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Why Do Athletes Cheat?

Last weeks report by the WADA exposed systematic doping in the sport of athletics, much of it being orchestrated by the very authorities charged with keeping the sport clean. But why do athletes cheat? Is it purely about money? It has always puzzled me as to why a former national record holder who served a ban for drug abuse would show up at a low key event, such as the Iftar Challenge where the prize money is fairly modest. In fact there were no prizes in previous years and the value of the prizes was not published in advance.

I recently came across an article which shed some light as to the motive for cheating. As I outlined in a previous article according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs there are different levels of motivation. A prime motivation to run is to satisfy a social need, to have a sense of belonging. Beyond the social need there is self esteem and finally self actualisation. Self esteem is derived by how a person thinks that they are perceived by others. It is about being centre stage and getting the accolade. It doesn’t really matter what the status is of the event, World Championships or local park run, what matters is that the person is centre stage. The need to be centre stage is the motivation for winning at all costs, even if it includes doping. Lance Armstrong fits this pattern of behaviour. When he came clean about having doped, he did so on camera on the world’s top ‘Talk show”. Even in confession he had to be centre stage. Another drugs cheat, Justin Gatlin, twice banned for drug abuse, loves to play to the crowd. It sickens me to see large sections of the crowd egging him on, smiling and applauding. In the era I come from he would not have been banned twice for doping, he would have been banned once, for life.

Those who are motivated by self actualisation, the satisfaction of the achievement itself, could not possibly cheat. In their minds it isn’t an achievement if they have cheated. Such characters may be introvert by nature. Indeed, rather than craving the publicity which surrounds their success they shun it. One such character was a member of my former running club in the UK. His name is Basel Heatley  and he won the silver medal in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. On his return to England he heard that a civic reception had been laid on for him at Coventry train station and that the Lord Mayor would be there to greet him. He was very shy and shunned attention, so he got off the train a stop early and took a bus home.

There is a saying, “Once a cheat, always a cheat.” If athletes cheat for the accolade they get from winning gold, then the saying is true and once caught they should be banned for life.