Team long run

Winning, Cheating

There may be no clearer picture of winning than that of someone finishing first in a race. It’s so simple. The winner finishes first.

For me, though, it’s gotten less simple over the last several years.  

Now when I watch a big race, I turn off the TV or computer and invariably think to myself: “I hope he’s (she’s) clean.”  Every single time. The Olympics, major marathons… doesn’t matter anymore. The bigger the race, the queasier I feel in my doubts. I don’t enjoy the moment the way I used to. I still watch, and the athletes perform at ever higher levels, but lately I can’t shake that moment of doubt.

After 30 years of coaching, I can say I never knew a runner or coach who cheated. I knew of them, but never had to compete or coach against them. I coached at schools where the kids ran because it made them better people, and I think that was true of our competitors as well. We all did our level best to win, of course, but winning wasn’t why we competed.

If an athlete cut the course, it was an accident. If the athlete knew they cut the course, they would report or even disqualify themselves. It is a simple code, and acting on principle like that builds better, stronger people. Valuing fairness and sacrificing for honor was the norm, not the exception.

So, why are we seeing an increase in cheating at the highest level of sport?

There is, of course, a chance that cheating may provide an athlete with the advantage they need to win. That’s it. Here’s the problem with that transaction: even if cheating improves your chance, winning is still undecided until the race is run.  

If you cheat and manage to win, I imagine you’d always wonder when the testing would catch up to you. When would your victory be taken away? The true outcome stays up in the air long after the race is finished.

Cheating always guarantees an outcome of losing, however, regardless of the race result. You have guaranteed a loss of integrity. You have guaranteed a loss of self-respect. You have lost the opportunity to win a fair race… to share an honest post-race handshake or hug. When you cheat those losses are certain before the gun, and they can never be reversed.

So I wonder again, why cheat?

I’ll begin with kids. I work with youngsters now, and some of them try to cheat at games and relays. (I’m being too nice; some of them cheat.) A child cheats to overcome a lack of confidence, and like anyone else, they cheat to better their chances of winning. Winning matters to a child. Winning provides them with a sense of worth; winning garners praise, admiration, and some measure of prestige.

For children and adolescents, cheating may feel like a reflex, completely natural and human. They may think that everybody cheats, and that by not cheating they place themselves at a real disadvantage. Finally, every single one of them thinks they’ll get away with it.

The child grows up and the games get bigger. High school competition becomes collegiate or elite club competition, which becomes professional or international competition. The stakes are raised.  “Some prestige” becomes fame. Prize money and endorsements enter the calculus. World record bonuses. The voice whispering in your ear stops being your conscience… the voice whispering in your ear becomes your agent.

I get it, but I don’t get it. I understand human nature, but wonder how such good and smart people can fail to think just a little ahead. Perhaps it’s a shifting culture… moral relativism in athletics. The consequences of getting caught at the highest level used to be dire. Now they seem negotiable, and the higher the stakes, the more reluctant the prosecution and watery the enforcement. High school kids are disqualified from relays because of noncompliant sock stripes or sweatbands, and Russia is warmly reinstated by the IOC.

Let’s agree that cheating is bad and move on to winning.  

In my work I have begun holding the youngsters more accountable, teaching them that there is no “small” or acceptable cheating, and that we can win every race if we are competing for the right prizes.

I have a friend and former athlete who just finished his first Ironman, and he won.  

Point of clarification: he didn’t finish first. There may have been a thousand people ahead of him, I’m not sure. He had a great race, though, well planned and executed. He put in a lot of miles getting ready, months and months of dedicated preparation. He knew perfectly well what he was getting himself into, but certainly only had a vague idea of what he’d get out of it. I won’t beat this idea to death, but you can imagine what he won. Furthermore, he earned what he won. He won a clearer understanding of who he is and what he’s capable of. No future testing will ever void the win; it’ll never be a medal he has to return.

Some of the greatest victories I’ve ever witnessed have been by runners who ended up on the second page of race results. I’ve coached All-Americans whose greatest races, perfect races, ended with them second, third, fourth, or eighth over the line. I’ve coached runners who have stumbled or been boxed in, frustrated and heartbroken at the finish, but never giving up or giving in. Each of those races a win.

I’ve also coached athletes who finished first, many times. Don’t get me wrong, finishing first is often  the right competitive goal. I used to tell my runners to put themselves in a position to win, and then win. Looking back on that, I think it’s pretty solid advice for any runner, regardless of the likelihood of them finishing first. Put yourself in a position to win. That is, prepare the battlefield, do the early work well; do it intelligently, patiently, and persistently. Then win. That is, commit total effort to the finish, seize the moment and take the risk. Go.

If we do those things… if we do the early work well and then commit total effort to the finish, how can we not win? I think I’ll apply those ideas to the rest of my day…