>The Anthropology of a Cheat

>Sports Illustrated today published online an article called “The Case Against Lance Armstrong” in which it attempted to lay out allegations and testimony that Armstrong was engaged in doping, cheating, and numerous other crimes.

The fallout has been really interesting to observe. Twitter has been alive since the story broke. There are at least two Armstrong related threads on Slowtwitch.com arguing both sides (with a fairly high level of vitriol as well).

In case you live under a rock and hadn’t already heard, Lance Armstrong – arguably the most famous cyclist of the modern era – has been accused of cheating. Blood doping. Using performance enhancing drugs. Lying to us all. People have called him a fraud. A mirage. Others have lifted him up on pedestals because he’s a cancer survivor who went on to win more Tour de France races than anyone.

The allegations made by Armstrong’s contemporaries (some of whom have been discredited on their own accord) are pretty shocking. They paint an environment wherein taking performance enhancing drugs was the norm. If true, it’s this writer’s opinion that Armstrong would land a spot amongst the most nefarious cheats in sport.

What interests me most about all of this is not whether he cheated. Frankly, I could care less. Far too often, we’ve seen icons of sport, which were no doubt admired by millions of fans all over the world, knocked to their knees for some reason or another. Some good examples: OJ Simpson. Tiger Woods. Pete Rose. Ben Johnson. Tonya Harding. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Some of these cases were about cheating; others weren’t (well, honestly, Tiger’s was about cheating…just not in the sense I meant). If Armstrong indeed cheated, he’d be part of aforementioned cohort.

There are, however, two slightly divergent aspects of the Armstrong story that really are pretty curious to me. Firstly, the amounts of cheating that people do to get ahead in sport. Secondly, the impact it has on us as fans and athletes.

The broader anthropological question here is pretty compelling. Why do people cheat in the first place? The answers seem rather obvious in the case of professional (or elite) athletes. They cheat so they can win. Winning means more income, fame, notoriety. But let’s face it. Elite athletes aren’t the only folks that cheat. The everyman cheats as well. Just look at any big triathlon and you’ll see countless examples. Take, for example, Ironman Florida. When I competed at this race in 2009, there were packs of riders drafting off each other. Folks were clearly breaking the rules, gaining an advantage on other athletes who were trying to adhere to the rules. You don’t have to look at a huge race, either. Every triathlon you race in has a penalty tent. The purpose? So cheaters can pay for their crime.

Maybe I’m just some old-school, conservative, goodie-two-shoes, but I just don’t get it. I don’t cheat in races. I don’t take shortcuts. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to me. I can’t justify taking the risk in my mind. Clearly others do. Perhaps they are lemmings. Perhaps they just want to feel better because they finished faster than I. I don’t know. Regardless, I find it disconcerting.

The second aspect of cheating, and specifically the Armstrong case, that I find really compelling is the amount of engagement from fans. If you read the Slowtwitch posts (you can read them here), you’ll see some pretty vehement arguments going on –from both the pro-Armstrong camp as well as the anti-Armstrong camp. Some folks are ready to toss the guy in jail, fine him millions of dollars, and write him off. Others have tried to outweigh any potential wrongdoings with perceived positives that Armstrong has brought in terms of cancer research and advocacy. What totally blows my mind here is that people who literally have zero at stake in the case can take such heated perspectives. Why, I ask?

I know that society loves scandal, and that there are folks who thrive on gossip. That said I’m not sure I can personally sign up to make an argument about something in which I don’t know the whole story. None of us know if Armstrong really cheated. I suppose we’re allowed to form our own opinions based upon what we read, and it’s clearly within our First Amendment right to share our opinions. Nevertheless, I find the amount of public debate on this issue to be pretty interesting. At the end of the day, I suppose that the debate on this topic is no different than the debates we could see nightly on any cable news network show. Maybe that we can have the debate in the first place is one thing that makes America such a cool place.

So talk it up, if you’re so inclined. Just don’t expect me to join the fray – or to draft off of you in our next triathlon together.

8 thoughts on “>The Anthropology of a Cheat

  1. >Great read!I've never understood the whole drafting thing. I guess it is because I am usually racing myself as I don't stand much of a chance of placing. So, cheating by drafting would just be cheating myself.

  2. >At IMFL there are obvious infractions and then the hmmmmm maybe, hmmmm maybe not. I was riding with Ryan Barnett (hoping to break 9 hr this year) in Clermont and we talked about it. If you will notice the broadcast from Kona the pros space at 3 bikes and ride up to Hawi. Not a whole lot of passing. Ryan says that even at 3 lengths there is both a mental and physical (draft) advantage. Problem is 3 lengths at these races is totally subjective. (In the eyes of some highly trained draft monkey on the back of a motorcycle… not sure what school you go to for that diploma?) Until they come up with a more objective method, the debate will go on…

  3. >Very interesting. I totally get why people cheat – particularly in professional sports. Maybe it is my criminology background, but the gains for most of these guys far outweigh the risks.

  4. >Joel, The cheating in professional sports has left me with a big "blah" feeling. When I was a kid living in Pittsburgh Barry Bonds was my hero. Sorta crushed that memory when his head became twice it's normal size. I almost have no reaction anymore when stories like the LA one surface.But the most impressive part of this post is that you were able to work the word "anthropological" into it! Job well done sir!

  5. >great post, so much deeper than my normal reading. I agree with Jeff at the vocab.I disagree with Velma regarding gains v. risk. I would also argue from a criminology background that many of the cheaters have a me, me me, mentality and skewed social norms- trying to get what is the most benificial for thier personal glory by what means they beleive are acceptable i.e. ethical hedonism.

  6. >The thing with Lance is that his winning is not just on the bike. His foundation and its credibility I think are at stake here. I sometimes wonder if he doesn't use it as a smoke and mirror to show his uber good side while he keeps himself known and the endorsement dollars flow in while he continues to dope.All speculation, I know. I looked back at a stage I watched in person @ The Tour in 2003 and everyone in the lead group up Alpe 'DHuez has been busted for doping or already had been busted for doping. Makes you wonder why not him?I just think Lance has a lot more $$$ and lawyers than those other folks.I don't think we will ever know the true story, and Lance is happy about that.

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