The Culture of Cheating

Does cheating in sports have anything to do with the culture of the athlete?
By: /
July 30, 2012

As I write this article, more than 14,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes are converging in my home city for the London 2012 Olympics. The Olympic spirit stresses mutual understanding, friendship, solidarity, and fair play. Yet, by some estimates, as many as 1,000 of these competitors may have cheated at some point in their sports career by breaking rules banning performance-enhancing drug use.

More than 200 nations will be competing at the Olympics this summer. Do they all have similar notions of sportsmanship – and, therefore, attitudes towards cheating? Perhaps it is best to start by examining the beginning of competitive sport as an international activity. It will not surprise you that, as an Englishman, I trace the origins of modern sport back to England. Baron Pierre de Coubertin – admittedly, a Frenchman – was so impressed with the English public-school ethos of competitive sport as socially and personally enriching that he based his reinvention of the ancient Greek Olympics on these ideals. In doing so, he countered the largely Germanic view of exercise as a purely physical activity ­– one that is of benefit to an individual’s health, and thus to society, but that is not necessarily spiritually uplifting in its own right.


We should perhaps note in passing that Coubertin was acting on two myths: that the ancient Greek games fostered international peace, and that the English public school fostered fair and gentlemanly sportsmen. In truth, although a sacred Olympic truce outlawed military action during Olympics (so that competitors and spectators could get to the Games safely), the different city-states still used the Games as a vehicle to assert their dominance over each other. Famous Olympic winners were even persuaded to change states between Olympiads – a precursor to the current poaching of elite African athletes by oil-rich Gulf states. As for English public schools encouraging fair play in sport, the idea that Coubertin embraced was in part a creation of the author Thomas Hughes in the novel Tom Brown’s School Days.

Be that as it may, the modern Olympics as a challenge between individuals and teams from different cultures was born. However, with competition comes conflict. What is allowable and what is not has been a matter of intense debate over the years. Until 2002, athletes who were paid for their sporting performance were not permitted to enter the Olympics. Sometimes even trying too hard went against the ideal of sport as a glorious amateur pursuit. The movie Chariots of Fire notes the disdain that Harold Abrahams was treated with for hiring a professional coach, Sam Mussabini, to assist him in winning the 100-metre-dash gold medal at the 1924 Olympics. During Roger Bannister’s attempts at breaking the four-minute mile in 1954, people raised similar concerns about the ethics of using other runners as pacemakers.

It isn’t only individuals who railed against these rules. During the Cold War, communist countries saw the benefit of using sporting competition to prove their superiority over capitalism. Their athletes were amateur in name only – the chosen ones were able to devote their lives full-time to sport, and were amply rewarded for success.

Outside the Olympic arena, some sports resonate with their place of origin. Baseball in the U.S. and cricket in England are more than just sporting activities – many view them as the embodiment of their country’s culture, and so view cheating in those sports with particular disdain. In England, we are less shocked if a soccer player cheats than if a cricketer does – the latter “just isn’t cricket.” Upon visiting the U.S., I learned the meaning of the phrase, “Say it ain’t so, Jo,” long before I learned of its mythical origins in the Chicago Black Sox World Series scandal of 1919.

What of Canada? Does its attitude toward cheating tell us anything about its culture? In one area, I think it does. I recently wrote a book called Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat about the science of doping in sport. Hard information about the prevalence of doping is difficult to come by for obvious reasons. Three events stand out: the discovery after the collapse of the Berlin Wall of the Stasi files that revealed the extent of the East German sports doping program; the U.S. grand-jury hearings related to the more recent BALCO drugs scandal; and the Canadian Dubin Inquiry into performance-enhancing drugs following Ben Johnson’s positive drug test at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Only the latter was designed from the start as an open investigation. Being willing to wash your dirty laundry in public may be the sign of a healthy grown-up attitude toward sport.

However, one can make too much of differences in culture when it comes to cheating in sport. Athletes the world over generally follow similar strategies to succeed if they are competing in the same sport. Any minor differences between different countries are dwarfed by differences between sports. Professional snooker players or golf players will call a foul on themselves if they make an illegal shot, even if no one is around to see it. Yet a soccer player would never admit to handling a ball illegally, nor would he be expected to. Many cricketers used to walk off the pitch if they edged the ball and were caught, not even waiting for the umpire to call them out. Now, they wait for the umpire’s decision and – more recently – video proof before yielding to justice.

Yet, sport is full of wonderful and confusing contradictions that defy simple cultural explanations. French soccer player Thierry Henry knocked Ireland out of the World Cup with an undetected illegal handball, but went over to console the distraught Irish players at the final whistle. A Tour de France cyclist might dope with whatever drug he can find, but would nevertheless be honour-bound to stop and refuse to take advantage of a rival who had a puncture. And even in the Victorian period – the era most associated with English fair play – and in that most English of sports, cricket, some people were happy to cheat blatantly. The most famous cricketer of his time, W.G. Grace, famously refused to depart the field even when called out by the umpire. His alleged comment was, “the crowd paid to watch me play, not you, umpire.”

Cheating, it would seem, knows no borders.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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