From Chapter 4: Taking Ownership
Meb Keflezghi is not only a celebrity in the running dominion, he is one of the few athletes who crossed over into popularity with the general public. His recognition is such that he goes by a one name moniker, Meb, analogous to other sports greats such as Pele and Serena. At a state dinner at the White House in 2014, former president Jimmy Carter moseyed up to Meb and said, “You are the most popular person here. You’re the one they want to meet.”(1)
You might think all of the popularity made Meb unapproachable. Quite the contrary. Meb is known to lead pace groups at half marathons, connect with fans, and none other than Dave McGillivray, race director of the Boston Marathon, bestowed some heady accolades toward Meb, “His character, demeanor, and integrity are second to none.”(1)
More important than achieving success is how success is achieved. In Meb’s case, his success did not come at the price of his veracity. Meb described the honor he felt at taking the top spot in the Runner’s World 50 most influential people in running, “They always write, ‘Nice guys finish last.’ But you can be nice and still be most influential.”(1)
That statement is ever so true. Being nice and being successful are not mutually exclusive. Edging up to the start line of a race or getting ready for that group training session can certainly bring out the lion in all of us, but it should not come at the price of being a full-time ninny.
Great athletes are not only measured by their success, but the manner in which they handle success and failure. Showing enthusiasm up at the finish line after a stellar performance is perfectly acceptable. Taking that success to malign your training buddies or boasting at work is not acceptable. A show of disappointment at the finish line of a poor race is perfectly acceptable. A full blown temper tantrum and yelling/cursing at volunteers, spectators or family members is not acceptable. Proper behavior is an essential part of the athlete package.
Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Drafting. Outside aid. Course cutting. The ways athletes cheat, often ingenious and creative, represent the scourge of sports. No level of sports is immune to the effects of cheating, not a first timer, not professionals, not age group winners. There are famous cheaters, such as Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones, and more obscure cheaters like Nina Kraft, a professional triathlete who had her 2004 Ironman World Championship title revoked due to a failed drug test. Eventually these dopers admitted their wrong-doing with varying amounts of remorse.
Course cutting is another form of cheating that has been brought into the limelight by sleuths who scour race results looking for anomalies, such as missed timing mats, lack of course photos, on-course splits that appear unrealistic (e.g. an athlete who runs a 9 minute mile pace for the first half of a race and a 5 minute mile pace for the second half), and finishing times that are seemingly too fast compared to past race results. One such detective is Jonathan Cane. He relentlessly searches race results for anomalies and claims to have discovered over 500 cheaters in his eight year search. The big city races usually rely on algorithms which scan race results to pick up cheating; but, much to the chagrin of athletes who have seen their place drop in the overall standings, not every cheater is caught or brought to justice with disqualification.(2)
The rationale for course cutting is unclear, but psychologists postulate that it comes from a high level of extrinsic motivation, that the finisher’s medal or the adulation from others is reason enough to put their reputation at risk.(3) As well, course cutting has allegedly propelled athletes to Boston Marathon qualifying times and podium places in Ironman races, indicating that the “glory” is also justification for some wayward athletes. Whatever the motivation, it is clear that lack of integrity shows up in many unexpected places.
The notion of cheating is not new, cyclists in the Tour de France were using performance enhancing drugs since the inception of the race. Ask athletes to complete a Herculean task that is seemingly physiologically impossible, and throw them a lot of money and fame to accomplish the task, they will find ways to get the job done, even if it means circumventing the rules. Cheating and sports are just natural bedfellows, and all too many athletes are ready to make a Faustian bargain to attain their end-goal.
Cheating occurs at every level of sport – your local Turkey trot may just as likely have competitors supplementing with testosterone as the Olympic track and field 100 meter final. In 2015, the Drug Enforcement Agency busted 16 underground drug labs seizing a mind-boggling 134,000 steroid pills and other materials from which steroids can be made, indicating the prolific market for these drugs.The 2015 Independent Commission for Reform in Cycling concluded “Doping in amateur cycling is becoming endemic. This was confirmed by riders, professionals, managers and anti-doping personnel.”
A 2013 survey showed that 11% of high school students reported using synthetic human growth hormone and 7% admitted to steroid use, both of which are banned substances.(4) These are kids! Imagine what is happening on the adult scene. Good thing there is information about that – 13% of triathletes in a 2013 survey admitted to doping.(5) In 2015, a leaked report revealed that one third of all medals from Olympic and World Championship track and field events between 2001 and 2012 were won by athletes who had suspicious doping tests, and none of them were stripped of medals. Gran Fondo cycling events have had a rash of doping positives amongst their amateurs.(6) A very apt analogy was made on the letsrun.com message board with regards to an athlete who was a course cutter: “Cheating at a hobby (regardless of the hobby) is just insane to me. Like if someone was into pottery, but instead of actually making pottery they bought pottery and said they made it?”(7)
Clean athlete Alysia Montaño knows firsthand the dismay of losing out to drug cheats. In November 2015, an independent commission determined that doping occurred at the highest level in Russia, causing Alysia to miss out of five medals from the Olympics and World Championships. Her reaction was: “I never lost hope that I’d one day get these medals. I definitely tried not to hang onto it because it would it impossible for me to move forward.” She added: “When you’re cheated out of a medal and you know it, it eats at you internally and you’re going after it again. It’s hard. The Olympics are huge and you think that’s your shot and then you miss. You blame yourself and think, ‘What can I do differently?’ You realize how human you are that these others don’t feel the effects because they’re cheating.”(8)
Caster Semenya stands to benefit from the disqualification of the Russian, too. Semenya raced in that same event as Montaño in the 2012 Olympics and placed second, and could be upgraded to a gold medal. Her reaction was quite different from Montaño’s: “There was someone that finished first in the Olympics: whether she doped or not, I came second and that will never change.”(9)
Those are very different perspectives on the same situation. There is no right reaction, though. Since cheating is an inevitable situation in sports, what can you do? You can start by not cheating yourself. After that, nothing. Nothing at all. You cannot worry about cheaters. Ultimately, all any of have is our integrity. Our race results do not matter at all if they were achieved in a fallacious manner. In my career, I witnessed all manner of cheating: athletes taking PEDs, drafters, course cutters, accepting illegal outside assistance, tampering with equipment, blatant blocking of forward progress, and purposeful aggressiveness to cause bodily harm (in one race in 1998, a competitor repeatedly made contact with me on the bike with the intent of knocking me over). My race placings were altered thereby affecting my ability to gain sponsors; however, I did my absolute best to ensure that my psyche was never shaken. I understood that I was not able to control the actions of my competitors, and that no matter what, I could look myself in the mirror without shame.
The message I want to convey is that cheating amongst your competitors will occur and it will at some point directly influence your race results. A cheater might cost you a Kona qualifying spot, or a place on the podium, or just rankle you, such as watching a huge draft pack sail by during the bike portion of a triathlon. Rather than let the cheaters distress you, accept the notion that cheaters are out there and that your honesty and integrity will pay dividends in life, where it counts most.
(5) Dietz, P., Ulrich, R., Dalaker, R., Striegel, H., Franke, A. G., Lieb, K., & Simon, P. (2013). Associations between Physical and Cognitive Doping – A Cross-Sectional Study in 2.997 Triathletes. PLoS ONE, 8(11), e78702. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078702