EVERY now and then the wonderful world of sport awakens to the astounding truth that people, being people, given half a chance, a few inducements and decent odds against being caught, will cheat.

Consternation is not the half of it. To hear the likes of Baron Coe, civilisation itself is put at risk. If you can’t trust a multi-million-dollar business like international athletics, what can you trust? Before you know it, someone will be insinuating that politics, global finance and TV talent shows are not open and above board.

What renders sport’s travails funny is the desperate desire of all concerned to pretend that the latest scandal is without precedent. Doping? With official connivance? To cheat opponents, the public and the record books? Money, honour and fame dishonestly obtained? These disturbing questions are new, it seems, and strange.

When sport’s political class begins the hunt for “the facts”, certain examples are overlooked. The fact that there are people who hate to lose even in a game of Snap gets forgotten. The fact that some think winning matters far more than any tedious argument over cheating gets ignored. The fact that cash, celebrity, trinkets and acclaim count for a lot in most walks of life is treated as a novelty.

Then there’s the name of the game, the nature of sport itself. The purpose is to win. For professionals and their handlers, winning matters more than anything. It is the whole and only point. When big money or “national honour” is riding on the outcome, every other consideration is subordinate. Every other consideration, that is, in fond hope and theory, save the rules.

Without rules, what is the point of any sport? Baron Coe and those like him grope towards that understanding when overwhelmed by indignation towards the Russians and their alleged behaviour in international athletics. Who bothers to watch a contest that’s rigged? Then again, what is a fair contest, exactly, rules or no rules?

The latest claims are gaudy, but not new: that coaches ordered Russia’s athletes to enhance their performances chemically, that officials demanded cash to conceal positive dope tests, that the Russian state knew plenty, and that the International Association of Athletics Federations – of which Coe was vice-president before becoming president in August – looked the other way.

The horror. It means the Russkies stole medals from our boys and girls. It also means that all the claims of clean sport, heard after every doping scandal, were nonsense, witting or unwitting. It means, too, that the boasting done before the London Olympics about the fabulous science being brought to bear against cheats was as relevant as an aspirin after a gunshot wound.

Still, the Russians are everyone’s favourite villains. Any troubling innuendo attached to British athletics can be ignored for a while. Coe’s seeming reluctance to confront the doping allegations while he was campaigning for the IAAF presidency might fade if he is facing a test of virtue involving Vladimir Putin’s regime. Sport’s habit of pitting country against country is handy in all sorts of ways.

That, though, is part of the larger joke. Among the claims made for international athletics, as for the Olympics, the World Cup and all the other jamborees we know to be corrupt, has to do with “understanding”, with “bringing nations together” under the banners of fair play and harmony. Fine examples are set in all directions, whether for the education of children, or in common cause against racism. The idea that in reality humanity’s finest specimens could meet to cheat, win at any cost and get rich in the process, is hard to forge into a slogan.

Doping frightens the horses (so to speak) because of the voodoo power of the word “drugs”. If cheats were still getting away with the euphemism “dietary supplements”, there would be much less fuss. But sport, all sport, is supposed to depend on fair play. The objection to doping is two-fold: it confers an unfair advantage, and it means that performances are not “real”. Pure spirits and physiques as nature designed are all that the rules will allow.

The problem is, this isn’t true, has never been true, and can never be true. International club football has struggled, for one example, with a phenomenon known as financial doping. It’s not complicated: the richest clubs hire the best players, win the top tournaments, make the big money and hire still more of the best players. If, in addition, a club acquires for an owner a Russian oligarch or a sheikh for whom countless millions spent on players is small change, the less fortunate cry foul. New, feeble rules are invented. It amounts to a whimpering protest against the power of cash.

But what if your big-city club simply has more paying fans than my small-town outfit? How can hicks ever compete? What if a tennis player is lucky enough to have the best coach in the world? What if athlete A is raised in Californian opulence and packed off to an expensive college devoted to sport while athlete B grows up in a shanty?

Sport senses these realities and makes gestures. In Formula One motor racing arcane rules, altering with each advance in engineering, govern every last feature of the cars. Other sports make rules about racquets and clubs, about ages, gender, betting, the precise dimensions of the field of play, and much else. All take the dimmest view, when they are not averting their eyes, of doping. So is it fair that an athlete born at altitude is very likely to have a physiological edge over one born at sea level?

This is silly, of course, but no sillier than sport. The belief that science offers a guarantee against human nature is, in that regard, perhaps the most foolish pretence of all. We know, from long experience, that dopers also rely on science. It amounts to a sporting contest by any other name, expert against expert. Those of us who spent years believing Lance Armstrong when he boasted of the hundreds of tests he had passed are no longer impressed by the latest shiny labs, or claims that a sport is “clean”.

So why bother to hunt the dopers? If the public cares, it will pass judgement. That might be tough luck on a young athlete who believes in the word “sporting”, or who doesn’t wish to risk drugs, but neither consideration has much to do with reality. People compete to win. For many, the means are secondary. For some competitors, their coaches and indeed their fans, the means are irrelevant. Supporters of rich football clubs rarely lose sleep over the thought that the cup was bought.

You could just let the scientists get on with it. Let the best lab win. You would have to understand where humanity was headed if it took that route to perfection, so called, but it would be no worse, morally, than cosmetic surgery. It would end the Romantic belief that to be truly human is to be truly natural. Yet since when was there anything natural about professional sport? It takes our belief that human beings can always be improved and calls the obsession a game.