Science Magazine

On Cheating. A Scientific Perspective.

Posted on the 31 August 2012 by Philipmarais

The very recent past has not been kind to one of history’s most celebrated sporting achievers. Lance Armstrong faces defamation of a legacy that has recorded no less than seven Tour De France titles and a winning bout with cancer. Though I should probably say, seven ‘top of the podium’ finishes, as the US Ant-doping Agency (USADA) has stripped him of those official victories. (Not the cancer one.)

Lance Armstrong has since refused to contest the doping charges, forfeiting his rights to all awards and prizes, citing a depleted emotional capacity to sustain the battle.

Whether or not Lance Armstrong is a dirty doper, is not the main inquiry of this communication. Though I find it extremely interesting that such a retrospective inquiry has any merit at all.

The nature of professional sport, which is analogous to saying, the nature of nature, is to succeed with maximum advantage whilst incurring minimum cost. It is no surprise that doping has any place in professional sport.

Professional sport can very easily be viewed as an isolated system, within which, greatest advantage is gained by a strategy that will out propagate its rivals for success, and compete well in an environment that has a high frequency of the same strategy [Maynard-Smith, 1982; Dawkins, 1976]. This system does not encourage anti-doping, as much as it serves the purpose of a rigid framework, that drives the selection between winning strategies, that include a factor of doping. In fact, the arms race between anti-doping agencies and dopers in professional sport, has become a well debated topic.

What has me particularly disconcerted, is the lack of responsibility that the USADA are willing to claim for the role in this mess. In designing artificial upper limits of fairness, the system enforces the selection of strategies that will approach an asymptote of the allowable. What is worse still, is that this limit of fairness applies only to doping (and gender and technique), which exists as an extension of nutrition. Everything else is allowed in limitless quantities; training, sleeping, genetic advantage, historical advantage, etc. Where they choose to draw the doping line with respect to nutrition is arbitrary, yet the fact that an upper limit exists, is all that is important for now. I might add, that anti-doping organizations have both the spirit of fairness, and the athletes best interests at heart. In principle.

If the nutritional component of race preparation can be viewed as a continuum of nutritional strategies, with mash and veggies being on the right (correct) side of the upper limit and steroids on the other, then strategies that approximate the upper limit of fairness has a maximum advantage. This strategy is very likely the predominant one in professional sport, as most athletes that compete at this level, are at the upper limits of genetic capacity, physical training etc. for humans. Since nutrition offers an additive contribution to most attributes of a physical nature, there would be a strong general trend towards maximizing its effect.

Anti-doping agencies create regulations, that at the outset, seek to govern fairness. This is the driving force behind the arms race between catching dopers, and doping to the maximum, without getting caught. Doping to the maximum without getting caught, is the strategy that allows for greatest advantage, all other things being equal.

 Lance Armstrong is a product of an environment that selects for the most effective strategies, one which is governed by limits, enforced by the arms race between doping and anti-doping. Whether or not Lance has slipped through the cracks of a previously inadequate system of policing, is unimportant. The fact that there are allegations of this nature, should prompt an introspective inquiry for the USADA more than it should a retrospective hunt for ‘fairness’, at the expense of the competitor.

If Lance had an unfair advantage during his reign of success, it necessarily means that equal such opportunity existed for each of his competitors. If he had both cheated and bribed his way to success, it can be ascribed to a corrupt system that allowed blatantly ‘unfair’ competition, which renders its purpose null and void.

Cheating within the upper limits of legal is not moral failure from an athlete’s perspective. No sir. It is failure from a governing perspective.

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