How important is it to win? Would you cheat for it?

I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating. -- SophoclesHow important is it to win? For me, not very. But that’s likely because the chances of me winning any of the events I enter, even my chances of achieving an age-group win, are zero.

I’m just not even in range. I’d like to see progress: sub-30 5K, sub-60 10K, sub 2:30 half marathon.  I’d be thrilled to complete the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon in 1:00 even (last year I did it in 1:01:40). But winning? That’s not even a goal.

This isn’t true of everyone. I read a fascinating story on the weekend, which I’m sure lots of people are already familiar with, about Julie Miller, a Canadian Ironman competitor who appears to have wanted to win more than anything else. In “Swim, Bike, Cheat?” author Sarah Lyall strongly suggests that Miller cut the course in more than one event, claiming to have lost her timing chip.

At the Ironman event in Squamish BC, Suzanne Davis was mystified when Miller was announced as the age-group winner in the women’s 40-44 category. Davis had run a careful race, keeping a close eye out for rivals and asking anyone she passed or who passed her what age-group they were in. And yet when the medals were handed out, she was second — five minutes behind Miller. The third and fourth place women also had no idea where Miller had come from, not having seen her on the course.

This odd series of events eventually touched off an extraordinary feat of forensic detective work by a group of athletes who were convinced that Miller had committed what they consider the triathlon’s worst possible transgression. They believed she had deliberately cut the course and then lied about it.

Dissatisfied with the response of race officials, they methodically gathered evidence from the minutiae of her record: official race photographs, timing data, photographs from spectators along the routes, the accounts of other competitors and volunteers who saw, or did not see, Miller at various points. Much of it suggested that Miller simply could not have completed some segments of the race in the times she claimed, and all of it raised grave questions about the integrity of her results at Whistler and other races.

Miller, they concluded, was triathlon’s version of Rosie Ruiz, the runner who won the 1980 Boston Marathon in a stunningly fast time but was later found to have run only a fraction of the race. Just as Ruiz did back then, Miller has repeatedly insisted that she completed the course fairly, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Ulimately, Miller lost her title in that race and others:

Three weeks after winning Ironman Canada, Miller was disqualified from the race, her time erased, her first-place finish voided. Soon after, she was disqualified from two previous races that she had won. Officials are investigating her 2014 victory in China. Triathlon Canada has barred her from competing for the next two years, citing “repeated rule violations,” while Ironman has barred her indefinitely from its competitions.

“We can’t prove what happened on the course in Ironman Canada in 2015, or what her intent was,” the regional director for Ironman, Keats McGonigal, said in an interview. “People can make their own judgments and decisions. But what we can prove is that it would have been impossible for her to be at specific points at specific times and still get to the finish line when she did.”

The excellent article makes a fascinating case for Miller’s guilt, despite her repeated claims to the contrary. What this story raises for me and for some of my friends who commented on it when I posted it on social media is, “why?’

I’ve always been mystified by people who cheat. As an academic, it always astonishes me that anyone would want to take credit for work they’ve not done. Likewise, it’s hard to know what’s satisfying about winning a race that you didn’t actually win.

I get that there’s the fame and glory. But the fame and glory of being competitive in your age group is pretty limited. True, in the Miller case, the race in question would have qualified her for Kona, which is admittedly a big deal. But can you want it badly enough to cheat others more deserving out of the opportunity?

The other thing about the Miller case is that she’s no slouch. She’s not like me, aspiring to one day emerge from the bottom half into the top half.  She’s actually, by all accounts, quite competitive in her field. Many of her race results have now been called into question. But she’s pretty strong.

I know that some people think there’s no reason to compete at all (or do an event) if you’ve got no chance of winning or placing. Some even think it cheapens the events to have such a large number of non-competitive participants. See my post Why Participate If I’m Not Going to Win?

This is a good question. But clearly many, many people have all sorts of other reasons for entering events.  It helps us set training goals. It’s a fun thing to do. Even those of us who aren’t going to get a medal usually get an adrenaline rush on race day that makes us go faster.

Knowing I’m going to finish isn’t always satisfying enough.  I like to believe I’ll “finish well.” But finishing well is relative and means different things to different people. Like I said, in my own case, it means doing better than I did before. Or it could mean meeting a training goal that I’ve set for myself.

But what it could never mean (to me) is making everyone believe I hit a goal that I didn’t actually hit. What on earth could ever be rewarding about that?

One of the things we sometimes teach in our introduction to ethics and value theory course is a thought experiment by philosopher Robert Nozick called “The Experience Machine.” The experience machine is a machine that perfectly simulates any experience you program it to give you in a way that is totally indecipherable from reality. The question is: would you prefer the machine to real life?

He thinks the answer will be “no.” Why not? Because, for one thing, feeling good isn’t the only thing that has value to us. Real value is in actually doing things, not just believing we’re doing them. In other words, Nozick maintains, we value accomplishment.

Cheating is even one step removed from the experience machine.  You don’t even get to feel like you’ve actually won. You get the kudos, but they’re not for anything you’ve actually done.

I’m now tempted to talk about Plato’s Republic and the Ring of Gyges, but I think that’s enough philosophy for one post.

What do you think? How important is winning and, if it’s important, what matters about it? Could it matter so much that it would feel just as good if people thought you won (but you actually didn’t)? If you’re more of a finisher than a winner, what keeps you interested in taking part in events?

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