Who were the greatest… most egregious… most vile… most talented cheaters in the history of sport? Socrates announces his list of favourites. He starts his series with Emperor of ancient Rome, Nero.
Think that politicians could be tempted to cheat at sports? Surprise surprise. They do. It’s not just a recent phenomenon, either. Fudging the rules of sports by leaders has been going on for a very long time.
Roman emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was not a nice guy. His early reign as boss Roman was not so bad. As a sixteen-year-old emperor he was tutored and counselled by his mum Agrippina and the stoic philosopher Seneca. Back then the Senate, the Roman Aristocracy and the average Roman on the street thought that he was doing a pretty damned good job. It didn’t last. By the time he was in his mid-twenties he had divested himself of his decent support team and replaced them with a crew of lunatics and psychopaths.
Things went rapidly down hill from there. One aspect of his reign that kept many of the ordinary Roman folk on side, at least for a while, was his promotion of sport. There was nothing Nero loved more than a good wrestle, footrace, or charge around a track on a chariot. He wasn’t particularly good at any of these things, but, the thing is, Nero was the boss. Even when he lost, somehow he ended up winning whatever event he entered.
Does the fact that he could stoop so low as to cheat in a sporting event surprise? Nah. Some people are like that. They don’t like to lose. Under any circumstances. To give you an idea of some of the things that Nero would get up to so that he could perpetually be a winner, even when he wasn’t playing sport, consider some of the following.
He accepted his fate “philosophically”
Nero didn’t trust his mum. So he killed her. He saw his brother as a threat. So he killed him. He wanted someone to blame when Rome had its great fire, so he pointed his finger at the Christians. He fried lots of them. He wasn’t happy with either his first or his second wife. He certainly killed the first and probably the second as well. He fell in love with a young boy who he thought looked like his second wife. So he married him… but not before having the poor kid’s genitals removed so he would look even more like his wife. He raped and murdered dozens of senators and their wives. He snuck around the dark streets of Rome at night slashing at the throats of strangers. He had anyone who he thought might disagree with him fed to crocodiles or lions. To top it all off he ordered his beloved tutor and advisor, Seneca, to kill himself. Seneca knew his boss well. He wasn’t remotely surprised. He accepted his fate “philosophically”, as the saying goes.
Back to sport. How did Nero’s penchant for winning everything, at any cost, show itself in the sporting arena? Nero’s shenanigans as an ancient world racing driver were carried out all over his empire but nowhere were his talents (or lack of such) more clearly demonstrated than at the Olympic Games.
I’ll bet you thought that the Olympic Games, back in those days, were exclusively for Greeks didn’t you? Well, you would (normally) be right. But remember. Nero was the boss. If the chief Roman ordered the Greeks to allow him to enter their games then who were they to argue? Getting raped, chopped up or fed to crocodiles is nowhere near as appealing as being given bag loads of denarius and being granted Roman citizenship in return for the minor favour of allowing one Roman into their exclusive games club.
Nero wasn’t only granted exceptional entry into the Greek-only tournament, but the organizers even changed the year the Games were to be held to suit the wishes of the Emperor. So… out went the “every four years” tradition.
Uneven playing field
Think that was it? Hardly. Nero was only just getting started. While all of the other chariot drivers lined up at the start ready to go with four horses our hero thought it fair enough that he bring along his ten-steed rig. One would think that one of the other drivers… or officials… or priests… or audience members would offer up some kind of protest at this proposed uneven playing field but, strangely, no one seemed to notice. The race went ahead exactly as the drivers had lined up.
The flag dropped and Nero thundered to an early lead. At the first corner, however, the Emperor must have been going a bit too fast because he fell off his chariot as it screamed around the bend. Undetered, with the assistance of nearby spectators, Nero jumped back on board and set off in pursuit of the field that had passed him by. Just when it looked like he would overtake his under-gunned opponents, to retake the lead, he managed to fall off his chariot again.
One thing I’ll say for the royal driver is that whatever he lacked in talent was at least partially made up for with perseverance. Despite his brave efforts to rejoin the race a second time he never actually made it to the finishing line. Nero managed a worthy DNF. Too bad. Can’t win ‘em all. Better luck next time. The bloke with the best rig didn’t win, after all. Or so all the spectators thought. Such negative thinking underrated the Emperor’s talent for finding a way to get the job done. When the winner’s laurel crown was produced at the awards ceremony it was placed on the head of Nero! The race judges had concluded that if Nero had been able to stay on his chariot he would certainly have won the race, so it made sense to declare him the winner.
There have been some exceptional examples of cheating in sports throughout history, but few would argue that, when it comes to the flagrant breaking of the rules to secure a win, Roman Emperor Nero was not a contender for World Champion.
Note: Most information about our hero in this story come from a mere three ancient sources and it’s pretty clear that none of them thought highly of the Emperor. With that being said it should be acknowledged that some of his many described character failings and alleged criminal acts may have been exaggerated. Certainly, some modern ancient history scholars think so. However, the fact that most people around him, friends and enemies alike, met with grizzly ends gives a relatively clear inclination that Nero was not someone you would be inclined to have on your Christmas Card list.