Why The Rio Doping Issue Matters

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Doping has become a far too common topic every time a major sporting event comes up.  In fact, it’s become so much a part of sports that almost every incredible performance is accompanied by some doubt about doping.  There will always be those who cheat, and always be those who advocate for an ‘anything goes’ philosophy.

So with Rio just days away, and the stunning state-sponsored Russian doping system still echoing through the news, it’s probably important to address WHY doping issues matter.


1. It’s a horrible life lesson

Anybody involved in sports  knows of the wonderful life lessons it teaches.  At the very least, it teaches the following:

  • discipline and perseverance help you improve
  • greater effort leads to greater success
  • commitment to a difficult goal can be reached through the long process of effort, attention and milestones
  • ultimately, while we compete against others, we are really competing with ourselves

These life lessons stick with us long after we hang up our goggles. Our swimming experiences essentially give us a template for how we can deal with the rest of our lives.

However, doping bypasses that.  It gives the cheater an advantage over clean athletes by making training more effective.  The faulty life lesson here is that life has shortcuts, and you should use those rather than putting in the work.

2. It’s cheating

I hate to say it, but this is probably the weakest argument.  Cheating has always been too much a part of our lives. We speed, cheat on our taxes, copy on tests, lie on resumes.  We all know that’s wrong but we’re not at all surprised when we hear of it.

However, cheating in sports is often celebrated. Faked injuries in soccer are so common it’s ridiculous, while players in most team sports try to get calls through some kind of acting. It’s actually hard to find many sports where cheating is actively and vigorously discouraged.  Golf may be the most celebrated one, where golfers with honour have called penalty strokes on themselves even though nobody else noticed.

But the problem with cheating is that it sends the wrong message.  Cheating is a character flaw.  Sports, like most of life, have rules, and those rules are there to make things as fair as possible.  Cheating does the opposite. It tries to ensure that one person has an unfair advantage over others. It says you don’t have to work harder to achieve success, you just have to cheat.

3. It impacts on the results for others

In my last post I touched on the significant impact of East German doping on swimming at the 1976 Olympics (see here). It affected  Canada’s image of itself, robbed Shirley Babashoff of her deserved glory, and even how prevented Puerto Rico from a deserved opportunity to invigorate their swimming community when a doped East German knocked Carlos Berrocal out of the bronze medal position. And that’s just some of the impact that doping had on just one sport at one Olympics.

In other words, doping tends to push clean athletes down the ladder.

4. It makes for poor role models

Role Model.jpgProbably the biggest concern for me has to do with role models. Everyone who is passionate about an activity (whether sports, music, drama, etc. ) probably has role models they want to emulate.  And when those role models feel that it’s acceptable or even necessary to cheat, that has a huge ripple effect down the chain. It tells the millions of people who idolize that person that cheating is ok. And that is NOT a message that our young athletes should be hearing or heeding.


In summary, doping isn’t just about trying to win a medal, or make a final. It’s about deciding that rules are for others, and cheating is acceptable.  The sports world may tolerate that, but the big world out there won’t be nearly as accommodating.

Now, imagine how the youth of Russia feel about cheating.  Their own government has organized an elaborate system where they cheat in order to appear more successful.  What kind of future will that country have when that is considerable an acceptable way of life.


3 thoughts on “Why The Rio Doping Issue Matters

  1. “[Cheating] is probably the weakest argument.” I understand where you’re coming from but I wouldn’t put it like that. Cheating is probably part of all arguments except the purely criminal and health related ones. There is a degree attached to types of “cheating” just as there is for (the more general) “corruption”. Speeding just a little in a car may not be corrupt (and “corrupt” is usually more applicable than cheating for speeding). Speeding crazily with pedestrians or children at risk is particularly corrupt. Driving while using the phone is usually a form of corruption (illegal or not) but it would do no good to compare that with taking steriods or EPO.

    Nitpicking aside, I truly like what you have written and wish more were like you. Doping is 100% scourge and too many in responsible positions, like those in our media and our organizations, let it go.

    1. Thanks for your excellent comments Gary,

      Perhaps I should have said that cheating is the least persuasive argument. As I point out, in general we don’t have a problem with cheating even when we should. Speeding, and especially if very high speeds are involved, can risk the lives of the driver and those around them. And its cheating (or corruption). Of those two particular arguments, I’d suggest that risking lives is a more persuasive argument than cheating. In fact any argument (potential fines, loss of car, loss of license) is more persuasive than cheating. The rewards in sports are now so large that personal integrity can often be ignored in the pursuit of our dreams. Rationalization can help us sooth our conscience.

      And yet cheating may well have the biggest long term effect. If there’s one true source of pride I have in my swimming career its that I did it without the PEDs that were starting to become prevalent at the time. I really can’t imagine how I’d feel if I’d cheated, and then retired and had to question my results. That would haunt me. So, while cheating isn’t a persuasive argument for active competitors, I think it gradually becomes a huge retrospective factor for retired athletes. And possibly a defining factor for how we view ourselves going forward.

  2. Well said! Your personal experience is powerful. Our reactions to doping is what makes a difference. Compare Lily King, who harshly criticized a Russian’s doping and quickly made it clear that an American doping is just as bad, to those who argue that doping should be accepted and allowed – as if allowing it makes it safe, fair, and under control. Do we want a world where all athletes, coaches, teams, media, and fans, are part of a corrupt system and those having the superior genetic doping (or whatever doping) are the “winners?” Pharmaceutical and genetic engineering types don’t shake hands after a competition.

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

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