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Cheaters in endurance sport: Why they do it

Julie Miller.

— By Thom Burberry

So how did I become a cheating expert? For some odd reason, a co-worker asked me why this Julie Miller lady cheated during her Ironman “thingy.” Who is Julie Miller? I had to look this up. Overnight she’s become the next pariah for cheating at sport. I’m not oblivious to the idea of cheating while competing – I raced and idolized all those cyclists during the 90’s (or as the British describe it – the noughties).

Why would anyone cheat? It really doesn’t make sense. Obviously the end result is the prize, however, you know you didn’t earn it. So why jeopardize your morals just to stand at the top of a podium for 30 seconds. Strictly speaking, I am addressing the age group crowd. There is an apparent incentive to cheat at the professional level, yet, even then, you risk sponsors, legal and monetary retribution.

To save time, I’m not going to go into the historical evidence on those that have cheated. The lists are long and exhaustive. Every sport seems to have its crazy stories of what someone had done to gain an edge over their competition. What I will attempt to do is get into the mindset of the athletic scammer and talk about how athletes seem to justify their deception.

Synonymous with doping in recent years is the name of Armstrong. Full disclosure. I am a Lance Armstrong fan. It is undeniable that he misled millions of people and was unscrupulous in his dealings with all of his foes, both on and off the road. I cringe when I hear of some of the things he did. What I am a fan of is how he made me feel when I saw him ride. Maybe that’s also why people now hate him so much. He made them excited about their sport – then he sullied it with all of the lies. I get both sides of the issue. One of those sides is that he felt he had to win at all costs. He viewed losing as dying. That’s a bit ironic, given the fact that he stared death in the face, but maybe he has better vantage point. Its almost easy to see why he would cheat – an entire industry was built around his success through his various sponsors.

This rationale doesn’t make sense in the amateur ranks. For the vast majority of athletes that support this sport – the weekend warriors – the idea of slinging a $5 medal around your neck doesn’t justify the risk vs. reward argument.

“Cutting a course isn’t that big of a deal,” you might say to yourself. “What’s the worst that can happen? You will be disqualified. Not allowed to race in sanctioned events.”

Are you going to go to jail for cheating? No. You aren’t hurting anyone and there are no penalties that might restrict your personal liberties. All these justifications don’t make sense to the rest of the athletes who complete the race honestly. In fact, that’s what makes cheating easier. Most of us can’t imagine cheating – why go through all that trouble?

The opportunity to deceive fellow athletes and race organizers presents itself during the entire day of virtually any race. Multiple-loop courses allow competitors to slip under the radar. Timing matts allow for easier tracking, but that same technology allows for loop holes. My chip didn’t work at a race last year and, to fix the problem, they used photos taken at the finish line to verify my position and estimate my finish time. I never questioned the final time (I didn’t really care, to be honest), but I look back and wonder if there was a fellow athlete that thought I cheated.

So why would an age group athlete want to cheat? One reason might be social media. Every day we see the exploits of our compatriots blasted on Facebook and emails. Strava and Garmin provide up to date listings of your competitors training and best times. If you’re so inclined, you can get real time results as soon as your age group nemesis crosses a finish line. You have their splits and transition times before they even towel off. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received either a “congratulations,” or a “what happened” before the results were even posted at the race site. That kind of oversight leads to a lot of peer pressure to perform.

I’m not sure what motivated Julie Miller. When stopped in the hallway that day I had no answer to give my colleague. It is amazing the lengths people will go to hide their lies. We saw Armstrong do this with his unscrupulous litigation. Reading Ms. Miller’s rebuttal is probably laughable to those that have competed against her in the past and have been hurt most by her actions. The deceit compounds the problem. George Hincapie and the rest of the cycling world that admitted to doping have gone on to continued success within the sport. The difference between Armstrong and Hincapie was that when USADA approached them, Hincapie knew the gig was up. Armstrong kept attacking. The denials, even in the face of overwhelming testimony and evidence, made him “radioactive.” We know the rest of the story from here.

There’s never any justification to cut a course, pop a pill, take an (illegal) injection, use a motor, or cheat in any other way. We need to reconcile the demons that plague us on race day and tempt us to cheat. We confront them during training and for, some of us, we try to run or ride away from them. I truly feel sorry for Julie Miller, Lance Armstrong and all the others who have tried to justify their actions. Armstrong has stated many times that he was justified in his actions because everyone else was doing it. In his words “it was like putting air in your tires, and filling up your water bottle.” He regrets the lies he told to the millions of people that believed in his persona. At this point, who knows what Julie Millers’ reasons are, and whether or not she regrets her actions.