Coming to a Consensus on Cheating

A recent New Yorker Magazine story about Kip Litton, a marathon runner who presumably cheated his way to dozens of impressive marathon finishes in the past several years, got me thinking a lot this week about how and where we draw the line in terms of what is, and what isn’t ethical in the pursuit of a desired result in running. As long distance runners we do all kinds of crazy things in hopes of achieving a better result on race day. I think it’s certain that the vast majority of runners don’t do anything that is illegal or against the rules of a particular race, but certainly not everyone adheres to these mostly self-imposed standards. Furthermore, why is it that certain things are deemed against the rules while other things which may give as much or more of an advantage are not? The line gets even further muddled when you consider that many things which might be considered “cheating” in one event are considered smart running in another.

In many trail races you are required only to start and finish in an exact location, and pass through all designated checkpoints along the way. If you find ways to shave minutes between these points you will be held in high regard among your competitors. When we run these kinds of events we often scout the course ahead of time, not just to know how to follow the route, but to see if there are any places to make the route faster than the obvious way. Conversely, in the majority of races (at least in North America), it is considered cheating when we follow anything other than the obvious/marked route. Many races lay all of these things out in their rules, but many do not.

Things become even more confusing when we look at the issue of doping, and what substances/practices are okay, and which ones are not. There are some fairly universal international standards which seem to be unofficially applied to most athletic events. In this way it becomes generally understood that eating a caffeinated gel in the wee hours of a 100 mile race, or taking some ibuprofen to get those fried quads through the last 10 miles, is not considered cheating, but that getting a blood transfusion because we’re unusually tired two days before a big race is. It gets really tricky here because the vast majority of trail races do not have any drug-related rules, and many of the drugs/practices which are commonly used for performance enhancing in athletics are not universally illegal. Once again, we come back to the reality that “cheating” in trail running is largely based on our own self-imposed standards.

If you’ve read this far you might feel fairly depressed about all this. Basically what I’ve said is that cheating happens in our sport, and that if you’re creative, resourceful, and bold you can do a lot of different “unethical” things to achieve some very impressive results (i.e., Kip Litton). The good thing, though, is that I think the vast majority of people have no desire to achieve a certain result through anything that they themselves would consider cheating. Where we most often run into trouble is when one person thinks of something as cheating and another does not. In many cases race rules or laws can address these discrepancies, but in many other cases a lot of gray area still remains. Again though, I think we have the huge advantage that most people don’t want to cheat. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think it’s in our nature as humans to get more satisfaction from accomplishing something in a manner that is widely recognized as fair and ethical, than in a manner which causes our peers to question the validity of our accomplishments. In this way all that is needed to “police” the vast majority of people is a clear understanding of what is fair and what is not.

Achieving this clear understanding isn’t something that can happen overnight, but it is something that seems to be growing as the sport of trail running matures. Open conversations among runners and race organizers seem to be advancing this conversation. Even open forums like this website, which can often get a little off track and aggressive, have been extremely valuable in moving toward a clearer understanding of what is and isn’t “fair.” Most specifically though, I think races need to make it very clear to their participants what is and what isn’t allowed. Many races are currently going the extra mile to do this, but many more seem to have no interest in doing so. Certainly I’m not a fan of long lists of rules, just for the sake of having rules, and in a perfect world we could all just line up, say go, and race away with everyone on the same page. But the problem is what you think is fair might look like a blatant form of cheating to the gal one stride behind you.

In terms of what to do about the blatant cheaters, the Kip Litton’s of the world, the blood dopers: nothing! Disqualify them when we catch them, and then ignore them. If we continue to draw a clearer and clearer picture of what is and what isn’t fair in a particular race, then those who choose to break these rules have nothing to stand behind, and become more and more marginalized, and less and less regarded for their performances. After all, this is often what the blatant cheaters are hoping for: high regard and attention for their accomplishments. Does prize money not skew this entire notion, you ask? Sure it does to some degree. It adds a whole another motivation (besides simply regard and attention) to the potential blatant cheater. In this sense, I think it’s even more important for races that offer substantial prize money to be really clear about what is and what isn’t allowed. Do we need to do more than this though? I don’t think so, because again, I believe that most people don’t want to do anything that they know their fellow competitors will think of as cheating.

As long as we don’t get to a tipping point in which so many people are pushing these boundaries of fairness, that things which are currently regarded as cheating become accepted as fair because so many people are doing them (i.e., the recent doping situations in MLB and professional cycling). And once again, the best way to avoid this is to create a very clear understanding of what the boundaries are, and that it’s absolutely not fair to cross them. Do we also need stringent testing, increased course marshalling, etc? No, I don’t think so, but we will eventually if the sport continues to grow the way it is and we don’t take the opportunity in the next few years to more clearly define the boundaries of what is fair, both within the sport as a whole and within individual events.

What can we then do, you ask? Talk about these things with your fellow competitors. Make sure you are all on the same page about what’s ethical and what is not. If you’re running a race that doesn’t clearly define something that is important to you, ask the race director to address this with you and the other racers. When you see or hear of someone doing something that you don’t think is ethical, speak up. Not necessarily in an accusatory way, but in a constructive way. A conversation will arise which will hopefully result in much more clarity going forward. With this type of collective effort we can assure a fair, pure, and thriving sport for decades to come, something I think we all have an agreed desire for.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
It would be great to hear your thoughts on Geoff’s article. In contemplating the topic as well as drafting and publishing a comment, I ask you to (1) not make any unfounded accusations and (2) treat everyone (both commenters and those not present on the website) with the respect you would give someone if you were running on the trail with him or her. [Editor’s Note: Thanks to the first 8 people who commented in a thoughtful and constructive way. Let’s keep that up!]

So, what runs/standards need to be defined on a sport-wide or individual race basis?

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