What is cheating in sport?
Cheating is bad, clean athletes are good, end of argument. You must know us better by now?! But what does really constitute cheating in sport? There was a time when training would be considered cheating. Athletic pursuits were thought of as a way to pit natural talents against each other and ‘artificial’ enhancement through training was frowned upon. No one today would consider training cheating. However, other methods of bending the rules or enhancing performance certainly are. There have been a number of high-profile cases regarding coaches and the culture they have generated that facilitates cheating or at the very least pushes to limits to the maximum. Is taking asthma medication to aid ease of breathing under extreme aerobic loads cheating? Is taking painkilling medications to facilitate performance in painful events such as distance running cheating? Some people would say yes, some no. What is considered cheating depends on the individual and the sport in question and this is often related to the sporting culture and athlete’s social environment.
When we consider different sports, it is clear that various sports have different levels of acceptance of cheating. This extends to how the sports approach issues such as doping. Some sports with well-publicised doping issues, such as track and field athletics, are attempting to take a harder line, whilst others, such as baseball and American football, don’t seem interested in doping prevention. In baseball for example bans for doping offences are often a matter of weeks or months and testing is sporadic. Beyond doping other types of cheating occurs regularly across a range of sports. Some types of cheating are accepted whilst other types are not. Take professional football as an example, debate resurfaces time and again around diving and in particular diving to win penalties. Players’ integrities are questioned by coaches and fans alike. But chronic shirt pulling and cynical fouls to prevent counter-attacks are rarely warranted the same degree of questioning. Morally one could argue that cynically tripping an opponent to prevent a counter-attack is worse than diving since it can cause injury to the opponent. In modern cricket it is standard practice for batters to stand and wait for the umpire to decide if they are and not walk off, even when they know they should be out. This level of ‘cheating’ is now widely accepted. But when the Australian test team used sandpaper to alter the state of the ball (known as ball-tampering) it resulted in national soul-searching and year-long bans for players involved. Such examples of different types ‘cheating’ show that drawing the line about what is acceptable can vary in different circumstances. This leaves grey areas in what constitutes cheating. Whether something is cheating or not can come down to custom and acceptance. If both teams do the same thing and everyone accepts that ‘cheating’, such as not walking in cricket, is now part of the game it is not considered cheating any more. But if one team considers ball-tampering utterly wrong no matter the circumstances and the other team thinks it is a grey area then a problem clearly arises. Teams and individuals may keep pushing the edges of grey zones until either the rules are changed or enforced, or the practice becomes accepted and ceases to be considered as cheating. Resultantly each sport draws the line on cheating in their own way and at varying levels. This can also change over time. But how is the line drawn?
Drawing the line on what is cheating is linked to social and cultural customs and how these influence any given sporting community. Different sports treat doping differently. This is perhaps dependent on the impact doping may have on the sport itself. In track and field athletics, for example, spectators are interested in seeing the boundaries of human ability and outstanding feats of human performance. If this enjoyment is undermined by a nagging suspicion that one is seeing artificially enhanced performances then the sport is diminished. It is therefore of critical importance for the sport’s survival to at least be seen to be tackling doping. This may be a key reason why track and field athletics is making a (relatively) more high-profile attempt to tackle doping than many other sports. Sports that are primarily focused on entertainment on the other hand, and sports that have a larger element of skill-based performance, such as football, don’t run the same risk of being undermined by suspicions of artificially enhanced physical performance. Spectators will still be impressed by the skill level of the performer and realise this took practice and not just a good team of (shady) doctors. At the individual level an athlete’s own cultural and social circumstances are likely to influence their approach to cheating and doping. For one athlete the known health risks of cheating via doping may be well worth it, whilst for another it may be unthinkable. This is again influenced by cultural and social factors. At the risk of generalising, athletes in American sports (baseball, American football etc) may be influenced by a win at all costs culture which relegates doping offences to a secondary concern. Athletes from countries where doping is strongly condemned may be more concerned for the moral judgment of their peers. Athletes from less affluent nations may consider that the wealth generating benefits of doping long outstrip the risk of health complications, whilst athletes from more affluent places may have a longer-term view in considering life after sport. This just shows that any athlete considering cheating will weigh-up a myriad of factors when making their decision. Factors such as the benefits of performing the act of cheating, the risk of being caught, the risk to their social standing should they be caught, the risk to their personal health. How these factors influence the weighing scales of decision making will clearly depend greatly on the individual’s personal circumstances. The influences on individuals and why they may cheat are diverse and complex so each case needs to be looked at on its own merits and judged accordingly. What one person thinks is obvious, immoral cheating may be entirely acceptable to another.
This all shows that there are notable grey areas when it comes to cheating. However, I will note that this piece is not intended to condone cheating or diminish it as an issue. On the contrary, cheating via doping is a very serious issue due to the long-term health risks involved and the risks for the integrity and believability of certain sports. Athletes need to be made aware of the negative consequences of cheating, in particular doping, and sporting rules need to be clear and well enforced to ensure other forms of bending the rules away from fair competition are discouraged.