A World Where Cheating Couldn't Exist


We can’t seem to hear enough about Lance Armstrong and the doping scandal that has exposed a pervasive system of performance enhancing drugs within the cycling community. Doping was found at all levels of the sport and the findings have seen Armstrong stripped of his Tour de France titles. He’s lost major sponsorship deals and international cycling has been tainted. Why has so much media attention, much of it beyond the arenas of sport and public health, been focused on this story? In the rush to either condemn or excuse so-called cheating, have we missed the big picture?

Long before the internet, Eftpos and celebrity dog trainers, I worked as a DJ. I was not particularly employable at the time and working as a DJ was far preferable to waiting tables because there was no small talk required, no prams to dodge and you didn’t have to have good gross motor skills.

The criteria for the position were simple. You spent your life obsessively hunting new music, practicing mixes and hauling crates of vinyl around, you played music people wanted to hear and dance to and you took cocaine. You took cocaine not just because everyone else did and you wanted to fit in, you took it because it kept you awake and focused and standing up for hours and hours on end, night after night. It wasn’t optional and it wasn’t mandatory, it just was. If you didn’t have any or had other financial priorities, whoever was working the bar made sure you got some. Nobody saw it as cheating, but almost no one seemed to be able to work without it.

Cheating and attempts to enhance performance go hand in hand with a single-minded focus on outcome. The clearer our desire for a specific result, the more likely we are to take shortcuts to get there. And the more we see outcomes as related purely to personal effort, the more likely we are to blame individuals for failing to meet our own high standards.

One of the things that most grabs our attention about the doping scandal in professional cycling is how pervasive and systemic it is. How many people were involved and how integral it’s been to the fabric of the sport. It’s not just a case of a few bad apples. Like a Stephen King novel where the hero finds himself alone and surrounded by threatening aliens, our worst nightmares most often involve the feeling that there is nothing that one person can do alone to stem a the tide of perverse destruction. It’s part of our most common nightmares because it’s often true in real life. In real life all of us are in some way powerless within the systems that surround us.

Psychologists call the failure to see the impact of the social environment on individual behaviour the fundamental attribution error. We tend to see other people’s bad behaviour as a personal failing — they’re lazy or stupid, weak or cowardly, rather than influenced by their environment. But we usually don’t hold ourselves to the same high standard.

Instead, we tend to see ourselves as victims of circumstance when we stuff up. A psychological double standard that leaves us safe from ever having to take action to change the systems we live in. Because the current doping scandal has exposed systemic drug use and corruption, it’s not just athletes hanging their heads in shame, but a whole system that’s now under the microscope. And that challenges our ideas about the nature of sport in a way that hasn’t happened before.

But there’s another thing being challenged here I think, and that’s our idea that cheating is essentially wrong and that the rules here about what we’re trying to achieve are clear. It’s only in an arena like individual sport, where each athlete is working to beat the other that we can talk about competing in a fair or ethical fashion.

Cheating couldn’t exist if we were all working towards something together, in the same way that there could be no theft if there was no private property. If the goal is simply to ride a bike as fast as possible, why is it that we can’t allow this to happen by any means necessary? Some commentators have asked just that when they have suggested that we should allow doping and see what happens.  That would at least stay true to the simple goal of going faster.

What has been exposed most keenly in this scandal is the insoluble conflict between two opposing goals: to go ever faster and beat your competitor, and to be an ideal of natural hardworking talent. The Olympic motto may include the phrase that "the essential thing is not conquering but fighting well" but any athlete who was to take that seriously would never make it there.

No wonder it’s put sponsors in a position where they felt the need to withdraw funding from Armstrong and other cyclists. Like many athletes who have been signed and unsigned by sponsors according to their capacity to make money for the brand, Armstrong is now seen as having betrayed the ideals of sportsmanship. To just do it — with only the aid of grim determination and good genetics.

Despite the evidence, we just can’t seem to believe that most sport is as much theatre as the much ridiculed World Wrestling Federation. Those great hulking bulwarks of supercharged shiny human flesh are dancing a choreographed musical for us, but at the same time it’s bloody hard work. Sport is entertainment, and like the rest of the business, the entertainers work hard but often not for long. And if they don’t entertain us by winning, they don’t get to work at all.

If we can’t see that, then we can’t ever hope to change an environment that has become a kind of manufacturing plant for medals. If that’s not what we want, if we still hold to the ideal of a tough battle between hardworking unenhanced men and women, then we really are hoping to live in another kind of world.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

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