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?