A Look at Cheating in Sports

posted on: June 4, 2020
author: Anthony Pellegrino

Cyclist in the Tour de France, a centerpiece of a cheating scandal

Photo by VELOBAR+ on Unsplash

In the philosophy of sport, the issue of cheating takes a particular place of prominence. Every competitor, amateur or professional, has dealt with cheating in their sport and will continue to do so as long as the game is played.

Now, everyone can agree that to cheat is to commit the highest form of moral failing that is possible in competition. Yet, it still happens.

Why is that?

By and large, a competitor decides to cheat because they have a “win-at-all-costs” mentality.

When victory is held above all else, cheating is justified because the “ends justify the means.”

This attitude isn’t always derived from the athlete. Oftentimes, it can be a result of the highly competitive environment created by overly aggressive parents or coaches.

It goes without saying that cheating is a rotten thing to do. Still, it does have some fascinating ramifications.

The Lance Armstrong debacle immediately comes to mind. At this point in time, Armstrong’s name is synonymous with cheating, but he wasn’t alone in his doping.

In fact, from 1998 to 2013, the Tour de France was won by 12 cyclists who were conclusively found to be doping. Excuses began to fly. “Well, everyone is doing it.”

This just goes to show how acts of cheating don’t exist in a vacuum. They always have repercussions beyond the performances in which they occur. They have a corrosive and corrupting influence that can encourage others to cheat themselves.

Along these lines, the concept of cheating is a really fascinating subject for philosophers of sports.

Cheating and Sportsmanship

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If you remember our previous article about the true importance of sportsmanship, we made the case that sportsmanship is good for everybody.

It should be considered that cheating is closely related to poor sportsmanship in that it has the same effect on the state of the game.

As such, the same principle we expressed in our sportsmanship article applies to cheating. That is, the perceived advantage of cheating may, in fact, convince some competitors to bend the rules unfairly in their favor. Yet, as is the case with instances of poor sportsmanship, the game as a whole is now worse for everyone involved.

It’s also just nasty business, plain and simple. Nobody likes a cheater.

Victory and the Pursuit of Mastery

Photo by Fauzan Saari on Unsplash

But why is it that people cheat?

Unsurprisingly, it has a lot to do with a competitor’s attitude towards victory.

The nature of competition is such that success is obviously highly incentivized. Nobody goes into a game with any intention other than winning.

However, things begin to get messy when the desire to win is taken to extremes. It’s because of this extreme victory-at-all-costs mindset that cheating and poor sportsmanship occur.

As we mentioned, this attitude isn’t always because of an athlete’s choices by themselves. In fact, more often than not, victory-at-all-costs is a result of social pressures derived from influences individuals in an athlete’s support network, specifically parents and coaches. The fear of disappointing your support network alongside aggressive social pressure to win can often push athletes to play dirty.

And they don’t refer to it as “at-all-costs” for nothing. This attitude does come with costs. The most significant of which is the cost of mastery.

You see, this attitude makes competitors pursue victory when they should really be pursuing mastery.

So while cheating may give you an extra point here or there, it robs you of your opportunity to pursue mastery.

Think about it this way:

If victory is to take the primary position on the totem pole, mastery has no place.

It should also be remembered that the pursuit of victory does lead to winning more often. The improvement that comes with an increase in mastery can result in athletes dominating more and achieving more victories. I mean, how could it not? By pursuing mastery, i.e. working to become a master, you will find yourself the victor more often.

A victory-at-all-costs, then, hurts more than it helps over the long term. For instance, cheating may result in the advantage of a single point, whereas the pursuit of mastery will lead you to the advantage of 50 points without having to try any harder.

The pursuit of mastery is ultimately more important than the pursuit of victory. Victories are fleeting, but mastery is forever.

Cheating Undermines Your Greatness

Photo by Xan Griffin on Unsplash

Most importantly of all, the act of cheating undermines any genuine victory that may come your way.

Can you really be said to have won anything if you could only do so by cheating?

What would you think if Roger Federer was actually doping this whole time? Would people still consider him one of the greatest tennis players of all time?

Of course not.

The same goes for you, as well. Any instance of cheating undermines all of your competitive achievements, regardless of whether they were genuine or otherwise.

But what if nobody finds out?

Sure, it’s conceivable that you do cheat, but nobody ever finds out. But you’ll always know you cheated, you’ll know that your victories aren’t genuine.

Playing to straight takes courage. It takes a strong sense of self-identity. You owe it to yourself to play it straight. At the end of the day, any victory that requires cheating will always be a pyrrhic one.

When we choose not to cheat, we can be proud of ourselves at the end, no matter what. If we decide to cheat in the face of an opponent cheating, we become a cheater. Thus, we have lowered our moral standards. We have lowered the bar on our expectations of character.

We lose even more than we realize when we decide to cheat.


Let me bring your attention back to Lance Armstrong.

What he did was undeniably wrong. But he wasn’t alone. Countless cyclists were doping. So many that during that period of 1998-2013, it actually wasn’t possible to win without cheating.

What if you’re faced with a similar conundrum? What if you realized that your opponent isn’t playing straight, and you’re going to lose unless you dip your toes into the cheating waters, too?

Given what we’ve said about the pursuit of mastery and the legitimacy of your victories, hopefully, you realize that it’s actually better to lose in such a situation.

When you get down to it, you always have more to gain out of an honorable defeat than an illegitimate triumph.

Are you trying to supercharge your mental game? 

Enroll in our online course, The Great Competitor Formula, today!

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About the Author

Anthony Pellegrino is a freelance journalist, writer, and content marketing strategist. He is currently studying to get his B.A. in Philosophy at Fort Hays State University. He works as contributor to Pulse Magazine and as a freelance content creator for several marketing agencies and brands. His writing is focused on philosophy of mind, metaphysics, politics, everyday life, and content marketing.

Learn more about the author: http://tonyp.press

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