A History of Cheating in Sports


A History of Cheating in Sports
Apr 23, 2020

In the wake of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, students in the sports, society and media class at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism were assigned a term paper this semester on the history the history of cheating in sports.

One of the best papers was done by Kelsey Mannix. Her report is below:

Over the past few decades, the sports world has been rocked by copious cheating scandals. From Lance Armstrong admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs, to the Russian state-sponsored doping ordeal that got the country’s athletes banned from international competition, to the recently-revealed Houston Astros sign-stealing scheme, sports are riddled with people trying to gain an unfair advantage. According to J. Weston Phippen in a 2016 Atlantic article, “cheating, like competition, is human nature.” It can be traced back as far as the ancient Olympics in Greece. Though the methods of cheating have evolved over time, the idea of it and the motivation to do so have not. Governing bodies have tried forever without success to deter athletes from cheating.

In ancient times, Phippen said that Olympic competitors would swear to Zeus that they would not cheat. If they got caught, they faced fines or humiliation in the form of statues built outside the Olympic stadium so no one would forget the incident, according to David Gilman Romano of the Penn Museum. They also received lifetime bans from future competitions. Attempts to cheat ranged from bribing other competitors or officials to forging their city-state affiliations to cursing each other. Athletes also tried to improve their performances by eating dried figs or mushrooms, or consuming the stimulant strychnine. At the time, using supposedly stimulating substances was not considered cheating like it is today, and no “culture in early history made any effort to discourage the use of ergogenic substances.” Over time, the rules changed as athletes and coaches found new ways to cheat. Sports with more widely-known issues with cheating include baseball, cycling, running and swimming. Not only have athletes in these sports used PEDs, but some have also used technology to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents.


Many famous baseball players have used or been suspected of using PEDs at some point during their careers. In the early 2000s, the drug company BALCO was investigated for supplying players with performance enhancers. Later, in 2007, the Mitchell Report was released, which found that baseball has “a serious drug culture” that affected every single team. Some of the players implicated in the report included Barry Bonds, Miguel Tejada, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, according to a 2007 NPR article. Years after these discoveries, even more stories of players doping came out.

In the past decade, some of the most notable MLB doping cases include Manny Ramirez, Melky Cabrera, Mark McGwire, Bartolo Colon and Alex Rodriguez. Of these players, McGwire was the only one who did not receive a suspension. According to an article on foxsports.com, he admitted to using steroids to “recover from injuries” in the 1990s. Ramirez faced two suspensions during his career, while Cabrera and Colon each faced 50-game suspensions. Rodriguez was famously suspended for an entire season in 2014 for using PEDs. According to Tony Bosch, who gave Rodriguez the PEDs, he was striving to become the only player with over 800 career home runs (Rose 2014). For Rodriguez, his desperate desire to hold a record outweighed the possible consequences of getting caught.

While professional baseball has its issues with PEDs, it has also been plagued with sign-stealing scandals. Sign-stealing has been part of the game since its inception. In the 2019 book The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of our National Pastime, Paul Dickson said that sign-stealing is one of the most valuable skills in baseball. He said “today it is a pure art based of the ability to read tip-offs and the ingenious decoding of an opponent’s signs as they are being transmitted.” As long as teams can “decode” with only their eyes, it’s fair game. The 1951 New York Giants, however, crossed that line. Bobby Thomson hit a walk-off home run to win the National League Championship game against the Brooklyn Dodgers and allegedly knew the pitch before it reached his bat, according to a 2001 book, “The Echoing Green” by Joshua Prager. The team had someone use a telescope in a centerfield office to see the Dodgers’ catcher’s signs, then relayed them through a buzzer system between the office and the dugout, according to Prager, who first wrote this in The Wall Street Journal, prior to publication of his book. A Giants player then lightly tossed a baseball to let the batter know what pitch he would face. Thomson maintained that he did not get a signal on the pitch of his winning home run, but it’s always remained questionable.

During the 2017 season, the Houston Astros used a camera in centerfield to see a catcher’s signs on a monitor in the dugout, numerous sources reported. The pitch call was relayed to the Astros’ hitters by pounding a trash can in the dugout for off-speed pitches. No sound meant a fastball was coming. The Athletic , which broke the story, reported about the scheme in 2019, two years after it allegedly occurred. Rob Manfred, the MLB Commissioner, acted in a way he deemed appropriate: he suspended the Astros’ general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season, fined the team and took away draft picks. No punishment was issued to players. Not long after, Jim Crane, the Astros’ owner fired Luhnow and Hinch. Alex Cora, the Boston Red Sox manager in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, was a bench coach with the Astros in 2017. It was reported that Cora and the Sox “mutually agreed to part ways” after the scandal because he was “the architect of the sign-stealing scheme.” Former Astro Carlos Beltran, who accepted a job as the New York Mets manager in late 2019, also “agreed to mutually part ways” in January 2020 with his new team before ever managing a game. Though the league and other teams may feel that covers the scandal, it may not by enough to deter other teams from attempting similar schemes.

Endurance Sports


Cycling is probably one of the most infamous sports in which athletes continually cheat. Many cyclists use performance-enhancing drugs to quickly recover or maintain their endurance for longer periods of time. According to Paul Dimeo in The International Journal of the History of Sport, cyclists seem to have two choices: “take banned drugs or be at a competitive disadvantage.” Using stimulants became popular after World War II, with two cyclists in the 1960s using the drugs—Knud Jensen of Denmark and Tom Simpson of England—who actually died during races and had amphetamines in their systems. Simpson actually had methamphetamines in his pocket during the 1967 Tour de France, the race in which he died. Cyclists have also used EPO, which increases the production of red blood cells, and as a result supplies the body with more oxygen.
One of the most infamous doping revelations in the last decade was Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour de France winner confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he used PEDs. When Armstrong began his ascent to the top tier of cycling, it was easy for athletes to dodge drug testing or beat the system. If doctors prescribed the right dosage, the athletes would pass the drug test; there is evidence that Armstrong used PEDs a few years before his first Tour de France win in 1999. Reports claimed Armstrong was going through cancer treatments in 1996, he said he used “EPO, testosterone, human growth hormone, steroids and cortisone.” Given this, it is likely that Armstrong was highly familiar with doping strategies of the time and continued to cheat once he became one of the best in the world. It was all speculation, even after multiple people accused him of cheating over the years. Those suspicions were confirmed in 2012 when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency made its report about Armstrong public. As a result of these revelations, he was stripped of his Tour de France wins. Armstrong succumbed to the pressure of a sport riddled with PEDs because athletes feel like they have no other choice but to dope in order to level the playing field.

Running/Track & Field

One of the earliest cases of runners cheating occurred at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, American marathoner Fred Lorz finished first, but was disqualified for being driven around in a car during most of the race, according to Olympic.org. Another American, Thomas Hicks, was declared the winner. He collapsed at the end of the race and “had to be revived by four doctors,” according to the St. Catherine’s Standard in 2016. He drank a combination of strychnine, brandy and egg whites near the end of the race, according to the Standard. At the time, it was legal for athletes to take substances to enhance their performances. It wasn’t until 1967 that the IOC prohibited the use of PEDs and began to investigate drug use among athletes. Now, the World Anti-Doping Agency and other governing bodies like USADA conduct investigations.

In 2016, the world found out about the infamous Russian state-sponsored doping scandal when the doctor in charge of it, Grigory Rodchenkov, blew the whistle to The New York Times. As detailed in the Netflix documentary Icarus, Rodchenkov organized and oversaw the swapping of dirty urine tests with clean ones during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In a 2015 interview with NPR, Hajo Seppelt, who worked on another documentary detailing the investigation, said that the athletes were under high pressure to use PEDs. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be supporting their home country in the government’s eyes. WADA had already been investigating the claims when Icarus was being filmed. As a result of the findings, Russia was forbidden to compete in track and field internationally, including the Rio Olympics. In December 2019, WADA officially banned Russia from competing in any international sport for four years, according to a New York Times article by Tariq Panja. Under both restrictions, athletes who were officially deemed clean could compete as an Olympic Athlete from Russia, just not under the Russian flag (Panja 2019). This is one of the most significant doping busts in history and could potentially alter the processes of drug testing in the future. Another famous incident involved Ben Johnson of Canada being stripped of his 100-meter gold medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics for illegal drug use.

Swimming has its fair share of violators as well, including China’s Sun Yang. In 2018, he allegedly broke vials of blood samples he was giving to drug testers because he believed one of the testers was not qualified to be there, according to The Daily Telegraph. Swimming’s international governing body, FINA, gave him two violations, which Sun appealed. He won his case, but WADA appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in March 2019, according to The Daily Telegraph. That summer, Sun competed at the World Championships in Australia and won two gold medals. Due to the allegations against him, two swimmers did not want to be in photos with Sun. Britain’s Duncan Scott did not take part in the 200-meter freestyle podium photo and chose to stand a few feet away, and Australia’s Mack Horton also refrained from a podium photo and the “victory lap” after the 400-meter freestyle, wrote Rick Maese in The Washington Post in 2019. In February 2020, Sun was handed an eight-year ban for doping, which could potentially end his swimming career.

Another swimmer, Russia’s Yuliya Efimova, has been suspended twice for using PEDs, though one was reversed in 2016, and was still allowed to compete at the Rio Olympics, Maese reported in 2019. American Lilly King became one her biggest rivals after voicing her displeasure that Efimova could compete. King famously wagged her finger, almost mockingly, after Efimova won a semifinal race at the 2016 Olympics. Now, King is an advocate for clean sport. She offered her full support to Scott and Horton after their protests. In a 2019 Washington Post article, she said:

“I think standing up for what you believe in – and it may be something other people are afraid to stand up for – is kind of frowned upon sometimes in swimming. It’s kind of scary sometimes to think about. The fact they’re doing that is pretty incredible.’’
It appears that governing bodies are inconsistent when enforcing doping regulations and issuing suspensions or bans, which should be an issue with fans not just of swimming, but of all sports. If this continues, it will be difficult to know if violators revert back to using drugs to gain a competitive edge.


The IOC Code of Ethics states that athletes “must act with the highest degree of integrity, and particularly when [making] decisions, they must act with impartiality, objectivity, independence and professionalism. They must refrain from any act involving fraud or corruption” (2016). Basically, athletes should not cheat. At the same time, young people are sometimes taught that it’s okay to cheat as long as they don’t get caught, or “you ain’t lying, you ain’t trying. ” The desire for success or fame should not compromise an athlete’s integrity and drive them to cheat because it ruins sports for everyone else.

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