smarter, better, faster, stronger!

Everybody cheats. Students at exams. Workers in job applications. Managers tweaking their numbers. Corrupt politicians bending the rules. Rules, as they say, are made to be broken. Are there moments when cheating is acceptable – or even necessary? And what are reasons for doing it in the first place?

Tyler Hamilton broke the rules. He won olympic gold in Athens 2004 – thanks to performance-enhancing drugs. EPO, Testosterone, blood bags – Hamilton did anything to become the best cyclist in the world – to win “The Secret Race”, as his autobiography is fittingly named.

Still, his story – told recently at TEDxPiscataquaRiver – is not just that of a dishonest sportsman. It is also a tale about a society in which people are pressured into taking immense risks – willing to sacrifice anything – to become smarter, better, faster or stronger than anyone else has been before.

the dark side of success

Unfortunately, cheating is a ubiqutious phenomenon. Wherever there is success, there are some who achieved it by illegal means. Students have and always will cheat on exams or assignments – the name Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg comes to mind. Business men all over the world are using grey-areas in laws, bending rules, tweaking numbers.

Any means to overcome the competition are justified. It seems that every part of our culture has it’s own secret race. Cheating, deceit and dishonest behaviour have become an integral element of human society. The question is not: who breaks the rules? – but rather: why?

pushing the limits

Sticking with our sports analogy, reasons seem easy to find. It is often said that “the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well”. Still, the official motto of the Olympics is  “Citius, Altius, Fortius”Higher, Faster, Stronger.

The noble intention to motivate backfires when limits are pushed to extremes – beyond human physicality. The Tour de France, in which Hamilton competed in 7 times, is not just a bike race. It’s over 3000 km long. Average speed of 40 km/h. Two resting days over the course of 3 weeks. And this is considered a regular sport.

In recent years, extreme sports have emerged – where sportsmen risk their lives to achieve the impossible. The general public loves those record-breaking feats and excitedly awaits the next attempt – regardless of any danger or risks. Slowing down that race is not an option.

quality vs. quantity

Because humans prefer thinking in quantities and painting their world in comparatives. It is a commonly used descriptive and easy to understand – but it makes us lose our sense for quality. More often than not, it is no longer enough to be good, smart, fast or strong – we have to better, smarter, faster or stronger – if not the best, smartest, fastest or strongest.

Permanent improvement, constant development and profit is making us lose sight of what our ideals and values are – aside from winning. Because, behind the one winner in every race there are many losers. For every academic graduate, there are even more high-school drop outs. And next to every successful start-up business, there are numerous that failed. Our society is focussed on looking ahead – and it forgets about those who are left behind.


when less is more

Breaking the rules trying to turn yourself into a winner often remains the only choice to change that destiny. It seems inevitable. In 1997, Tyler Hamilton was confronted by his team with that choice: take drugs – or lose your job.

Hamilton succumbed to the pressure, started dealing with depression and feelings of self hate. He was eventually caught in 2004, when, apparently while doping, blood bags were mixed up. He could have died. Because of a bike race.

Hamiltons story calls for a new and different perspective – not just towards sports, but towards life. Because, sometimes, the quality of life is that, at the end of the day, one doesn’t have to be the smartest, fastest, or strongest. That, sometimes, less can be more. In fact, sometimes, “giving back an olympic gold medal can feel better than winning it”.


Header image credits: Royalty free, Image 1: Academic Dishonesty (Wikipedia)


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