A Brief History of Cheating at the Olympics

Deception at the games is as old as the competition itself.

A picture of ancient Olympia
Ancient Olympia (Pierers Universal-Lexikon)

The ancient Olympic Games didn’t travel from city to city as they do now. Starting in 776 B.C., the Olympics were held quadrennially in Olympia, the sanctuary city of Zeus. Statues of the god were everywhere, and one in particular, a bronze icon holding two thunderbolts, was named “Zeus the Oath Giver.” Before competing, athletes from as far away as modern-day Spain and the Black Sea stood before this icon and swore an oath to the god of thunder vowing they would follow the regulations of the Olympics and play fair.

Today’s games have something similar, though it’s not not exactly an oath, and certainly not made while holding a strip of wild-boar meat—as was custom in ancient Greece. Today the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a code of ethics, of which the first article asks athletes to compete with a “respect for the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

In short, don’t cheat.

But that instruction isn’t always followed despite the public disgrace that accompanies it—nor was it followed 3,000 years ago when the Olympics began. While the manner of cheating has evolved in that time, the human desire to cheat has not. Ancient Olympians were no more or less moral than humans are today. The evidence of this quite literally begins with the Olympic Games, as part of its creation myth.

Olympia was named for Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the gods. The most prominent building in Olympia held one of the ancient wonders of the world, an enormous statue of Zeus, made of gold and ivory. Just outside this building was a less-staggering set of statues that told a story of a king, his daughter, a handsome suitor, and a scheme.

The ancient king Oenomaus had been warned the man who married his daughter would kill him. To ensure his own survival, Oenomaos, who had the world’s fastest horses, decreed any man who wished to wed his daughter must first beat him in a chariot race. For a long time, he was safe. As quickly as suitors lined up to wed his daughter, Oenomaos outraced them, and, according to some versions of the story, beheaded them and nailed the heads to his home. That was, until Pelops, a handsome young man intent on marrying Oenomaos’ daughter, came along. Unlike the other suitors, Pelops’s plan involved more than swift horses. He bribed a man to swap out the linchpin on Oenomaos’s chariot with one made of wax.

A series of statues in Olympia were believed to depict the moment before this race began, when both father and suitor stood on either side of Zeus and swore an oath to play fairly. Of course, when the race heated up, the wax pin broke, Oenomaos fell from the chariot, and died. Pelops won his bride.

For this, the southern region of Greece, the one that includes Olympia, took Pelops’ name (it still bears it). Pelops founded the Olympic Games to commemorate his triumph, and so every four years Greek men competed to prove who was best, swearing to Zeus they would not cheat. It might be high hypocrisy, but the ancient Greeks were perhaps a bit more practical when it came to their acknowledgment of human nature. Their gods, at least, reflected this. Greek mythology is full of jealousy, greed, trickery, and deceit. Not that they accepted this as part of the Olympics, or encouraged it. In fact, they built statues to shame these cheaters.

On the road to Olympia, competitors walked past a line of statues, also of Zeus, except they called these “Zanes.” Each statue had a small plaque that chastised competitors accused of misconduct. The Greeks built the first of these statues after the 98th Olympiad, dedicated to the boxer Eupolus of Thessaly, who bribed his opponents to let him win. The Olympic officials of the day fined Eupolus, as well as those who accepted the bribes, and the payment built six Zanes. The first statue’s plaque reminded athletes the Olympics were meant to judge “swiftness of foot and strength of body,” not an athlete’s purse. The other statues called out his coconspirators, and the final statue warned the coming competitors against deceiving the gods and disgracing the sacred games as these men had done. It is a wonder, wrote Pausanias, the ancient Greek traveler, geographer, and writer, that “man has so little respect for the god of Olympia as to take or give a bribe.”

Yet disrespect was in no short supply. The Greeks built many Zanes, enough to line the path leading to Olympia, because plenty of athletes cheated. They bribed other competitors, they bribed the fathers of competitors, they bribed officials, they competed in secret after their city-state was banned, they pretended to be from city-states they were not.

The Olympics had a brief hiatus—about 2,000 years—and at the inaugural modern Olympic Games, in 1896, held in Athens, humans were back at it. In the marathon event, a Greek runner rode a portion of the race on a carriage. But perhaps the funniest modern-day Olympic cheating scandal came in 1904, in St. Louis, Missouri. It was 90 degrees and humid, and by all accounts the marathoners were ill-prepared and miserable. Fred Lorz, the U.S. American bricklayer and marathon runner, beat out two barefoot men from the Tsuana (or Tswana) tribe of South Africa, a Cuban who showed up in long pants, and a host of other competitors. Lorz not only beat them all, he beat the closest marathoner by three-quarters of an hour. President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter crowned Lorz champion, but a moment later someone in the crowd called foul play. It turned out, Lorz  had ridden part of the marathon in the back of a truck. The gold medal went to another American, Thomas Hicks, who was pale and vomiting at the moment he learned he’d won because his handlers had slipped him a mix of egg white, brandy, and strychnine, used at the time as a stimulant.

Some 30 years later, the German women’s high-jumper Dora Ratjen lost her gold when officials discovered she was really Heinrich Ratjen. And on, and on, the cheating continued. Why do people cheat? Because cheating, like competition, is human nature.

“Cheating has always been part of sports,” Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who researches deception, told me. “It’s this  idea that we’re ‘in it to win it,’ and we will cut corners or push ourselves really hard, so the Little League World Series has scandals, the Paralympics has scandals.”

Cheating, it seems from recent research, creates its own ecosystem, because winners are more likely to cheat, cheaters are more likely to win, and emotions tied to winning—feelings of superiority, or that you deserve to excel—reinforce cheating behavior. Schweitzer’s work has found cheaters experience a sort of double high: the high of having won, and a high from having duped everyone.

This year, with news the Russian government may have helped its athletes dope in Olympic competition, it seems cheating has progressed to a height never before achieved—at least since the Cold War when Eastern Bloc athletes were accused of using drugs to boost their performances. And because cheating has been so deeply involved in the Olympics since its creation, it’s in keeping with the Olympic motto of pushing limits: Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, Higher, Stronger.

What’s Latin for shadier?