Matthew Syed writes:
A recent BBC investigation found that more than a third of amateur sportsmen and women said that they knew someone who had taken performance-enhancing drugs, and 8 per cent confessed to taking steroids. In 2016, UK Anti-Doping released information about three cases of amateur cyclists who had broken the rules, including a 46-year-old who was handed two bans in the same year and a 17-year-old who had taken EPO.
I mention all this because of the pervasive idea that cheating in sport emerges from the “curse” of professionalism. Pay people to do a job, give them decent incentives, and everything goes awry. A version of this argument has become particularly prevalent with regard to Olympic and Paralympic sports. Coaches and athletes have become so obsessed with winning, driven by a funding system that focuses on medals, that they have lost sight of other values.
We do hear this often. That money in sports is what causes people to cheat etc.
Corruption in amateur sport, where overt financial incentives are non-existent, should make us cautious about claiming that vice is caused by money alone. In the amateur era of the Tour de France, competitors used to jump in a car, get a lift, and then get back on the bike near the finishing line. The same story emerges when you go even further back. At the Ancient Olympics, Eupolus of Thessaly bribed three boxers to throw fights against him.
People cheat because they don’t like to lose.
The common link, then, between people who break rules is not money, at least not in any straightforward sense. Rather, it is a lack of values.
An ingenious experiment led by Joe Henrich, of Harvard University, measured trust and fairness in different societies from across the globe, including hunter-gatherer, horticulturalist, pastoralist and capitalist. One might expect that people from capitalist societies would cheat more in an invented game devised by the experimenters. Isn’t that what you would expect when they have lived in a culture based upon money and competition? In fact, they found the opposite. Capitalist societies had the least cheating and the most fairness.
The reason is that market societies, where people are constantly exchanging goods and services, can only function when a critical mass of people are prepared to abide by the rules, even when it is in their narrow self-interest to cheat. Far from destroying honesty, capitalism depends on honesty.
This is difficult for many to accept, in part because of the scandals we see in market-based societies (such as the banking crisis), just as in professional sport. The truth, however, is that corruption and deceit were significantly worse in pre-market societies (just read any history of feudalism, not to mention Communism), just as the era of amateur sport had a different kind of corruption, with black markets, kickbacks, and widespread cheating by athletes that was rarely detected because sport, back then, couldn’t financially sustain the relevant investigative agencies.
Corruption is always much much lower in liberal democratic countries with market economies.