ON WEDNESDAY, France's best handball player and six others were suspended for betting on a club match believed to have been rigged. Once, this would have failed to raise an eyebrow here because handball is virtually an unknown sport. Now, it fails to raise an eyebrow because handball is a sport, ergo, corrupt.
Rarely can the games-playing landscape have looked murkier. Its air is thick with ringing alarm bells. There is Lance Armstrong, once a household name, now an infamous byword. There was, not so long ago, Damien Oliver. There is match fixing in soccer, on the grand scale.
Locally, there is tanking; the AFL, though somewhat distracted, still might announce charges against Melbourne identities this week. Across the train tracks, another successful Australian Open wound up, but darkened by this thought: tennis does laughably little blood testing, and its worldwide budget for all testing is less than Novak Djokovic's cheque.
High on the cricket agenda again is throwing, of balls if not this time matches. In golf, three-times major winner Vijay Singh, once penalised for meddling with scorecards, messed with a deer antler spray that contained a banned hormone. His excuse, so lamentably familiar: he didn't know.
Surpassing all in this town's consciousness, there is Essendon. Nothing has been proved yet, and for the Bombers' sake, hopefully nothing will be. But already a sordid image has emerged that might never quite wash away: men scurrying furtively between shopfronts, trying, buying, moving on, feeling always for the fine line that might be nudged, but can never be crossed, pushing the envelope, pushing, pushing.
Momentarily, we all become pharmacists, telling one substance from another, but really, does it matter? Is this where premierships really are won and lost? Is this, to borrow from Essendon's unfortunate 2013 slogan, the ''whatever it takes''?
There is the puzzle of the alleged waivers: if the regimen was suspect, why would anyone create a document? If it was legal, why would a document be needed? On Wednesday, the AFL scene was spooked. The animating sentiment was this: if it can happen to Essendon, it can happen to anyone.
All the while, the sporting world spins on its crooked axis. Some cheat to win, for pride, for money. Some cheat without knowing it, but they should. Some are exploited. Some, able to win, cheat to lose, for money, without pride.
Some cheat because it is in their culture; they come from places where corruption is institutionalised and bribery is everyday business. Australia's reassurance always was that it is not here. Hopefully, it still is not, but the scale has changed, warping all perspectives. Cheating to lose is anathema still, but cheating to win was never before so tempting. Sport is big business. Vast spoils are there for the taking. On Wednesday, there was a rush to back Essendon for the wooden spoon. How did this mentality develop?
Professional sportsmen are defined by winning and losing, redoubling the premium on winning. It is not that you are only as good as your last game, but that you are worth only as much as that game. Moreover, their time is short, and they know it.
Clubs know it. As Carlton changed coaches last year, president Stephen Kernahan said the Blues simply had to win a premiership in the Judd era. Nowhere and never is there a moment to be lost.
One of sport's contemporary buzzwords is ''integrity''. Essendon president David Evans is arrow-straight. But even from his lips on Monday, the word ''integrity'' landed with a hollow thud.