Cheating: Worth the Risk?

Cheating at the top, maybe.

For elite athletes, the temptation of many incentives in combination is hard to resist, especially when you realize how many competitors are cheating – you are trying to compensate for a disadvantage.

Cheating among elite athletes is rife.  If you didn’t know how rife, consider a study that appeared in Sports Medicine in January 2018 on the prevalence of doping in athletics. It yielded a troubling result: a survey of 2,167 elite athletes at two different games found a prevalence of 43.6% in one and 57.1% in the other during the prior year, when the respondents were guaranteed anonymity. (For statistics fans, the 95% confidence interval was 39.4-47.9 at the first and 52.4-61.8 at the other.) You can find an abstract of the study at  The researchers concluded that “doping appears remarkably widespread among elite athletes, and remains largely unchecked despite current biological testing.”

Evidently the cost to the athletes is low enough that a high percentage of them are willing to take the risk of getting caught. In addition, punishments even for those who are caught are so lenient they fail to create a strong deterrent.

Cheating, per this study, occurs among elites at a rate (as much as 57%!?) that surprised me.  Then, I considered the incentives, both tangible (in the form of prize money, appearance money, sponsorship and product endorsements), and intangible.

Intangibles take many forms: recognition, respect, renown, admiration, awe, and even fame. At a group level (team, school, community, region, nation), the gratitude of the group plays a significant part. Just qualifying for acceptance into some group such as a national team figures in the calculation of whether to cheat. Taken together, these incentives add up to a powerful temptation. The numbers discovered by the study referred to above suggest just how powerful. 

Coercion adds fear to the cheating equation

There’s also coercion, by an individual such as a coach, or by a team, such as a professional cycling team – the latter exacerbated by the way pro cycling is organized, where individual athletes’ careers – excepting the very best who can negotiate favorable contracts – can be crushed at the whim of a sponsor. Fear of the cut has driven many to dope.

Coercion at the national level is most egregiously practiced by Russia, whose anti-doping agency has been stringing along the World Anti-Doping Agency literally for years, while they try to find a way to cover up their misdeeds. In a country with a leadership as corrupt, autocratic, and ruthless as Russia’s, even one’s literal survival may be at stake, as we’ve seen in the case of whistle-blower Grigory Rodchenkov, who is currently in a witness protection program in the U.S.

To win is to cheat

It turns out that winning itself motivates cheating. How’s that?  Don’t people cheat to overcome inferiority? Paradoxically, it’s the other way around. If you win anything, you are then more likely to cheat at the same game and other games. (I’m using “you” rhetorically–I don’t mean you the reader personally.) This was described by Roberto Ferdman in The Washington Post in 2016, building on a study where subjects who won at a game where it was impossible to cheat, were subsequently more likely to cheat at a different game where cheating was possible. Read about it in Why People Cheat.

Of course, once you’ve won by cheating, you are even more likely to cheat the next time, where if you win . . . you get the positive feedback loop.

This is another engine driving the train of temptations that makes it easy to see why elite athletes are so likely to cheat.  They may start out winning at an early age and want to keep the streak going.

What about small-time cheaters? The case against finisher medals.

What about small-time cheating, on the part of those who have no chance at fame or fortune? Hundreds of runners were caught course-cutting in the 2017 Honolulu Marathon, the Disney World Marathon, and on camera at China’s Shenzhen Half Marathon.  This is not unusual, according to Derek Murphy of Marathon Investigation, who has switched his focus from one-time cheaters to repeat offenders. (You should consider contributing to Marathon Investigation in the interest of keeping our sport less dishonest.) Big marathons often find that following up on potential cheaters in the pack is not worth the risk of negative publicity.

The consequences of being publicly exposed as a cheater can be harsh.  Exposed cheaters get nasty mail, email, takedowns on social media, and people showing up at their homes to shame them. Knowing that, the habitual cheater’s motives must go deep as the reptilian brain, bordering on sociopathy.

Qualifying for Boston is the most frequently mentioned as a motivator for cheating. Should we presume that getting qualified for Boston would mean the cheater was still able to complete a full marathon in decent time, and just wanted a break? Maybe not – some who cheat at qualifying are found cheating at Boston itself. This idea–that a runner who couldn’t finish Boston would bother to qualify for Boston and show up at the start intending to cheat there as well – is hard to comprehend. I get the cheat-to-qualify part.  Maybe the runner had an injury that s/he knew would be mended by April; maybe a highly capable runner got the flu the day of the qualifier and couldn’t complete the whole course. I’m willing to cut that runner some slack – although not enough slack to let them run Boston.

Recently, it was found that some runners at one race cheated in order to get a finisher medal. Evidently it was an especially fancy medal (sorry I don’t recall which race). That certainly occurs elsewhere. In an era where glam is increasingly prized, the competition among medal-makers is high, and the desire to create an impressive persona on Facebook has spread by the millions, why should we be judgmental?

I’ll be judgmental, and not only towards the runners.  It’s toward the very notion that everyone who finishes deserves a conspicuous prize. (In a full marathon, perhaps. It would be well-earned in the case of someone who had never run a marathon before.) Some social critics might charge that the trend toward finisher medals for everyone is part of a larger shift into the Age of Entitlement. Hmm.

Why don’t more people cheat?

The study “Why People Cheat” referred to above, concluded that cheaters, on average, outperform non-cheaters.  Makes sense, knowing that, given anonymity, most CEOs admit to cheating at golf (82% according to a study published in CNN money in 2002. The same group claimed they were 99% honest in business. Believe that, and I want to sell you a beach on the Florida coastline.)

So . . . why don’t more people cheat?  It seems to make sense that in the rough-and-tumble of both biological and social evolution, cheaters would rise to a majority in a contest of Survival of the Cheatingest.

I have an idea why (almost certainly not unique with me), and it goes this way: cheating may succeed on an individual level, but at a societal level, cooperation weakens if each person believes their neighbor is likely to cheat. The society falls apart, and the cheaters go down with everyone else.

Much of the success of our species depends on cooperation.  Without it, the connections that make us strong fray and fall apart. Thus there is a stigma attached to cheating that tends to suppress it on a large scale, and keeps the cheaters at a small minority. A few hundred cheaters in a race with tens of thousands of runners sounds bad, but it’s really not that bad.

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