A Discourse on Cheating

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

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 50 comments

  1. Markus

    Skipping a weight room session is not cheating in the sports sense of the word. I think that paragraph has nothing to do with the rest of the article.

    Reading cheating in races, I would like to see that race directors take that subject more seriously and also enforce the rules. A lot of times I have seen, that it easier for them to look the other way so that they don’t piss of their “customers”.

    1. Sabrina

      Hey, Markus. Thanks for the comment. I agree that skipping weights is not cheating. However, it is a lapse in integrity in the context of my students’ knowing the expectation I had for them. My intention as a coach was to try to cultivate good actions, not just to discourage the wrong ones. I appreciate your clarification. And yeah, I agree it is sometimes easier to ignore cheating than to enforce rules, in the race context or otherwise.

    2. Eli W

      I thought the bit about skipping weight room sessions did fit in with the rest of the article. I think cheating in the “sports sense of the word” (PEDs, course cutting, etc.) was the backdrop of a broader conversation about integrity and “the range of ways we cheat.”

  2. Lee Smith

    This is a terrific article. I sometimes simplify this for the students in my school who have shown a lapse a judgment between acting in a manner which is “doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do”, and “doing the right thing only because you know that if you are caught doing the wrong thing, you will get in trouble”. Motivation and intention count for everything.

  3. David Christy

    This is an enormously important subject for sports and for life. Thank you for this well-written, as always, and thought-provoking article My early life coaches had more to do with forming my character regarding obeying the rules of the game than any ethics professor. (I now chuckle and wince together when I see basketball coaches tell a referee that his team is going to break the rules, i.e., “We’re going to foul so have that whistle ready.”)
    Markus is right on when he mentions race directors; most of them aid and abet small-time cheating by responding to complainers with, “Hey, it’s all about getting people out here and having fun.” Many reasons for this – too many for a comment, but I do wish a respected sheet like i run far would call them out with a big opinion piece.
    Thank you again, Sabrina.

    1. Sabrina

      Haha Oh, my goodness. I would love to get a team of ethicists in a room to talk about intentional fouls, haha. Thanks for your comment about race directors, too. Tough questions.

  4. Richard E Sorenson

    Interesting article, made me think as a cross country coach. I have been coaching and teaching for 18 years, and I have seen a lot that made me question an athlete’s or a coach’s integrity. Because there is not always a course marshal out in the woods some athletes “miss” a flag. When my athletes tell me about it and I report it when nothing is done about it then I feel disappointed when the athlete or coach is not honest about the cheating, especially the intentional cheating.

    Beginning of each year/season, my athletes, students and I discuss what our expectations will be when it comes to cutting corners, or cheating. We have a deep discussion on it so everyone is on the same page, we put it on the board for the year so it is in writing for all to see, and then they explain it to their parents so the parents know what team and classroom expectations are for the year.

  5. John Vanderpot

    It’s no secret we live in what reasonable people might call morally murky times, if you pay attention and look in any direction it’s not hard to see someone breaking rules and getting away with it, but for me ultrarunning’s sort of been like a sacred cow, the one place we all, mostly, abide by the rules –, although, alas, the last year seems to have had more incidents, either reported/publicized or actual?

    A disappointment for sure, but let’s hope it turns around in 2019, at least in part because of discussions like these?

    Happy Holidays,


    1. David Christy

      John, I suspect that an increase in attention would be responsible for more reported incidents, certainly in the marathon arena. I also suspect we will never know.

    2. Markus

      There were cheaters in the past and there will be cheaters in the future. The fun part is that it is getting impossible to get away with that over a longer period of time. Once you got caught and it is on the internet the fun is over.
      I am not sure if that is a good thing but I also like it when people play by the rules, the most basic definition of Sports.

      1. Sabrina

        Yeah, I definitely did not mean to make a novelty claim about cheating, or restrict this to running. People cheat in every domain and always have.

        The internet can be helpful in terms of recording/accountability of these things, but calling cheating out should be handled responsibly because those records don’t ever go away. The reporting can devastate a person beyond the scope of the infraction, and there’s no real grace in that as people learn their lessons. I don’t really know what the solution is regarding internet.

        Thanks for contributing to the discussion, John, David, and Markus! I appreciate it.

      2. Sabrina

        Thanks for the great comments and discussion, John, David, and Markus!

        I certainly did not mean to make a novelty claim about cheating–as a new problem for runners. Cheating is a problem in every domain and always have been. I just think we’re well-positioned as runners who “practice” improvement on a daily basis to make substantial personal and cultural changes.

        The internet call-out culture for cheating makes me a bit nervous because although it affords greater accountability, it also stands as a permanent record. There’s no real room for future grace in that. Sometimes the repercussions of the call-out far outweigh the crime. I’m not sure what the solution is.

  6. Bradley Temperley

    Perhaps the integrity cheating can be addressed by a technique that can help with commitment to tasks: Instead of the phrase “I must not cut the lane…” or “I have to lift these weights…” you say “I am the type of person who does not cut the lane, and “I am the type of person who lifts x kg n times before breakfast.”
    When commitment during a tough event is flagging it could be “…who keeps their form, and eats and drinks sufficiently,” or even “…who knows when to seek assistance and abandon.”
    This switch from the tasks to the self can make a big difference.
    I learnt this from The Osher Günsberg Podcast; a technique he uses for his fitness and his mental health issues.

    1. Sabrina

      Love it. Yes. Bring the quality or actions to bear on your self-understanding. This tactic is called virtue labeling. I appreciate your insight, Bradley!

  7. Ryan Smith

    Great article Sabrina. My favourite part was your point about the obsessiveness on outcomes. I wholeheartedly agree that the emphasis of coaches should be to develop a passion for the sport and hopefully to churn out life long runners, regardless of ability. That was certainly my experience growing up through the high school and university scene in the UK.

    As an outsider now here in the US it certainly feels like the emphasis is more on elitism than participation where if you don’t make the team you aren’t particularly encouraged to progress. Saying that my favourite running movie is The long Green Line so I’m sure there are other great programs out there that emphasize participation equally.

    1. Sabrina

      Thanks so much for this comment, Ryan! I hadn’t thought about whether this was an idiosyncrasy of American sports. My experience was as you describe–elitist preoccupation with stats because some members of my school teams were going to get cut. Thanks for the insight. Also, love the Long Green Line reference.

  8. Bill Edelman

    Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard! (As a side bar, you made this retired HS athletic director very proud)!!

  9. Luke B

    If more of our fellow competitors had paid any attention in ethics, they would know to act only according to a maxim that they would wish all other rational beings to follow, as if it were a universal law. Accordingly, cheating would be contradictory as the goal of gaining an unfair advantage falls apart if everyone acts with the intent of deceiving others to gain an unfair advantage. On a more serious note, I hope people realize the same thing when they decide it is OK to stick their hands in the pretzel bowl at an aid station even after applying anti-chafe cream to their armpits (or worse…)

    1. Sabrina

      Hey, Luke! Kant’s universal imperative! I love it. Nice insight. Yeah, for sure, it’s a great way to think about the impact that one’s actions have, if you consider what it would be like if EVERYONE did the same thing.

  10. Paul

    I think intentional fouls are unambiguously within the rules and therefore not cheating. I think a grayer area is the overacting that sometimes takes place when trying to draw a foul from the opposition.

    What is also unambiguous is that marijuana is both a banned substance (in competition) and against federal law and many state laws yet many supposedly anti-drug ultra runners openly promote its use.

    1. Sabrina

      Gosh, yes…Things are definitely harder when rules conflict – in this case WADA/USADA rules and state laws. I’m glad there have been more public discussions about it recently just to raise awareness about expectations within the running domain. I guess this is a reason why drug testing is so important…to enforce the rules within the running sphere–rules that might not apply outside of it.

  11. SageCanaday

    Excellent article and very well written! Cheating is a big problem in the sport…we know at the top level (where sponsorship money and prize money are on the line) that it is happening. The sport is not 100% clean. Top 10 guys at UTMB have been busted for heavy hitting PEDs like EPO….when I ran Comrades in 2015 two guys in the top 10 got busted on a race day PED test. As a sponsored athlete ever since college (10 years now) I’ve raced guys on the juice. Some have been caught. Some are probably yet to be caught. It can be life changing at the top level….the difference of a change in career with sponsorship support, all the international travel perks, making a national team or an Olympic team etc. But I believe the cheating happens in all levels of the sport. Some NEED to qualify for the Boston Marathon…or win their age group…or improve their ranking on a Strava segment. Ultimately I believe it is tied up in ego (its not just about the money). The boost in social media followers after a top level performance feeds the ego for example. It is not healthy physically or mentally. Ultimately the dopers are cheating themselves. They are setting a bad example for future generations and kids by saying that “you can’t make it unless you cut corners and try to take short-cuts.” It undermines what honest hard work really is. That is why I compete clean and follow WADA rules 100%. In regards to that though I almost never get tested! I’ve got legit drug tested only once in my whole career. Right now the system for real PED testing is very weak for top athletes. I think for top sponsored ultra runners (at least in the US) we should have a system where we all pitch in $200-400 a year to do some random PED testing of top sponsored ultra runners. Maybe like a “top 20-30” type of thing…those that benefit the most financially from doing well. I would put in my personal money to keep integrity in the sport.

    1. Eli W

      A program to test the top athletes in the sport would be great! In some ways money from sponsors produce an incentive for elite athletes to dope. What if the sponsors pitched in to fund such an anti-doping program?

    2. Sabrina

      Thanks so much for your comment, Sage, and also for your integrity. You’re such a strong voice in clean sport, and I appreciate the impact you’re having. I agree…there should definitely be more testing, and I–like you–would be willing to put my money where my mouth is to help fund more testing. I wonder how many others would.

  12. Joel

    After watching “Icarus” on Netflix, I’m not sure I trust WADA to catch cheaters. I’m thankful Sage is clean. I’m not convinced we’re at a point where putting money towards testing athletes will provide accurate results.
    Unbelievably, the doctors prescribing PEDs still practice, just search the “anti-aging” specialist physician from Icarus! https://thrivemdvail.com/dr-scott-brandt/

    I’d love to know who’s doping and eliminate them from sport, unfortunately this may never happen.

    1. Sabrina

      I completely agree about “Icarus.” It made me a bit uneasy about whether WADA is a trustworthy check on doping. Do you have any thoughts on how we can check for integrity otherwise? Do you think USADA is more trustworthy? Thanks for your comment.

    2. Carrie

      Joel, YES! If you do a little more digging, you’ll find that Scott Brandt lost his medical license due to multiple opioid infractions. (All available on Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies website)
      Since he has no prescriptive authority, he has an internal medicine physician write for all of his patients. Even with this black mark on the Vail Valley, he has a thriving practice and a months-long waiting list. So many athletes, male and female, complain of lethargy, weight gain, low sex drive…and bam, Scott Brandt will provide your testosterone. (And a very large, cash only bill)

  13. Ethan

    Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful discourse, Sabrina. With regard to your point about overemphasis on outcomes, I think this gets to the heart of the matter. I’d take it one step further and say I think the same applies in many different areas in life – see for example the worlds of business and politics. Unfortunately, as process is much harder to measure and appreciate than outcome, it’s not entirely clear how to change this. I think your virtue awards are a good first step, and I hope others will adopt your approach to encouraging focus on dedication and integrity rather than victory.

  14. caper

    I’ve only openly experienced cheating once in a race. It was my 2nd 50mile race, and we were maybe 60-65km in and it was a wicked steep section that only the Killians can actually run. I was about 2/3’s down it, and looked back up, there was nobody I could see. I had a clear view of maybe 1km uphill. Within seconds two people roared past me, at first I was surprised, then realized they cut the course as you had to climb up on ski run, with a set of trees separating to get to another ski run I was descending. Basically they skipped the up & down sections which were some of the most difficult of the race. At first I was pissed, they said nothing and kept going. I wasn’t in the lead…maybe in 20th overall at that time. I was far off the leaders, and I suspect they were already finished. In the end while being shocked I just accepted if you cut the course and cheat its your loss. I can be proud of running every single step of every single race I’ve finished. Even if they had won the race was small enough there was no parade, or sponsorship dollars. So it came down to pride and bragging rights. I’ll take my pride any day over cheating to achieve bragging rights of finishing faster.

    Per doping I don’t have a problem with it. Supplements, altitude generators, pain medication, they are all unnatural man made methods of improving performance, this is just upping the ante. I have an altitude generator, its been wonderful for this flat lander, I user supplements, primarily vitamins and magnesium mostly to help with muscle tightness, I have a Compex for helping strength work, and I will take pain meds when needed. I don’t consider myself a cheater because of that, but I do accept their unnatural methods of getting ahead of those who don’t have the means to purchase those items.

    1. Sabrina

      Allowing doping seems like a slippery slope and definitely obscures the heart of the game, though. Do you think there might be an inequality in terms of access to these technologies? And isn’t it special to watch someone run with their full heart, naturally, rather than take drugs and run fast?

    2. Eli W

      Altitude generators and vitamins are not doping and are not banned. They are widely available to all athletes and do not pose serious health risks.

      Doping includes things like synthetic hormones (EPO, HGH, etc), which, when used as a performance enhancer, pose a serious risk to an athlete’s health. It is not fair to expect athletes to take these serious health risks in order to be competitive, which is why they are banned.

    3. Sabrina

      Hi Caper, thanks for the comment. So is your argument in the second paragraph that doping lines are fairly arbitrary, so it’s not worthwhile to screen things…if we’re already letting in analgesics, altitude, etc.? I think I disagree since that violates the spirit of the sport. In general, what makes athletics worthwhile is not an arms race of technologies, but people working really hard to push natural limits. By extension, do you hold the same understanding of performance enhancements in other domains? (I.e. is it okay with you if all school kids start taking ritalin, for example?)

    4. SageCanaday

      Caper…I’d use an altitude tent if I lived at sea level. And I take vitamin b12 and other supplements. HOWEVER, this is a very distinct line with cheating/doping. If you either follow WADA/IAAF rules to a T or you don’t. You take a big time PED like EPO and you trip it drug test and you get caught. There really is no “gray area” (maybe TUEs), but it is very cut and dry. Top elites can easily get a 5-8% performance boost on drugs. WADA has determined was is banned because of these kinds of gains.

  15. Caper

    While I agree with Sages comment that epo’s are a different level of cheating, I still think that any unnatural method to get ahead is the grey line. Much like I can choose to drink more alcohol than recommended, or eat fried chicken everyday, what I do to my body is my choice, so it’s not a line of protecting the poor athlete, it’s a choice and access to methods to improve. I would prefer a level planing field for all, but it doesn’t and never will exist, cheating in all forms has and will exist forever, even if just for bragging rights. Some times socioeconomic means will inherently provide a method to get ahead (altitude generator costing 3-4000) and that allows one athlete to take advantage of unnatural means to become better. While the argument may be living at altitude is the same, that’s simply not a realistic possibility for nearly everyone, so those with money can buy the unnatural approach and those without can’t. So I’m not condoning cheating, I am saying the morally superior position isn’t always so black and white in another’s point of view.

    Sabrina I get more pleasure watching a person run with their heart than watching any other part of running.

    1. SageCanaday

      Caper, one can go into the semantics of what “natural” for tons of things though. All technology? Of course there are socioeconomic things that influence us in all walks of life….those born wealthy are at all sorts of inherent advantages. The playing field is never level. But we’re trying to make it “more level” in the aspect of PEDs.

      What I’m saying is that it is very simple (with banned substances and drugs that allow runners to improve their performance significantly). It is very black and white: You either follow WADA rules and their drug list (And don’t test positive) or you do. The rules are very specific and defined for a reason…based on science and health.

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