CHEATING is as much a part of sport as medals and injuries. It will be ever thus. From footballers diving hoping for a penalty all the way to sprawling state doping programmes, athletes and those working alongside them will always push for any kind of advantage, no matter how that is achieved. When the price of success (and failure) at elite level is so great, it is easy to understand why.

There is little point calling on sports stars simply to do the right thing, to set a positive example as role models and to always act in the Corinthian spirit. For while the majority will set out with the best of intentions, the temptation to do whatever it takes to run that bit faster, to win a few extra matches or to add more trophies to the cabinet will always prove irresistible to some. Adhering to the notion of fair play quickly becomes a secondary concern to winning at all costs.

A cheating scandal has engulfed America’s favourite pastime this week. Baseball is a sport that has been forever mired in controversy, with even Scot Bobby Thomson’s famous "Shot Heard Around the World" in 1951 later discovered to have been tainted by jiggery-pokery.

Now, as was the case back then, this latest brouhaha centres on the concept of sign stealing. In baseball a team’s catcher and pitcher confer by way of elaborate finger gestures to decide what type of pitch should be thrown. If a batter knows what is coming, then he can be better prepared to hit the ball.

Investigations concluded this week by MLB (Major League Baseball) revealed the Houston Astros benefited from a scheme in 2017 where they filmed that exchange between rival pitchers and catchers and played it back on a monitor placed outside their dug-out.

Having previously interpreted what each sign meant, a message would then be relayed to the batter by the rather more elementary means of banging a rubbish bin a certain amount of times with a bat. Thus, duly alerted, their batters could then swing away knowing either a fastball, curveball or off-speed pitch was coming their way.

That set-up helped them win their first World Series before a former player blew the whistle and the threads began to unravel. Both their coach AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended by MLB for a year, the team lost draft picks for this year and next, and were fined $5m.

It didn’t end there. The Astros fired both Hinch and Luhnow, as did the Boston Red Sox with their own head coach, Alex Cora, who had been the Astros’ bench coach in 2017 and reportedly the mastermind behind the sign-stealing scheme.

Former Houston player Carlos Beltran was also given the bullet by the New York Mets before he had even started as their new manager after also becoming implicated in the investigation. The bloodletting has been relentless.

Sign stealing doesn’t seem the most heinous of crimes as an outsider looking in, and there is a more than decent chance that every team in the league has some kind of similar system in place to try to gain an advantage. But in a bid to restore the sport’s reputation, MLB officials have come down hard on the Astros and those involved.

That may seem excessive but it is the right course of action. For the only way to reduce cheating in sport is to make the sanctions for being caught so severe that the risk becomes too great for those considering it.

Perhaps the Astros knew they would eventually get found out but figured that MLB would treat them leniently. They now know otherwise, with four people having lost their jobs and the organisation cast into disrepute. Other baseball operations may now think twice about pushing ahead with sign-stealing scams when the new season gets underway in the spring.

Interestingly, though, there are no plans as yet to strip the Astros of their title. And if you’re a fan of that particular franchise, perhaps the hell that has rained down on them over this past week has all been worthwhile. They still have a World Series win to their name, no matter how rotten it appears in the eyes of many.

Tainted titles is something rugby club Saracens are also having to deal with having been found to have breached salary cap rules for three seasons running. The Premiership and European champions were fined £5m and docked 35 points in November but are still struggling to get their financial house in order.

Relegation looks increasingly likely this season and the giants of English rugby won’t ever be viewed in the same light again.

In an Olympic year, the dark cloud of doping allegations will again hover over Tokyo. There will be feverish debate over which athletes are clean or not, and whether events have taken place on a level playing field. For those competitors still playing by the rules, it will likely be a frustrating process as they keep their fingers crossed that organisers are both diligent in their checks and then harsh on those caught.

Cheating will always be a part of sport. The only way to minimise its impact is to make the punishment so severe that it deters others from doing likewise.