Kinetic Motion - Blog

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cheaters Among Us

I met a man on the podium after a big race who told me, in a rather matter-of-fact manner, that he had cheated to get there. In fact, he laughed about it. He said he'd gotten a stern warning about illegal drafting from a referee who zoomed up on a scooter, but "That particular moment was about the only time during the race that I wasn't actually trying to draft!"
Then he climbed up on the podium and accepted his medal.
The facade of purity has long be stripped from sports, and cheating has been a part of it since cavemen competed in the rock toss. These days cheats seem to be everywhere, but that's simply because now there's too much money involved for sports' sponsors to look the other way. Lord knows, they've tried. Baseball pretended that Hulk-like record setters got it all at the gym. And cycling only began to pay attention after EPO-stoked professionals began dying mysteriously in their sleep.
Even when the woman who won the Kona Ironman got caught doping we wanted to dismiss that as the desperate act of a professional, and hoped it wasn't something that would touch those of us who compete for pure pleasure.
I wouldn't bet that now, particularly after reading something by my colleague Shankar Vendantam, who writes about ethics and science. Shortly after Floyd Landis tested positive for doping after winning the Tour de France, Shankar wrote:
Talk about cheating usually has a ring to it, and that ring comes from having a high moral tone.
In this, it is fair to say, most people are hypocrites. You and I may never get to ride in the Tour de France, but a great many studies show that most human beings are open to -- and extraordinarily adept at -- bending moral rules when it is convenient.
Most people report telling lies on a fairly regular basis and being largely untroubled by them. When pressed, people say their lies are innocuous.
Nor can the world be divided cleanly into cheaters and honest people: A variety of ingenious experiments show that large majorities of people can be induced to do the wrong thing, depending on the circumstances.
Among the most potent motivators to cheat is the sense that one has lost the limelight, is falling behind and will be judged harshly. People are also more likely to cheat if they think other people are cheating.
One experiment asked volunteers to perform a simple mechanical task -- track a rapidly moving light beam with a stylus. Volunteers were told (by someone they thought was another volunteer but was really part of the research team) that it was necessary to cheat to get a decent score.
After five practice trials, all the volunteers were told that they were not doing well and that they needed to make rapid improvement in order to catch up to the others. Then they were asked to keep track of their scores and were left alone.
Volunteers did not know researchers were independently monitoring the scores.
More than three-quarters of the subjects lied about their performance. Volunteers who had done especially poorly on the practice runs seemed more likely to cheat, compared with those who did well.
Carl I. Malinowski, an associate professor in marketing at Pace University in New York, said personality traits, anxiety levels, temptation and situational factors all played roles.
But people who do the wrong thing are fully aware of what they have done, right? Not always.
"We have a whole quiver full of rationalizations," said C. Daniel Batson, a psychologist at the University of Kansas who has closely studied cheating.
Batson does not know what happened in the Tour de France, but he does understand how athletes in general can rationalize a decision to cheat. All they need to do is think of a drug or a steroid as a relatively small offense that is evened out by other factors.
"We're very good at explaining to ourselves why we are doing something," he said. "Maybe I have a cold and I know I am going to underperform. Well, I have trained all this time, and in order to compensate for this misrepresentation in my performance . . ."
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Drugs, of course, are invisible. But I'm sorry to say that I saw a lot of cheating this race season, mostly in the form of drafting, which is strictly forbidden in triathlon. It was rampant at the 70.3 Ironman in Cancun this year, and again at the 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater.
This is a sport of self-discovery. If we're racing hard, it's a conversation with ourselves, from damping down the start-line fear, to finding inner clam in the mayhem of the first few hundred meters of the swim, to hanging on to pace during the ride, and finally, struggling through the last miles and over that damned hill we find near the end of so many races.
We also find out about other people and human nature in a race. I am fascinated by people who revel in the personal glory of their finish without any apparent remorse over the fact that their success was tainted by cheating.
I learn something about myself with every race and every training session I do. That's the challenge and that's the beauty of it. For those who lack the courage and moral compass to compete without cheating, it's hard to feeling anything but pity.
Ciao for now.

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