Last week, South Africa’s Cameron Van Der Burgh won the gold medal in the 100M breaststroke in world record time. But his victory came under scrutiny after the Australian team accused him of making illegal ‘dolphin kicks.’ According to Jason Devaney of NBC Olympics: “In breaststroke, competitors are allowed to take one dolphin kick at the start and one after each turn before starting their breaststroke kick. But with no underwater video judging, swimmers are sometimes able to sneak in an extra dolphin kick – a whip-like motion generated from the hips. Video replays appear to show van der Burgh taking three of them.” Van Der Burgh finally came clean a few days ago and admitted to cheating. From all indications, it doesn’t appear as though the IOC will strip him of the medal or world record, but I think they should.
What I find most fascinating about this story, however, is what he told a reporter when asked why he cheated: “If you’re not doing it, you’re falling behind. It’s not obviously – shall we say – the moral thing to do, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my personal performance and four years of hard work for someone that is willing to do it and get away with it.”
Van Der Burgh wants to argue that what he did was unethical but not grounds for disqualification, since everyone else was doing it. But let’s be honest: if everyone is cheating, they all deserve to be disqualified. Let me pose the question differently: If a group of swimmers agree not to play by the rules, is there a winner?
This scenario is quite different than the “Derek Jeter pretending to be hit by a pitch” story that I wrote about a couple years back. In most professional sports, including baseball, umpires are positioned to make the right call. Sometimes they make mistakes. There isn’t a rule that prohibits a player from trying to “sell it” and dupe the umpire. If an umpire makes a wrong call, no ethical or illegal conduct was committed by the player. As it pertains to the breaststroke, however, it’s impossible for an umpire to determine whether a swimmer is making an illegal kick in real time. The only way to ensure a clean race is to have underwater video cameras following their every move. If an umpire cannot be placed in a position to make the right call, anyone who abuses the rules is cheating. In my opinion, making undetectable ‘dolphin kicks’ in the pool is akin to taking performance enhancing drugs.
Some may want to blame FINA for the rampant cheating in this event for not placing an underwater video camera into the race. Perhaps they should have. But the real blame lies with the swimmers who placed winning above honesty and integrity, and with our culture that believes, “winning is the only thing.”
I completely understand and sympathize with Van Der Burgh. If everyone else is doing it, why not join the party? I can also imagine the tremendous pressure that a world class swimmer feels after sacrificing four years of his life to win one race that lasts less than a minute. The pressure he is under to succeed is immense. But the reality is that he cheated, just like everyone else, and all of the violators deserve to be disqualified. . To put it in another context, all of us feel financial pressure at one point or another in our lives, but the fact that we may need more money than we have does not mean we can obtain the money by fraudulent means. We have to find a way to make do with what we have or to earn more money legally.
What Van Der Burgh and the rest of the cheaters need to remember is that although it’s possible to cheat humanity, it’s impossible to cheat God. I wish the swimmers cared more about morality and decency than about winning, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. . If our star athletes recognized that there is an omniscient god who knows our every deed, perhaps they would behave in way that would make them worthy role models for their many fans.
I applaud Van Der Burgh for admitting to the truth, and I’m sure that the he and his sport will be better off for it. At minimum, I pray that he keeps the final verse of Ecclesiastes over his mirror to look at every morning when he gets out of bed: “The sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Fear God and keep His commandments, for that is man’s whole duty. For God will judge every deed- even everything hidden- whether good or evil.”