Olympic Cheats

Athletes are constantly striving to set new records and win medals, and in some cases, by any means necessary, even cheating. Cheating in the Olympics is nothing new. In the Ancient Games athletes found to be cheating, either by under performing or using performance enhancements, were publicly shamed, and their names inscribed on a statue in an effort to discourage future athletes from cheating. It would seem that those inscriptions have had little effect. Cheating continues to be a problem at the Olympics, as can be seen in this list of 9 of the most high profile cheaters, and in these London Olympics.

One of the more high profile cheating controversies of these Games was the case of the badminton players who tried to throw their match in order to have a more favorable seeding in the next round. These Games have also seen an Algerian runner, Taoufik Makhloufi, sent home for not trying hard enough. Similarly, the British men’s cycling admitted to deliberately crashing in order to get a re-start. Said rider Philip Hindes

We were saying if we have a bad start, we need to crash to get a restart. I just crashed, I did it on purpose to get a restart, just to have the fastest ride. I did it. So it was all planned, really.

The team went on to win Gold, and despite their admission they will still be allowed to keep their medals. The British cycling team’s performances have been so good at these Games, that they have in fact been accused of cheating, not just through deliberately falling, but also by having performance enhancing bikes.

Claims that are not unlike those volleyed against 16 year old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, whose fantastic performancein the 400m IM caused many, including Nature (Nature has since apologized to Ye for their accusations, which were largely based on cherry-picking data), to accuse the athlete of doping (click here for a quick primer on doping, and here for a discussion of doping in running). While the doping allegations against Ye Shiwen so far have proven untrue, this has not been the case for several other athletes at these Games, including Italian gold-medalist race walker Alex Schwazer, who tearfully admitted to doping with EPO. American judoka Nicholas Delpopolo has also been sent home from the Games, in his case for testing positive for cannabis. The question of why cannabis is on the prohibited substance list has to do with the criteria used for identifying a prohibited substances, of which two need to be met. The three criteria are that they;

  • Be performance enhancing
  • Potentially a health risk
  • Against the spirit of sport

Cannabis actually meets all three of these criteria, the performance enhancing aspect of cannabis have to do with its ability to decrease anxiety and fear.

In addition to cheating by not giving it your all, or doping, there is also cheating by design. In 2008, the Speedo LZR suit, helped set numerous records in the pool. The suits were described as ‘technological doping‘, and subsequently banned. The issue of technological doping has also been raised regarding Oscar Pistororius‘ prosthetic legs, and whether they may give him an unfair advantage. And just as athletes are making improvements to their own suits and technology, organizers are also improving the venues, such that they are the fastest ever.

This issue was first raised in the 2004 Athens Games, where Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima used an illegal dolphin kick maneuver to help capture the gold medal in the 100 m breaststroke. The maneuver was later called the Kitajima kick and was accepted as a valid technique, with some restrictions. In breaststroke, swimmers are allowed to take one dolphin kick at the start and one after each turn before starting their breaststroke kick. As there is no underwater video judging, swimmers are able to sneak in an extra dolphin kick. Such was the case with South African swimmer, Cameron van der Burgh, who added a couple extra kicks on his way to capturing the gold in the 100m breaststroke and setting a world record. Later in an interview van der Burgh admitted the maneuver and added,

Everybody does it – well, if not everybody, 99 percent of them. If you’re not doing it you are falling behind and giving yourself a disadvantage. It’s not obviously – shall we say – the moral thing to do, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my personal performance and four years of hard work for someone that is willing to do it and get away with it.

As with any other performance enhancer (i.e., drugs, kicks, suits), the idea that the athlete in the next lane is cheating, exerts pressure to do it yourself, or else be left behind.

I can’t Imagine the pressure on these athletes to succeed and excel in their chosen discipline, but someone who probably can is Jonah Lehrer. Hard times have recently fallen upon Jonah after it was revealed that he has been ‘cheating’ with his writings, with self-plagiarism and making up quotes. Sam Harris describes Lehrer as a smart, well-intentioned, and otherwise ethical person who does not seem to realize how quickly and needlessly lying can destroy relationships and reputations. In an article that takes a decidedly Jonah Lehrer view of the Jonah Lehrer situation, Aimee Groth points out that Jonah Lehrer fell victim to his own cognitive bias. Groth cites a line from Lehrer’s review of a study on the bias blind spot, which also seems oddly appropriate when considering why some athletes cheat.

Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves.



One thought on “Olympic Cheats

  1. Pingback: Round-Up Ready: A Year in Blogging Edition | On a Quasi-Related Note

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