What Drives People Who Cheat in Road Races?

Periodically, news surfaces about runners cheating by cutting courses at road races. For each runner who is caught cheating, there are almost certainly more who get away with it. Sometimes these runners cheat to win a financial prize, but other times, they cheat to win their age group.

To most runners, the idea of cheating in a road race goes against everything they value about the sport, so this behaviour is hard to understand. Runner’s World spoke with Jack J. Lesyk, Ph.D., CC-AASP, a sports psychologist, to see what he had to say about what would make a runner cut a course.

Runner’s World: Do you have any thoughts on why someone would cheat in a road race, even if there wasn’t prize money, an award, or even necessarily public recognition involved?

Dr. Jack Lesyk: The only thing that comes to mind – I don’t know that we have any answers – I don’t know that I can do more than speculate a little bit. I don’t think anyone has researched this, but having worked with athletes at all levels for about 30 years, one of the very predominant things we notice in individual athletes is whether the source of their motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is where the person really, really wants to reach a high standard for their own satisfaction, and we know that most elite athletes are intrinsically motivated. Even though they do get the accolades, and prizes, and sometimes money, we know that most of the elite athletes are really competing against themselves. They know what their times are for different events and they want to better that, and that’s more important than beating other people. There’s some variation around that, of course.

The other type of athlete is externally motivated and they’re more concerned with the result of their effort, whatever that might be – recognition from friends, sometimes prize money, even to be able to say that I broke 3:00 in the marathon. They’re more concerned with how this impacts other people and what other people think of them. So my guess would certainly be that those people who cheat – whether it’s small cheating or big cheating or prize money or not – are much more externally motivated. They are focusing more on the results rather than on the process of the sport itself.

RW: Do most people fall into one category or the other, or can they be differently motivated in different areas of their lives?

JL: I’m speculating, but my guess would be that they lean strongly in one direction or the other. Maybe there are some exceptions, but I think it’s a fairly deep personality characteristic.

RW: There’s a difference between wanting to impress the people around you and earn their approval and doing something immoral or illegal to accomplish that. Do you think that when someone crosses that line, there’s a disorder or psychiatric problem involved?

JL: I wouldn’t go that far. It would depend on the pervasiveness. If I were working with one particular individual who had done that, I guess I would want to know is this the one and only time? Maybe their sole goal, all these years, was to qualify for a race like the Boston Marathon and they knew they would have come close, but maybe have fallen short, so they may cheat on that one thing so they could go to Boston, but it’s not characteristic. I guess we all could be compromised, depending on the circumstances. And then there may be other people who do it somewhat characteristically in other areas of their life as well, so I don’t think there’s a clear answer to that one.

RW: If it is a pervasive theme in someone’s life, how would you diagnose or treat them?

JL: I would not put a label on it. I would see it as dysfunctional behavior, but I wouldn’t be able to place a psychological or psychiatric diagnosis on it.  And again, it would depend. There is sociopathic personality, but that is so big, that is where a person is basically unsocialized and will do lots of things that are really bigtime and lie about it, but that is such a huge diagnosis that nobody would dream of making it on the basis of a couple of sports-related incidents.

RW: Do you think it’s possible that social media or the internet has contributed to causing people to cheat in any way, just because there’s more of an audience? Is it more tempting to cheat now?

JL: Again, speculating, I would say probably. Twenty years ago, when I won a race, I shared that with my immediate family and five or 10 friends maybe, at the most, who knew what that meant to me. Today, I would put it on social media and 100 or 1,000 people would go, ‘Hey, Jack won a race. Isn’t that cool?’ So yes, I would think so.

RW:  Because of social media and the internet, when someone gets caught, the price seems so much greater now than it would have been 20 or 30 years ago.

JL: The price is greater, that is true. But again, it’s really hard to clump all the people who might take that shortcut or cheat in one broad category, because there might the person who does it just one time out of desperation, ‘I was so close to placing in the last four or five races that I’ve just got to do it,’ versus someone who [thinks], ‘That’s my lifestyle. Whatever I can get away with, I’m going to get away with,’ so they do it frequently. Those might be the two extremes on the continuum. It’s just not quite fair to throw everyone into that same [category]. I would certainly feel much more compassion for the person who just did it once and got caught and had all these consequences, versus the person where this is just habitual behavior.

RW: I think this is particularly interesting in the sport of distance running, because a big part of the sport is putting in the hard work and seeing the results. Do you think someone could find cheating in a race rewarding, even if they’re not putting in the work?

JL: If they’re intrinsically motivated, they would not feel greatly rewarded unless they really earned it. If they’re extrinsically motivated, they probably would enjoy the reward, even if it wasn’t fully earned. And this is the extreme case – people blend on that continuum – but at the extremes, that’s what I would predict.

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