Slowly, more top professional cyclists that were rivals of Lance Armstrong are mumbling confessions of the same carefully-worded sort that Lance released last January. Some have been coerced by teams or government inquiries (as with the handful of Americans who testified to their own doping as part of implicating Lance Armstrong). The latest is Jan Ullrich, the German cyclist who placed second to Lance three times in the Tour de France. Like many others, Ullrich used the same worn out excuse that “everybody was doing it,” and that his joining the “medical program” was just a way to play on a level field. What are we to think of these things?

Part 1

Cheating is all too common in daily life

When I look into an eBay store in China, the seller notes that they will list the product as “gift” to avoid customs duties when mailed internationally. Isn’t that a lie? I know people who pay others for counseling and home remodeling with cash. This increases the net amount of their fee by avoiding taxes, since the payees do not declare this as taxable income. Students are notorious for plagiarism, even at a smart school like Harvard, as we have heard in recent years. It’s considered normal to take food from a restaurant when you are working there, or to discount food sold to friends. It’s just a perk of the job.

Obviously, sin is universal to people in all walks of life. When athletes break the rules of fair play, it’s sensational for the way they publicly deceived the rest of us into believing that they were just more talented, or they worked harder, or it was just their lucky day (or decade) in the sport. All sin is wrong, as is all cheating (because cheating is the sin of lying), but not all cheating is as bad as some forms of cheating. The contemptuous outrage against Lance Armstrong is partly because of the high pressure that he and his team managers exerted on other riders on the team to participate in cheating as a part of keeping their job. In biblical judgment, it’s worse to cause another to sin than simply to do so yourself (Mark 9:42).

One of the ethical problems confronting high performance athletes now is the possibility of using performance boosting substances that are as yet unknown to the authorities. These substances might not be banned right now, and so they are not detectable (or, they are banned in principle, but they are not detectable). Is that still cheating? Some may put these substances in a grey area as yet not clear.

What if, for example, a trainer hears that a mixture of India ink and pickled ginger can increase muscle mass in ways equivalent to testosterone? Is that cheating? Most people would say no, since it’s just enhancing one’s physiology by weird nutrition, just as can be done by altitude training, sleeping in a tent that simulates high altitude, or extracting blood and re-infusing it later on. Only the last practice is banned, and it provides a much more intense performance advantage along with introducing health risks. But should athletes voluntarily refrain from the other practices also? Can this be trying too hard, a bit like the Christian’s attempts to do ministry “in the flesh,” by striving and hard self-effort alone?

I wonder if the current state of professional sports is a bit like legalistic Judaism, giving lip service to the Law while finding loopholes to enhance their personal well-being, having made the whole Torah-observance into a sort of game. When Christians seemed to have returned to the game of playing by rules alone, the apostle Paul rebuked them in his letter to the Galatians for having missed the point of the Gospel that sets people free from the Law. Christians are to see themselves as living in Christ, by the vital power of the Holy Spirit. Christian practices done “in the flesh” as one’s hard work from oneself is maybe analogous to the athlete resorting to cheating by using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). The similarity is to degrade the sport to a sort of blood and hormone chemistry game, and to degrade the Christian’s participation in Jesus Christ to religion.

For athletes, maybe the issue shouldn’t be merely abiding by the rules (avoiding those substances and practices that are banned, such as blood transfusions and the use of steroids and other PEDs). The Christian doesn’t live by rules per se. The Christian obeys Jesus. What should the athlete obey? Many seem to just do as OT Israel did at various times when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Many professional athletes follow this ancient Israelite folly when they obey the rule of “don’t get caught” and its corollary, “don’t rat out those who do the same as you do.”

The Christian should obey Jesus, the athlete should obey beauty and truth. Why? The sense of beauty is available to all athletes, even if we may have differing criteria for what is most beautiful in sport (the good virtues of speed, power, cunning, courage, precision, stamina, self-sacrifice, humility, excellence in form, and etc.). I think that participation in the beauty of sport in these ways is what most motivates athletes, aside from the fame, money, and thrill of competition. The sense of truth is similarly a built-into-humanity regard for honesty and being authentic. Everyone prizes truthfulness in themselves and others. We can all agree on the difference between true and false. Living truthfully feels clean; telling lies makes us feel creepy, even if we can get used to it.

In sport, being truthful is the commitment to playing fair above playing to win. If I cannot win by playing fair and honestly, then I must learn to be content with not winning. There is no honor for anyone when those who win did so by cheating, even if everyone cheated. It’s a living lie, which is why people keep it a secret, and there is no honor in that. Better is to honor the honest win, and to aspire to participate in that for oneself. It is folly to think that winning is everything. I suppose this attitude makes winning into an idol, alongside money, fame, and power. All such idols are stupid and not worth the pursuit by a human being, since human beings are worth so much more than piffle such as these.

Many athletes enjoy contentment in humility when they do not win. This is the successful pursuit of fair play. Authorities over sports must function like parents to children, specifying what constitutes fair play in a precisely specified code, and disciplining athletes who fail to live by it. Sometimes this works, but many athletes have been excessively resourceful in circumventing the structures that support fair play. They are the winners who are losers, and they know it.

For the athlete, as for the Christian, the issue is not playing by the rules of a game, but aspiring to something above that. For the Christian, this is living to know Jesus by living with him daily. For the athlete, this is sport in the fulfillment of beauty and truth. I can put myself into a performance, body and soul, through competition and camaraderie with a hundred others out on the road. Sport can be all about pride, but it can otherwise be all about the satisfaction of playing better than all others, being the most beautiful and true that I can be for a moment.

Part 2 is to follow on Friday, 6/28.