Track and field was once the pre-eminent Summer Olympics event. I suspect most readers can name many more track and field stars from history — Jim Thorpe, Eric Liddell, Jesse Owens, Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner, Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Florence Griffith-Joyner, and so on — than they could from any other event.
But track and field’s status now seems to have been displaced by swimming and gymnastics. And much of the reason is doping.
The once-glorious discipline has been tarnished by decades of doping allegations. The recent detection of Russia’s state-sponsored doping, combined with ongoing suspicions of faulty anti-doping regimes in top track and field countries like Jamaica and Kenya, has cast a pall on this year’s Games.
But I want to argue that the successful investigation and disciplining of doping is actually good for the Games. It vindicates the Olympic ideal.
The founding purpose of the modern Olympics was to promote an ethic of fair competition. This is not to say that we had ever hoped to eradicate the human impulse to cheat. That would be like saying that the purpose of securities law is to eliminate fraud, or that laws prohibiting violent crimes aim to eliminate violence. It’s a nice idea, but don’t hold your breath.
Rather, the Games are to affirm not just that cheating is bad, but that cheating is a concept we can universally recognize. They are to teach us that rules exist, that they are transparent and designed to promote fair competition, that violating those rules can and will be sanctioned, and that complying with the rules will tend to promote stability, prosperity, and order.
Our hearts are stirred by the achievements of Simone Biles and Michael Phelps not just because those feats are extraordinary, but because they have not been tainted with doping allegations. We can’t feel the same way about track and field.
But affirming the distinction between apparently clean events, and known (or suspected) dirty ones, again affirms that such a distinction exists. In so doing it reminds us that we like honest play. We feel better about it. We believe in it.
And so we need the occasional cheating scandal. It reminds us of our ideals, our convictions. Every time we call out and discipline a cheater, the conviction is strengthened, not weakened.
The Rio 2016 Summer Games may go down in history — nay, should go down in history — as the anti-corruption games. We may never have talked so much about cheating, or punishing cheating, or how to design an effective anti-cheating regime, as we are now.
Andy Spalding is a Senior Editor of the FCPA Blog and Associate Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. He’s the author of the ebook Olympic Anti-Corruption Report: Brazil and the Rio 2016 Games (available here). He’ll be a speaker at the FCPA Blog NYC Conference 2016.