A plea for integrity

Posted by Christie Johnson on

I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating. - Sophocles

Cheating. It’s not a topic we like to talk about. We like to pretend our sport is a model of integrity, a shining beacon of community spirit and good sportsmanship in an increasingly dirty world. Incidents such as “Bridgesgate” incite us to a fever pitch of righteous indignation, as armchair warriors take to their keyboards to demand harsh penalties for any breach of the rules or standards.

Yet in some ways cheating is an almost universal experience. How many of us have counted the toes-to-bar or chest-to-bar rep that didn’t quite touch, or the wall ball shot that didn’t quite make the line? How many of us have been tempted to turn back a metre or two short of the turnaround point of a run, if nobody is watching? Or to round up if we lose count of our reps during a WOD?

These may seem like minor infractions, hardly worth worrying about. However morally they vary from more major methods of cheating, such as using banned drugs, only in degree. So today I would like to urge all athletes, from the beginner to the elite, to make a radical commitment to integrity. There are a number of reasons why this is a good idea. Let’s examine some of them.

It’s dishonest and wrong, and makes you a dishonest person.

That might seem like stating the obvious, but it needs to be said. Most of us like to think of ourselves as honest. Few of us would consider shoplifting or stealing a car. And yet I have been amazed at the number of “honest” people I have found defending cheating on the grounds that it is to be expected when a person’s livelihood depends on athletic success. How often have you heard “that’s what it takes to make it to the Games” or “nobody is going to sponsor an also-ran”, or even “it just shows how committed he is to the success of his business”? To suggest that any of these is an acceptable reason for cheating is tantamount to a declaration that it’s ok to lie and break the rules to get money. How is that different to the crimes above? I would suggest that if you can’t make a living out of being an athlete without cheating then maybe you’re in the wrong job.

You are cheating yourself of the opportunity to develop.

If you’re shaving reps in workouts to get a better time on the whiteboard you’re not getting the stimulus your coach designed for you. Over time this will affect your rate of improvement. You’re also cheating yourself of the opportunity to develop the mental toughness that you’ll need to succeed in life (not to mention in competition). Studies have shown that people are more likely to be dishonest if they are fatigued or have to make a quick decision about whether or not to cheat. The Crossfit box provides us with a unique opportunity to regularly train our decision making skills under stress and fatigue - skills which will transfer into daily life.

You are cheating yourself of a good reputation.

Don’t be fooled – if you cheat regularly then people know. If nothing else, your coach knows. They see when someone is regularly dropping the wall ball a rep or two before another athlete who has been moving at the same pace. Similarly your box mates know what you are capable of. They see what you can lift every day in the gym, and will not be impressed by social media posts claiming higher totals. (They will also notice when your bout of severe acne is followed by an improbably large number of PRs.) Finally remember that whatever you think you can get away with in the gym, when you hit the competition floor there is nowhere to hide. Everyone knows what is going on when you beat your box mates in the daily WOD, only to be outperformed regularly in competition. There are only so many times you can claim to be ill or injured.

You are setting a bad example.

Chances are you are a role model to someone in your gym, especially if you are one of the more capable athletes, and it’s important to take this responsibility seriously. Younger or less experienced athletes need to know that the way to succeed is through hard work and application, not taking short cuts. You have the opportunity to model this life lesson. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the kids!

Cheating ruins Crossfit as a sport.

Any sport is only meaningful if everyone follows the rules. If you join a soccer team you agree to be bound by the rules of the game – even inexplicable ones like the offside rule. Similarly Crossfit is only meaningful as a sport if everyone agrees to the rules and standards. A chest-to-bar pull-up is only a chest-to-bar if your chest actually touches the bar. Otherwise it is just an overcooked pull-up. It may still be hard, and may still have some training utility, but it is not what you have been asked to do and you should not receive credit for the rep. This is not AFL – you don’t get a point for getting close to the goals.

Cheating taints the whole field.

The more people are seen to be dishonest, the more sceptical we become of everyone’s achievements. This is grossly unfair on the clean athletes – and don’t be fooled, there are plenty of them! Cheaters like to claim that everyone else is similarly dishonest, but studies have shown that this opinion tends to develop after an athlete begins to cheat, rather than before. It is called the false consensus effect, a phenomenon in which people overestimate the degree to which other people think like them. A clever study of one group of elite athletes concluded that approximately 35% of them had used banned performance enhancing drugs. Which means that the greater proportion – 65% – were probably clean.  So don’t believe everyone who tells you that cheating is ubiquitous in our (or any) sport – chances are they are just revealing their own dishonesty.

Cheating taints the sport for the community as a whole.

As crossfitters we claim to be all about community, but we let each other down when we cheat. Not only does cheating destroy trust and set unrealistic expectations, but it makes the whole sport less enjoyable for spectators. We all want to be inspired by amazing feats of athleticism, but these are significantly less impressive if we suspect they are not natural. I don’t know about you, but I find Captain America much less impressive in a fight than Hawkeye or Black Widow, whose prowess owes little to technological enhancement.

Cheating is a window into your character.

Research suggests that cheaters tend to have certain psychological characteristics. They are often extrinsically motivated, i.e. their goals generally have to do with their performance relative to others, or with earning rewards and recognition. Likewise their ego is dependant on external factors, such as their number of trophies or Instagram followers, or even their net worth. Their identity is frequently so bound up with winning, or being better than someone else, that they will do anything to avoid losing that identity. Cheaters also tend to be short-term minded – often unable or unwilling to consider the long-term impacts of their actions. Finally, they are generally what is termed entity theorists, meaning they equate ability with talent - something that you are either born with or not.


Honest athletes, on the other hand, are generally intrinsically motivated, with goals related to personal development or achievements relative to their own past performance. They are more likely to have a healthy sense of identity, such that their ego is not destroyed by the threat of failure. They tend to have a bigger-picture view of the world, and can consider the long-term repercussions of their actions. Finally they are more likely to be incremental theorists, i.e. they see ability not simply as talent, but as something that can be improved through additional effort. They therefore value persistence and struggle as a means to gain mastery, whereas entity theorists tend to feel threatened when they struggle and often avoid this by taking shortcuts. I know which characteristics I would rather have.

Cheating doesn’t make you smart, just lazy.

There are some athletes who view sport as a challenge to outsmart, rather than a true measure of ability. These people may actually get a kick out of cheating (known as the cheater’s high) because if they get away with it they feel like they have proven themselves smart enough to beat the system. This is fundamentally flawed reasoning. If you want to prove your mental acuity, take up chess. Competitive Crossfit may include a tactical component, but essentially it is a measure of physical capacity and mental toughness. Cheating just proves that you don’t have enough of either to succeed honestly.

Moral fibre is like a muscle.

Sometimes during my workouts I find myself moving with incorrect form in order to massage my ego by lifting that little bit of extra weight or getting a few extra reps. However, every time I do this the wrong movement patterns become more ingrained, making it harder to move well next time. In the same way every time we cheat, even if it is in something small, we weaken our moral fibre and make it harder to make the right choice next time. Taking small shortcuts can lead down the slippery slope to progressively more severe infractions.  There’s a reason our coaches encourage us to build technique with light weights until the correct movement patterns become second nature and we can continue to move well even under heavy loads. Think of your daily WOD as the chance to train your integrity muscles, so that when you are faced with a heavier test your moral fibre will be up to the challenge.

Crossfit is not a handicap sport.

One of the most common excuses given for cheating is actually the pursuit of fairness – a desire to “level the playing field”. The human brain appears to be hard-wired to appreciate fairness – responding to it in the same way as it responds to money and chocolate. So those athletes who feel themselves to be at some kind of natural disadvantage (e.g. as a result of their physical attributes, background, or drug history (or lack thereof)), are more likely to feel justified in cheating to “even the score”. To those people I have a simple message: life isn’t fair – deal with it! Each athlete has a unique set of advantages and limitations. It is not up to you to decide that your perceived disadvantage warrants illegal assistance. This is not a handicap sport – we are not in the business of giving weaker athletes artificial assistance to ensure a close competition. If that is what you are looking for, take up horse racing!

You are devaluing your achievements.

While there may be temporary or material rewards, ultimately success is not worth anything if it is not achieved honestly. Even if nobody knows that you cheated (and they probably do), you will know. You will always wonder if you could have succeeded honestly. You will never know if you had what it takes.


In summary, with apologies to Terrence McNally: “Cheating is not the [Crossfit] way. It is small, while we are large. It is cheap, while we are richly endowed. It is destructive, while we are creative. It is doomed to fail, while our gifts and responsibilities call us to achieve. It sabotages trust and weakens the bonds of spirit and humanity, without which we perish.”


Next time we will discuss some ways in which we can help the Crossfit community to minimise cheating. If you have any ideas I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

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