In the past few weeks Dutch newspapers have been filled with misbehaving athletes. Firstly, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) concluded its witch-hunt for Lance Armstrong for his alleged use of forbidden candy. Secondly, the Dutch media was obsessed with Dutch K1 kick boxer Badr Hari who is being accused of shattering the leg of a business man during a dance party. Previously, Badr has also been disqualified for his inappropriate kicks against opponent Remy Bonjaski during the K1-finals.
These cases are obviously magnified due to media attention and such athletes are widely booed by the masses. The public is upset and therefore confronts the athletes with the fact that they are exceedingly well paid and that cheating deteriorates the essence of sport. Understandable; whilst top performances are rewarded with fame and eternal glory, acts of delusion cause the contrary: social abjection. But is it fair that these athletes have to fall so hard? Do they really deserve this additional social punishment? Apparently they do, because as an often repeated argument states: “Famous athletes are role models and serve as an example to others. They should therefore comply with the rules (both laws and regulations) with exceptional precision”.
However, this exemplary function is applicable to different situations – inside and outside the sport – and one can argue to what extent this theory can be applied. Let’s start with the exemplary function athletes have within the sport. Both Lance (assuming that he really cheated) and Badr are not the first ones to cross the line. The list of cheating pro-cyclists who were caught with their hand in the cookie jar is literally too long to mention, yet they all failed to deter Lance. Unfortunately, Badr also did not learn from his predecessors. Boxers like Mike Tyson, Regillio Tuur, Floyd Mayweather Jr (to name but a few) were all convicted of violent misbehavior yet their convictions did not deter Badr. Hence, this exemplary function within the sport seems a little over exaggerated.
In addition, I wonder what effect the acts and the extreme condemnation of these athletes have on the public, especially given that it is rather difficult to compare ourselves with them. Of course, athletes should set an example to the younger generation and show what can be achieved by honest hard work. But does a cheating athlete influence the normal behavior of ordinary people?As a below average mountain biker I personally would never use EPO. It requires talent to achieve world class sport performances and I’m well aware that talent is something I’m sadly lacking in. Unfortunately for me, EPO will never make up for that. On the other hand, if we wish to question the (deterrent) effect of misbehavior by athletes on the public, the case of Lance is not such a good example. The criminal conduct of Badr might serve as a more direct link. For starters, his case is comparable to the acts of ordinary people. The big difference is the fact that Badr’s case is magnified and receives more exposure than the average drunk who knocks out the front teeth of a fellow barfly. Another great distinction is the fact that Badr is a trained professional who takes advantage of his special (weapon like) skills which should in fact only be used with the necessary restrictions. An age old argument and the social abjection of society – and maybe a higher punishment – are therefore justified.
Hopefully this exposure has some deterrent effect outside the world of sport, although the outcome is still questionable and the deterrent effect of criminal punishment seems a never ending discussion. To conclude, I also doubt whether society’s reaction is purely a response to this failure to fulfill an exemplary function. Don’t we just hate the fact that we cheered for people who had the privilege of living the lifestyle of the rich and famous, which we would all so much like to live (yes, that also counts as an example), but who threw it all away by cheating and criminal misconduct? Don’t we feel disappointed, deceived and a little bit ashamed of our misplaced and unwarranted jubilation (that’s something else)? Well, I certainly do.