A Discourse on Cheating

Sabrina Little writes about cheating in sports and her hope of changing our culture so it happens less.

By on December 19, 2018 | Comments

My first contact with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) happened the day before the 2013 IAU 24-Hour World Championships in the Netherlands. My husband, David, and I were in the team hotel business lounge reading. I was quaking with fear because I had just been locked inside of the hotel restroom, which had three access doors to pass through until I was in the inner sanctum of it—for the most extreme level of bathroom seclusion I have ever encountered. It was like entering Narnia.

In any case, the innermost door got jammed. Ultrarunners are not known for their heft, so I couldn’t exactly thrust it open. My best bet would be to use my endurance to whittle the door down with my body over time by repeatedly running at it, and that could take years. So, there I was, trapped inside of the triple-door Narnia bathroom where no one could hear my screams. I did scream.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened (mechanical advantage?), but somehow my underdeveloped noodle arms wrenched the door open. I ran out of the restroom shaking and alive, like I had just been given a second chance at life and this would be my renaissance (my run-aissance). That was when the WADA woman started calling my name and said I needed to come with her for a pre-competition drug test. I asked her if I could bring my book and my husband. The four of us (WADA agent, husband, book, and I) piled into a tiny car and headed to the testing area for my first drug test. I would receive another the following day (post-race), then again periodically by surprise through the WADA out-of-competition testing pool until the end of 2016.

Drug-Testing Pool—Not Fun Like ‘Swimming Pool’

Drug tests are a great thing. I mean, they are inconvenient and costly, and I was a bit bemused that they withdrew blood for testing that I planned to use in the race the next day. (I am not a starfish.) Still, because we can’t count on the integrity of all athletes, these tests are important. Clean athletes don’t want to compete against cheaters. No one does. Not even cheaters want to compete against cheaters because cheating is only effective against a backdrop of people following the rules. Recently, there has been a lot of ink spilled on the topic of expanding the reach of these drug tests as our sport grows. This is an important conversation, but not a conversation I am personally equipped to facilitate. Instead, I want to focus on cheating itself—the range of ways in which people compromise their integrity in our sport, and how we can work to change our culture so cheating happens less.

The Range of Ways We Cheat

When the topic of cheating is raised, we generally speak of major infractions: taking performance-enhancing drugs, faking marathon performances, and cutting courses. For example, in a recent half marathon in China, 237 runners were disqualified for sneaking through the bushes to cut the course short. Very nice, everyone. Moreover, there is a website, Marathon Investigation, dedicated solely to investigating cheating scandals and other fabrications in the running world. These things indicate an integrity problem in our sport. And these are just the big things. There are smaller, more mundane breaches of integrity all around us.

Certainly, I don’t mean to diminish in scope the negative impacts that major infractions like doping have on our sport, but small lapses in character have ramifications as well. I am reminding you of this because it is easy to think of cheaters as people unlike us—as sketchy, Disney-type villains in black capes. When I talk about integrity problems, I want you to think about yourself.

Consider the following examples:

People exaggerate their performances. They provide untrue justifications for why they dropped out of races. They cut corners, literally and figuratively. They engage in idle talk about one another, without questioning the veracity of the claims being made. If I had a dollar for every time I watched a middle-school athlete repeatedly and intentionally step over the inside line on the track curve, I would have a lot of dollars. What I mean is, lapses in integrity are not just a problem for a certain type of villainous person over there. They are a problem most of us have to a certain degree but fail to admit to ourselves.

In his new book, The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, philosopher Christian Miller describes just this, with a problem he calls the “puzzle of limited cheating.” He explains the phenomenon in this way: “When I cheat just a bit, I can deceive myself by not giving much thought to whether this action is morally right or wrong… When I blatantly cheat, this is another matter.” (1) Very few of us will maliciously and regularly cheat in obvious ways because, as Miller explains, we “want to seem moral to other people and—crucially—to our own selves. We care a lot about being honest people in our own eyes.” (2) Because of this, many of us are willing to compromise our character in small ways—in ways that we can explain away.

I want to point out two things here:

  • Many of us cheat—mostly in small ways—but we still do cheat.
  • We are good at lying to ourselves about it.

This means if we want greater integrity in distance running, we need greater accountability—in doping tests and with one another. I also think we need to develop richer imaginations for what integrity specifically entails. I imagine it is harder to self-deceive about your own character if you have been explicitly taught what it means to run with integrity.

Coaching for Integrity

I coached a distance team in Waco, Texas for six years. For the first three years, I was also a teacher at their school, so I had a physical presence on the campus. The final three years, I was in graduate school at Baylor University, so I did not see the team as much, except for at practice. There were some unexpected growing pains in this transition. Because I could no longer escort the team to the weight-room sessions in the afternoons, a few of them started skipping weights. Honestly, I understand this. I was once a high-school peanut who underappreciated the weight room and hefted five-pound dumbbells around like I was the Terminator. I also opened this essay congratulating myself on the ability to open a restroom door. Still, our team had talked about how integrity means that your character is the same whether or not anyone is watching. All it took was my absence for them to stop showing up.

Coaching for integrity is hard. Judging by how quickly my team departed from expectations in my absence, I clearly don’t have all the answers. After that incident, we had a hard conversation. I told them that I would only be in their lives for a season, but they would be stuck with themselves for all of theirs. If they were going to do a workout only if I were watching, then they were doing it for the wrong reasons. I told the team that having integrity as an athlete means you can trust yourself to do the right thing whether or not you will be exposed for not having done it. Integrity is what I wanted for them, not behavioral showmanship around me, their coach.

From there on out, I spoke in more explicit terms about integrity. “Integrity means running to the top of the hill whether or not anyone is watching.” “Integrity means we don’t cut corners on the field.” “Integrity (and justice toward competitors) means not stepping inside the track lane.” Having examples helped to train their thinking, and these concrete expectations enabled the team to hold each other accountable to clear standards. Also, I admittedly started to take weight training more seriously myself, to model the priorities I expected them to have. I can’t ask athletes to do things I do not prioritize myself.

Most importantly—while this is not the case for all lapses in integrity—a lot of cheating comes from placing too much value on objective outcomes—race times and accomplishments. This would explain the 237 half marathon cheaters, who likely ‘improved’ their personal bests that day in China. They were operating under the assumption that a counterfeit success was more valuable than a slower time achieved via their best effort. The reality is that these accomplishments don’t mean anything in themselves, and they are certainly not worth any cost or compromise to our characters. With this in mind, on our team, we presented virtue awards at the end of the season, and although we also did traditional Most Valuable Player and Most Improved awards, the runners knew the virtue awards were the most significant.

My advice is this: Youth athletic coaches, be just as excited for the athlete who shows charity toward his teammates as for the one who runs fast. Stop obsessing about outcomes. For most young runners, they are not going to be professional athletes, but they are all going to be adults, navigating society with varying degrees of integrity. If we are training their legs and lungs, we should take the opportunity to train their hearts, too. We can help them practice being people of integrity.

For the rest of us, be willing to interrogate your motivations for running. Ask yourself whether the big and small ways in which you inhabit this sport reflect the sort of character you want outside of it. Find good friends to keep you in check, and record character goals—alongside outcome goals—in your training logs. Because who you are in running is who you are in life, and the choices you make in our sport—big and small—will strengthen or erode your character over time.

Final Thoughts

The four of us (WADA agent, husband, book, and I) got out of the tiny car and headed to the testing area for my first drug test. I looked around the room at the other athletes—runners in different uniforms from all over the world, who were also being tested before the race. We had an immediate bond of camaraderie as runners, and we nodded at each other in common respect. We had all put in a tremendous amount of work to be there, and we owed it to one other (and to the investments each of us had made in training) to make the race a fair one. Cheating is a personal issue, but it is a collective one, too. We owe it to one another to develop our integrity.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

We recognize that this is a difficult topic that may lead to a challenging conversation, but we embrace it with the hope that it can be productive. We require all comments to be constructive and respectful, even when you disagree. As Sabrina’s point is for us to look within on this subject, and to foster positive, constructive dialogue, we’d ask that you not point fingers at other individuals. Consider where you personally face this issue within yourself as our mechanism for fostering communal integrity. Please read iRunFar’s comment policy before leaving a comment. Thank you.

  • What are some good ways of developing and maintaining personal integrity in our own running and that of our peers? Can you share an example of when it would have been ‘easier’ to cut corners but you chose not to? What was this decision-making process like?
  • Do you see yourself feeling more accepting of cheating in our sport when you see others already doing or accepting it? As in, how does our culture’s approach to cheating influence you?
  • Have you ever caught yourself cutting a corner? What happened and what was your inner dialogue like afterward?
  • What are the parallels between cheating in sports and life?


  1. Miller, C. The Character Gap: How Good Are We? New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. p. 135.
  2. Ibid.
Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is a monthly columnist for iRunFar. Sabrina has been writing at the intersection of virtue, character, and sport for the past several years. She has her doctorate in Philosophy from Baylor University and works as an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Sabrina is a trail and ultrarunner for HOKA and DryMax. She is a 5-time U.S. champion and World silver medalist. She’s previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200k disciplines.