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?

11 thoughts on “How important is it to win? Would you cheat for it?

  1. Interesting. I actually don’t even like timed group bike rides. I just like cycling either solo or with others. My rationale in all of this, is that in my personal time, outside of my job, I’m not competing against anyone. It’s just myself.

    When Lance Armstrong was the hero before drug doping disclosure, I still was never interested about him. I felt sorry for his young sons: what’s it like to have a father who lied to the whole world?

  2. I think I understand why people do it though I still think it’s wrong. It’s self deception. An obstacle gets in the way, like illness during training or too many papers for the student, and you look to other means to get the outcome you feel you rightly deserve. You could have written that paper if you’d managed your time better but your grade shouldn’t be about time management. It should be about philosophical skill. You’ve got that. You’re just time crunched. You would have trained harder if you hadn’t had that injury, so really the victory is rightfully yours. You are the better runner and you just got sick, or whatever. I think the person really believes in some sense, in a, just world, they deserve that medal or that A. They are just making reality match through other means. The mistake is in not realizing that time management does matter. It’s not just brute academic brilliance we’re evaluating. And that training through illness and injury is part of the process. So I don’t think the cheater sees it as getting something they don’t deserve. They think they deserve it, in some sense. The mistake is in thinking you’re different, special, somehow and that the rules don’t apply to you.

    1. HI Sam and Tracy– I read that NYT article as well, and this is definitely a phenomenon. There was reference made to a guy who cheated on a bunch of marathons, and even created a fake marathon (with website, etc.) to make it look like he was a more competitive athlete than he was.

      Sam, I definitely get that there’s lots of self-deception involved in cheating. But I wonder (and this would be an interesting X-phi experiment– sorry, others, for philosophy shop talk here) if certain methods of cheating a) are more compatible with the self-deception model); and b) are more forgivable/understandable/morally more excusable-or-something than others. I just heard on NPR another story about the stealth use of tiny motors in downtubes of bikes for cheating in pro racing. Intuitively, to me, this seems less excusable/understandable than say, doping. In fact the speaker said this too.

      So in the Miller case, there’s strong evidence that she cut the course because of data showing where she was earlier in the race. It seems to me that it would be quite hard to justify cutting a course even within a self-deception frame. So either self-deception is REALLY divorced from rational thinking and one’s own principles, or there’s something other/more pathological than self-deception. Disclaimer: I don’t work in this area, but I wanted to share intuitions, both as a philosopher and an athlete. It’s really fascinating– thanks so much for the post, Tracy.

    2. So many rationalizations–the possibilities are endless! When I’ve been sick or unable to train for an important event, it actually reduced the pressure on me to compete. I’m free to do as well or as poorly as I want/can. In fact, this helps me relax (somewhat) and I often end up doing pretty well even after what I consider to be “poor” training. Without cheating!

  3. I’ve talked lots about this with the student athletes in my sports ethics class. They helped me think about this…

  4. ” I just heard on NPR another story about the stealth use of tiny motors in downtubes of bikes for cheating in pro racing.” Interesting. I’ve always wondered about certain bike models in pro racing.

  5. I think, psychologically, I could cope with cheating but I don’t do it as it’s the wrong thing to do and unfair. I get annoyed if someone lies about their reps in a workout. I’m happy to be last but only if I deserve to be

  6. I think accolades would make me feel worse if I’d cheated to win them. I really don’t get it at the amateur level. If it were my job I could see fear of failure taking over but if you’re just in the race for fun? Why?

  7. I do not get the need to win a race at all, at least not on the amateur level. I know some people who need a race in order to train, and other people who race as a way to justify the time they spend training. I’m definitely the later. In my two races last year, I got first in both and it spooked me so much I had to take some time off of swimming just to not start putting completely stupid pressure on myself. To me, the whole point of amateur sports for adults is that none of us are going to turn pro/go to the Olympics/become famous, so it’s just about having a hobby that helps us deal with the rest of life. I try not to worry about even beating myself, though it is still fun to be able to get new faster times or new bests. If all goes well, I’ll still be active well into my 70’s and beyond, and yeah, I won’t keep getting faster between now and then.

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