SI cover

It was haunting, stark, in-your-face. The cover of the April 14, 1997, Sports Illustrated, drew your attention to an image that dramatically captured, in one stroke, the state of affairs in athletics, indeed, the state of affairs in society. An arm, a strong arm with bulging bicep, fist clenched, wrist cupped, formed the bulk of the image, yet placed between the cupped wrist and bulging bicep was a syringe, it’s needle plunging into the taunt muscle. That was it, just an arm and a needle, yet you couldn’t look away. Although it appeared 16 years ago I have never forgotten that image.

The lead article, titled Over the Edge, opened with survey results that were, it doesn’t seem possible, even more haunting than the cover image. Quoting the article’s opening statement, it reads –

A scenario, from a 1995 poll of 198 sprinters, swimmers, power lifters and other assorted athletes, most of them U.S. Olympians or aspiring Olympians:
You are offered a banned performance-enhancing substance, with two guarantees: 1) You will not be caught. 2) You will win. Would you take the substance?
One hundred and ninety-five athletes said yes; three said no.
Scenario II: You are offered a banned performance-enhancing substance that comes with two guarantees: 1) You will not be caught. 2) You will win every competition you enter for the next five years, and then you will die from the side effects of the substance. Would you take it?

The survey question hangs for a moment before us, suspended in silence, as we consider just how far someone would go to come in first. Something inside of us roots for these athletes to draw a line at the thought of giving their lives for victory, to say that enough is enough, and to recoil at the suggestion of such a sacrifice. Their response was stunning; at least it should have stunned us. When asked if they would take a drug that would assure them of victory for five years, but also just as assuredly lead to their death –

“More than half of the athletes said yes.”

Of the close to 200 athletes surveyed, over 100 of them were willing to trade their lives for fleeting notoriety. Over half. The SI article was like an Old Testament prophet talking into the wind. It deserved more attention. My purpose, though, isn’t to review this article or a host of others that have documented athletic cheating. Instead, I want us to think about the personal decision that so many athletes make, at the risk of their lives, to gain an advantage. The media and the “schizophrenic” public may be calling for more testing and harsher penalties, but these strategies will do little to address behaviors that value winning over life itself. As Gabor Mate reminds us, “We keep trying to change people’s behaviors without a full understanding of how and why those behaviors arise.”1

Lance Armstrong recently confessed to Oprah and the world that he used performance-enhancing drugs to win his many titles, including his seven Tour de France championships. His years of ferocious, lawsuit-filled denials came to a crashing halt under the weight of overwhelming evidence. Now we know that Armstrong and his teammates injected EPO, a substance that had already killed other athletes, including five Dutch cyclists in 1987. Future rules, policies, and punishments must take this level of commitment into account if we are even going to begin to solve this challenge. Telling someone who is willing to give his life to win titles that he will be suspended for using drugs is like telling a suicide bomber that if he is discovered he won’t be able to ride any busses for a year. Policies and punishments aside, what is going on in the heads of these athletes? Choice theory may help us answer this question.

Choice theory, a theory of human motivation and behavior created and refined by William Glasser, presents several key points or axioms, as he refers to them, on which to begin the discussion. These points include –

All we do is behave; and

All behavior is purposeful; which means that

Our behavior represents what we think will best meet our needs at that moment. Further

Every human being is striving to meet a uniquely personal set of basic needs. We are born with these needs and throughout our lives we respond to their urgings to be met.

Beginning at birth, since we do not arrive like other mammals with instinctual knowledge and skills to survive, we begin to learn how to meet our basic needs.

I believe there are six basic needs, one physiological need – the need for survival, and five psychological needs – 1) the spirit need for purpose and meaning, 2) love and belonging, 3) power or achievement, 4) freedom, and 5) joy or fun. Some of these needs may not be so strong in us, while others can be very strong. The greater the need strength, the greater the pressure to make sure that need is met.

From birth and through childhood and beyond we identify those things that meet a need or that bring us a greater feeling of control. Much like a scrap booker, we collect visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and taste “pictures” of the people, things, places, activities, ideas, etc. that are need-satisfying to us. These pictures, because they are so important to us, form the targets we aim for in our lives.

This all sounds fine so far, except that these personal scrap books, these mental store houses in our brains, are not so good at judging whether some one or some thing is good for us. Our scrap books simply identify if a person or thing is need-satisfying. Thus, we might put a person in our mental scrap book who brings us a little sense of belonging, even though that person is ultimately bad for us. Or we might, like I did when I was newly married, put the deadly habit of distancing in our scrap books and give our partner the silent treatment because it gives us, even if only slightly, a feeling of control over the situation.

In the same way that a person sets the thermostat in a room to control the temperature, when we place a need-satisfying picture in our mental scrap book it sets the target we want our lives and circumstances to match. Good pictures in our scrap books are healthy and helpful; bad pictures not so much.

Until athletes, and the rest of us for that matter, understand the concept of the basic needs and the scrap book process of meeting those needs, our rules and punishments will have very marginal success at best, and actually be counterproductive at worst. We need to understand that people are always acting in what they think is their best interest at the moment. Whether a recreational cyclist who drinks water before heading out on a ride to get in better shape or a professional cyclist who dopes before heading out on the next leg of the competition, both are doing what they think is best. Based on the pictures they pre-determined in their mental scrap books, their behavior is rational. Maybe not right or ethical, but rational.

I referred to the public earlier as being schizophrenic because one moment we want the home run to go 600 feet, offensive linemen to be 320 pounds with less than 10% body fat, and cyclists to win multiple Tours de France, while the next moment we vilify the outfielder or the football player or the cyclist for chemically trying to gain an advantage. Their lives, at our urging and our worshipping, have been dedicated to gaining an advantage. As much as we might want to blame and vilify, could it be that we, as spectators, are part of the problem?

1 Mate, G. (2010). In the realm of hungry ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.