Revisiting the Anthropology of a Cheat

With the recent news that Lance Armstrong has decided to forgo his fight and legal battles with USADA, and their subsequent decision to strip his seven Tour de France victories and issue him a lifetime ban from sport, I thought it might be timely to dust off and revisit a post that I penned close to two years ago.

Now before we go too far, the original post was not specifically about Lance.  Nor is this one.  I’m not going to join the debate about whether he cheated, or if his dropping his battle is tantamount to a confession that he cheated.  Frankly, if you’re looking for that type of dialogue, look elsewhere.  Neither will this post render me an Armstrong apologist. 

Did he cheat?  I don’t know.  Perhaps he did.  Perhaps he didn’t.  He raced during an era where the vast majority of the peleton doped.  Either way (if he did dope, or didn’t), Lance crushed the field.  There’s something to that.

But the bigger question for me is why does it happen to begin with.  Armstrong isn’t the first – nor will he be the last – athlete to be accused of cheating.  It happens all the time.  Just think back a few weeks to the London Olympics and the Chinese female swimmer who had faster splits than Ryan Lochte.  Instead of marveling at her athletic ability, people immediately questioned if she cheated.

It’s a sad state of affairs.  I hope and believe that there are among us athletes that possess the God-given gift to be superior at what they do.  I’m not foolish enough to think that there are others who want to get every advantage that they can.  It just doesn’t compute with me though.

In any case – I think my original post still has merit.  It’s posted below.  I’d love your comments and feedback on the topic.

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.

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One thought on “Revisiting the Anthropology of a Cheat

  1. I know this is truly a heated argument, but based on his statement he released it really seemed like he was a truly beaten man. He had been facing these allegation for years and yet had never failed a drug test. I think it is a shame that it has come to this. It almost reeks of McCartheism. Sad, sad day. If he cheated then he found a way to not have it discovered and more power to him. But as I said, none of his tests ever came back positive. That is what I base my decision on.

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