argue that we love sportsmen who show their human frailties, who strive to be the best despite their fiery temperaments. Others will argue that bad boys are simply more entertaining. The truly deluded may even say that, if Ghandi was right that a civilisation should be judged on how it treats its weakest members, then the world of the sports fan is truly civilised because they embrace those who do wrong.
Well, at least two of those theories may hold some water. But I suspect a slightly baser motive as to why Fallon and similar rebels will always be welcomed home like the Prodigal Son, fatted calf and all. It is because Fallon is such a good jockey that he could probably saddle up that fatted calf and still beat the field with six lengths to spare. It's amazing what we will forgive a sportsman who delivers guaranteed victory.
Maybe if Henman had actually won Wimbledon, or if Murray does so, or if Owen's goals had helped bring the Premiership to Anfield, or Beckham had lifted the World Cup, they too would discover that - even in the topsy turvy mind of a sports fan - we can love the saints as much as the sinners.