When I was a kid, I was a competitive swimmer and springboard diver, so my earliest sports heroes were Olympians Mark Spitz and Greg Louganis. I remember as I phased out of diving, I used to get some stares for openly lionizing Louganis, since by then it was common knowledge that he was homosexual. And this was at a time when social acceptance of that simply was not what it is today. When it emerged that he was HIV-positive when he last competed in the Olympics, well, that stripped him of hero status in a lot of people’s eyes. I still revere the man, but I remember being disappointed in him for competing while failing to disclose his infection to others. That struck me as an awful risk to take. He remains a hero to me, but it’s tough when your heroes lose some of their shine.
I relate that story as the 2016 Rio Summer Games get underway. As I write this, the legendary U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps has already won his 19th gold medal—and might very well earn more before the games are through. At the moment, he has already won more gold medals than any other Olympian in modern history and has won more than the entire nation of Argentina. He’s won more than twice the entire nation of India, with its billion or so people. It’s thrilling to watch someone as historic as Phelps compete and, as an ex-swimmer, it’s a special thrill when an athlete of this kind of quality is from a sport you once competed in yourself.
I have this awful feeling with Phelps. I don’t think he’s dirty, but I remember how crestfallen I felt when I learned that Lance Armstrong had, in fact, been cheating during all of those races, and it is by no means lost on me that for this current Olympics, the entire Russian Paralympics team has been sent home for doping violations, as well as a noteworthy contingent of the Russian Olympics squad, also for doping. One hates to see a cheater. But one’s heart also goes out to the athletes who, I suspect, aren’t always craven rule-breakers, but might just be swept up by doctors and coaches pressuring them to compete at an unsustainable level. I try to put myself in the mind of an 18-year old kid. Would I, too, fold under that pressure to take something to enhance my performance, especially if folks I trusted (and maybe even spent more time with than my parents) told me it was alright? I think so. And then, to see this result in a lost Olympic effort, that’s something I would not wish upon an enemy.
So, doping is real, and it must be policed. I recall, when moderating a panel with Michael Hershman of the Fairfax Group at the Compliance Week 2016 conference earlier this year, we discussed what had gone so terribly, terribly wrong at FIFA, the world’s foremost soccer organization. And I was surprised by Hershman’s note that he didn’t think it was just FIFA that was crooked. He saw it in every level of professional, world-league sports. And why? Well, in part, many of the organizations in this space are structured in a way to defy meaningful regulatory oversight, so they can get away with threadbare compliance programs. But perhaps more seriously, he noted that we are more likely to accept cheating in sports if it is for the ones we support, because we crave victory and glory in a way that somehow defeats our higher sense of fair play, of ethics, and of respect for the rules. That’s depressing. It’s also true.
So I think of Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer who ever lived. Do I think he’s cheating? Do I think he’s doping? No. I do think he is a freak of nature whose natural ability, mixed with his training regimen and his inner fortitude have made him into a kind of athlete we may never see again in our lifetime. And that is very special indeed. But he is a sports hero in an age when we know so many of them are cheating, and that brings down what it means to be a hero at anything. And that, far beyond what it means for Phelps, or for the United States, or for the Olympics, is something all of us are just a little bit lessened by.