Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why we cheat (and how to stop it)

This is a photo of the woman who cut the course at a recent race,
robbing my friend of her rightful second place finish.
For more details, read here.  Or expand this picture and look
at her watch to see she only ran 11.5 miles
during her "half-marathon."
I'm a huge fan of the Marathon Investigations blog, and of the cheating investigative work done on Letsrun.

Sports are awesome because they enable individuals (at ALL levels of ability) to discover their own potential and limits, and accurately measure those qualities against others. Cheating siphons out all that is good about sports, leaving just a husk.  And so I'm grateful to those who keep a watchful eye.

Cheating happens at all levels, from world class elites to the back of the pack.  Successful masters runners and those who just want to BQ.

But when slower runners cheat, others sometimes ask why? Why cheat by doping or cutting the course if a world title or medal or money is not at stake?  Why cheat if you're not a professional runner?


As it turns out, the why has an answer.  Heck, it even has a model.   In the 1970s, criminology researchers Edwin Sutherland and Donald Cressy described the Business Fraud Triangle.  About 10 years ago, that model was extended to academia - more specifically, to student cheating at business school.

Under this model, academic cheating occurs when three components are present:

  • Opportunity: is it possible to cheat?
  • Incentive: is there a reason to cheat?
  • Rationalization: does one perceive cheating as "not wrong" in some way - can you cheat, but still see yourself as a good person?
This model works for running also.


Opportunity is obvious.  Road races, especially longer races, are often on unsecured routes with routes that double back, or pass conveniently close to subway stops.  Performance enhancing drugs can be acquired by anyone with the right friends at the gym, or the right doctors.  Timing chips and bibs are easily shared.

The second prong, incentive, confounds some when applied to non-elite runners.  Why go to all that trouble to cut the course or spend all that money to dope if you're not a professional?  If money or fame is not on the line?  

Easy.  We live in a culture where success is praised and prioritized.  And in running, success is generally defined by race times.  Some care about qualifying for Boston, or hitting some other non-elite time standard.  Those who blog or "live" on Instagram have followers tracking their times.  Others still have friends and acquaintances and teammates that they want to impress, whether by time, placing, or completion.  

Anyone who enters a race has something they want to accomplish.  And that something is their incentive.

More fundamentally, racing is about discovering your personal mental and physical limits.  And that's why we get so nervous.   We're not scared of pain; we're scared we'll falter when we hurt.

Cheating allows you to dodge the moment of truth.  To control the answer.  To be safe.   And that's a tempting incentive.

Rationalization is the third prong, and easier than ever.  

To explain: we live in a culture where it's OK to have your photos airbrushed or filtered.   Business professionals join committees that they never participate in for the resume value, or pay "dues" to be named to an "honorary society," or accept nominations for "top women under 45 in IOT cybersecurity" (said award contingent on the purchase of an $150 acrylic trophy for the display case).

"Spontaneous" announcements and photos are edited and filtered for Facebook; "surprise" engagements take weeks to plan and are covered by a professional photographer and hashtagged into incomprehensibility.   And then, there's Spanx.

[completely off topic, but necessary as full disclosure - I dye my hair.]

Thus, presenting the best image of yourself to others is our zeitgeist, and it's socially acceptable to contort and distort and filter and manipulate and do what you need to do in order to do just that.  

It's an easy hop, once that mentality is in place, to justifying cutting the course on a hot day so that you run the time you think you would have in cooler conditions, so that you can get that goal time you believe you deserve.  Or to take stuff that lets you be the runner you always thought you were anyway, so you can prove it to others.

And the more others do it, where "it" is cheating in some form, the easier rationalization is.  If others are "doing it," then it's frighteningly easy to believe that you're not cheating - you're just competing.
Here's three trophies from major races in the last 18 months that
were shipped to me after the fact, rather than being awarded to me
on the podium.  Why?  Cheating.


So how do we stop this? 

(by "we" - I mean the running community)

Taking each prong in turn - we can control opportunity to cheat, with more and better drug testing, with timing mats and cameras.  But we can never eliminate opportunity entirely - heck, one can cheat in indoor track.

Incentive is a simple fact of the racing life.  We race because we care about our performances, whether it be winning, qualifying for Boston, breaking 30 minutes in a 5K, or just crossing that darn finish line. Remove the desire, and you remove the very point of racing, at all levels.  Incentive will remain as long as racing does.

So, to rid ourselves of cheating, we need to reduce rationalization - the ability to justify or excuse cheating.  

We're not going to be able to change pop culture as a whole - photo filters, ghost writers, and paid listings in "best professionals in DC" will endure.  But we can change the culture in running and racing.

There tends to be a view that some cheating is OK.  If it doesn't affect the top of the leaderboard.  Or if it's something that "everyone does."  Or if "they never test."  It's acceptable to take menopause drugs with testosterone if you're not going to win the race anyway.  Or to give your bib to someone else if the race won't let you transfer.  It's the tolerance of some cheating that enables others to push the envelope.

And thus, that attitude needs to end, to be replaced with a zero tolerance stance towards any cheating, no matter how "minor."   So that we can eliminate the opportunities to justify or excuse cheating in all its forms.

That means no bib-swapping, even if nobody's in contention for an award.  That means no racing while taking banned substances because you're older or you're not fast anyway or everyone else does it or you're just taking it once.  That means no cutting the course because you're having a bad day or because you saw someone else do it or because you're not going to place anyway.   

Marathon Investigation does fantastic work (please donate to support if you agree).  But the responsibility for ending cheating lies with ALL of us.  Through cultural change from within.


  1. Such a well-written post. Mind if I link it on my blog?

    am fascinated by these stories, especially the mindset. The back-of-the-packer story was the most baffling, since I couldn't imagine what she had to gain. But then, as a pharmacist, I sometimes see this crap firsthand. One doctor I worked with miraculously needed prednisone the week of every big race. Another, a local triathlete, prescibed himself testosterone and paid cash for it. A third, who is slower than I am and thus pretty mediocre, has his buddy prescibe a stimulant that he freely admits he takes when he needs a burst of speed. Insane! I've cracked down on that nonsense! But it goes to show that the intent to cheat is there.

    On another note, I am pretty terrified of being accused of cheating someday due to a timing mat malfunction. In races with chips embedded on the bib, I've had missed readings THREE TIMES (luckily, two were at the finish, where my time was photo-verified, and my mat-to-mat pace is not questionable: no situations in which I run the first three at 8 minute pace and the last ten at 5 minute pace!). My brother has also had chip reading errors once, and it was when he needed his time to apply to compete in nationals! But I've never had the old shoe chips read wrong. I realize that my fear is ungrounded since my times will prove I didn't cheat, but I'm super wary of that now.

    1. Please link to it - I'm flattered.

      Crazy on the scripts you fill. Are you allowed to USADA off on them? Or would that be a HIPAA violation?

      I've had the same chip issues, which is why I like to race with a Garmin - that way I have the record of the race to provide later.

    2. Thanks!
      I can refuse to fill based on my clinical judgment, and have; actually, the testosterone guy was writing the prescription illegally anyway. In Louisiana you can't prescribe controlled substances for yourself. So I told him that, and he got one over on me by coming when another pharmacist was on duty and writing the prescription for his "dog" instead. The whole situation is stupid, but I guess it shows that your average joe is tempted to cheat or dope or both!