Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
The bronze statue of a discus thrower graced the Olympic Village at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The model's contemporaries sought a competitive edge with hallucinogenic mushrooms and animal hearts.
The bronze statue of a discus thrower graced the Olympic Village at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The model's contemporaries sought a competitive edge with hallucinogenic mushrooms and animal hearts. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Cheating in sports is not confined to athletes. NBA ref Tim Donaghy (left), shown here working a playoff game in 2006, admitted cooperating with gamblers.
Cheating in sports is not confined to athletes. NBA ref Tim Donaghy (left), shown here working a playoff game in 2006, admitted cooperating with gamblers. Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's report on the "serious drug culture, from top to bottom," within Major League Baseball is just the latest evidence that sports are not always conducted on a level playing field.
The scandals may be disturbing, but they're really nothing new. Seeking an edge in sports is as old as the noble Olympiads. During the Greek games, athletes caught cheating paid fines. The money was used to erect statues of Zeus. These statues were placed along the passageway that led to the stadium, with the name of the cheater inscribed on their bases — a public humiliation, the precursor to bad press.
Some of the ancient Greek athletes were known to ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms — as well as animals' hearts and testicles — all to enhance performance, according to Charles Yesalis, professor of health and human development at Penn State, quoted in The Washington Post.
World's First Dopers
In other words, the ancient Greeks, fathers of democracy and Western culture, were also the world's first dopers. The Romans weren't much better. Gladiators used stimulants in the famed Circus Maximus (circa 600 B.C.) to overcome fatigue and injury.
In modern times, runners doped themselves with strychnine as early 1904.
Today's technology is, of course, more sophisticated. But the underlying problem remains the same: some athletes are willing to cheat to win, by doping or other means.
And not just athletes, by the way: NBA referee Tim Donaghy recently admitted that he cooperated with gamblers. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was penalized by the NFL for illegally videotaping coaching activities on the opposite sideline.
Some analysts say the reason for a seeming spurt in cheating is simple: the stakes are higher. Salaries and prize money are at record levels so, simply put, it pays to cheat. "It's more rational to take risks if the pay-off is very large," says David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture. "And as cheating spreads in a given sport, the non-cheaters feel they are paying a price for remaining honest."
Worse Than Dirty Politics
Judging from the media coverage, dirty athletes seem to evoke more public outrage than dirty politicians. That's because cheating in sports is more clear-cut than cheating in politics, says sportswriter Frank Deford, a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition. "We expect politicians to be dirty, and we realize that rap singers aren't moral paragons, but we want our sports to be clean. What all of these scandals have shown is that sports is no different from anything else."
Deford has a theory: Athletes taking part in individual sports, such as cycling or track, are more vulnerable to allegations of cheating than athletes taking part in team sports. In a team sport, the blame for any transgression can be spread around. Plus, "the team loyalty keeps you going year after year. That gives you a base, a foundation," he says. For individual athletes, there is no such redemption. They and they alone are to blame.
Sports scandals go to the heart of the American split personality, says Callahan. On the one hand, we value egalitarianism and fair play; on the other hand, we admire those who succeed, even if sharp elbows are employed in the climb to the top. "There is something very sacred about sports to America, a country infatuated with egalitarian ideals, at least on paper, so when sports are tarnished by cheating we are disillusioned."
The Games Go On
Perhaps, but none of the cheating scandals has made a dent in attendance figures, at least not in this country. NFL attendance is on the rise. A record number of fans are paying to watch big-league baseball, steroids notwithstanding. (NBA attendance has been flat; the Donaghy scandal broke during the off-season so it's too soon to measure its impact.)
But some think American sports fans will not tolerate this trend indefinitely.
"Most people still have great faith in the integrity of the game. If that is lost, it will eventually affect attendance," says Robert Simon, author of a book on cheating and sports. That has already happened in Europe, where professional cycling has suffered a major setback from the recent doping scandals at the Tour de France.
On the other end of the spectrum is golf: one sport that remains untainted by even a whiff of scandal. Golf retains a code of honor that seems almost quaint in this day of steroids and surreptitious videotaping. Golfers will call a penalty on themselves — if, for instance, they accidentally jostle their ball on the green — even if no one else witnessed the infraction.
Smith says we shouldn't make too much of the recent spike in cheating scandals. "We forget the thousands and thousands of games are played where people do the right thing," he says.
Deford agrees. "To suggest that we have descended to the depths of Hades all of a sudden, I wouldn't buy into that. These cheating scandals, though, do show that athletes are susceptible to the same kind of venality as the rest of us."