How Should We Deal with Cheating in Sports?
Cheating has long been part of sporting culture. For much of our history, we have cared very little about this. In part, sports were protected by a code of silence culture where no one dared tell of what happened beyond the public eye. For its part, the public eye wasn’t much interested in looking as previous eras viewed sports as a leisurely concern. Times have changed. Sports are big business generating billions of dollars each year and athletes are celebrities. The money and status have brought incredible scrutiny. The cheaters have become sporting pariahs (with a few notable exceptions) and leagues, federations, governing bodies of all forms, have been forced to make public displays of discipline. The prevailing strategy has been to use revisionist history; we find this tactic sorely lacking.
The formula for managing sporting scandals has become cliché. Player/Coach/Team/Program X does something we call cheating (performance-enhancing drugs, videotapes opposition practices, violates recruiting rules), Governing Body issues statement of shock and dismay, Player/Coach/Team/Program X is stripped of titles/awards/records and we write him/them out of history.
Only we cannot revise our memories.
This week, Lance Armstrong was officially stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. For everyone who has successfully navigated puberty this is a symbolic gesture only. We watched him compete and win those races. The spectacle makes for a nice press conference as the head of the business end of the sport disparages the man and inflates the sanctity of his sport with lofty rhetoric. The show is a sham. For most Americans there are only two names in cycling that mean anything to us: Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond. We watched them dominate an international competition we are rarely even competitive in. In their moment of glory, they made us feel something more than triumphant in competition; they elevated our sense of national pride.
When the US Anti-Doping Agency stripped Armstrong’s titles, I didn’t suddenly forget what he accomplished. The fact Lance Armstrong has been convicted of cheating in the court of public opinion and in the view of the USADA has changed the way I think of him as an athlete and competitor, but those races still happened and I still watched him win.
The first truly high-profile doping scandal provides the best example. At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, American Olympic legend Carl Lewis was dominated by Ben Johnson. Johnson shattered the world record in the race and anyone watching was absolutely mesmerized. Within days we learned Johnson tested positive for steroids. The IOC invalidated Johnson’s time and officially disqualified him. Carl Lewis was given the gold medal. In the moment it felt like vindication, but 24 years later the lasting memory is not that Carl Lewis was the fastest man in the world in 1988; it is still the unfathomable display of athleticism Johnson put on that day. When we later learned Lewis had also tested positive for banned substances, but excused for something called “inadvertent use” (semantics can be fun!) it only further cast the event, the entire sport, in doubt.
Revising history to appease the momentary anger we feel towards accusations and/or proof of cheating accomplishes nothing. Worse, it is an opportunity lost. History is among our greatest teachers and our official record should reflect who we were and what we did, for better and worse. Our past mistakes can inform our future decisions, but not where we deny that past existed.
Rather than erase entries from our record books, we should attach the story. Let the athlete’s fall be a lesson to those who love the sport and the next generation of athletes. We cannot teach morality by shielding ourselves from immorality. There is no dignity in denial.