In April, American cycling guru Dave Shields completed a novel about a young man under immense pressure to cheat to win the Tour de France.
Now Shields finds himself hoping that the race's real-life winner, Floyd Landis, didn't succumb to those very same sorts of pressures - to what one public policy expert calls "the cheating culture" in American sports and society.
Landis' Tour de France victory was thrown into doubt yesterday when his team said he tested positive for what appeared to be unusually high testosterone levels during the race.
"I happen to believe very strongly in Floyd," the Utah-based Shields said yesterday. "But I'm not going to be naive."
Shields said cycling and other sports are hampered by a "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" environment in which untold numbers of athletes publicly deny using performance-enhancing drugs, even as insiders know or suspect otherwise. "You have to change the long-standing mind-set of some people that think cheating is the only way to succeed," Shields said.
Of course, cheating in sports has always existed.
For as long as there have been rules, there have been players willing to trample them. Gaylord Perry threw spitters, Rosie Ruiz took an infamous Boston Marathon shortcut, Sammy Sosa was nabbed with a corked bat. The Chicago "Black Sox" threw the 1919 World Series.
But while such deception in sports and society is hardly new, there is a gnawing sense among experts who monitor such things that it's getting worse. Not only more unseemly, they say, but more pervasive, too.
"The rational incentives to cheat are increasing and it makes sense that there would be more cheating. And it seems there is more cheating," says David Callahan, author of the 2004 book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead and founder of a New York City-based think tank that does research and advocacy.
"Look at the CEOs who cook the books. They can walk away with hundreds of millions through stock options, and that wasn't available 30 years ago," Callahan says. "In sports, I point out that in major league baseball the incentives to cheat - the rewards for the winners at the top - have gotten exponentially larger in salaries and endorsements."
The new cheaters
Name a potentially lucrative sport and, chances are, there are efforts under way to cut corners - many of them employing technology that didn't exist 10 or 20 years ago.
Take, for example, Internet poker, whose chat sites discuss cheating by collusion: players sharing information and using tactics to get unwitting players at online "tables" to wager more. There are also software hacks who claim they can cheat the system. Given such an environment, many sites must take pains to assure security.
In other sports - including baseball, football and track and field - scientists struggle to uncover and test for the latest designer steroids.
Among the victims are the athletes determined to stay straight.
John Godina, 34, a two-time Olympic medalist in shot put, yesterday recalled winning the silver medal at the tainted 1997 world championships in Athens, Greece.
Amid swirling rumors, Godina got a call a few days after the competition telling him that the man ahead of him, Aleksandr Bagach of the Ukraine, was being disqualified for taking stimulants. Godina was declared the gold medal winner, but he said it wasn't the same as if he had won it in the stadium.
"It would have been nice to take that victory lap, to wave to the fans and get the medal at the podium," Godina said. The third-place finisher, fellow American C.J. Hunter, later retired as a shot putter after positive steroid tests.
Godina says he has come to accept that he will occasionally be defeated by rivals who later test positive, either immediately or sometime in the future. "It's happened over and over," he said.
Godina, who says he has never been tempted by steroids, says there are several factors that can influence an athlete into using or forgoing illegal substances.
"A lot of it depends on who you surround yourself with. If people constantly tell you you're only losing because you're not using, it can eat away at you," Godina says.
He says confidence is also a determinant: "If you have success early, you think you can succeed without some help."
Says Washington Nationals catcher Brian Schneider: "It comes down to how good you feel about yourself."
Callahan says society is ruled by undermanned, often ineffective regulatory watchdogs that allow cheating to flourish. And, he says, cheating seems to perpetuate itself.
Consider the case of Kelli White, the former sprinter who won the 100- and 200-meter world titles in 2003. The next year, she admitted taking steroids and received a two-year competition ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. She had passed 17 drug tests before being confronted with a cache of evidence that included drug-use schedules and incriminating e-mails.
In her ultra-competitive world, White had believed she needed to cheat to keep up.
"I believe it is important that you understand the reasons I made the choice to, in essence, cheat," she told the House Government Reform Committee last year. "I began using these substances not to give me an advantage, but because I had become convinced I needed to use them to level the playing field with my competitors."
White's reasoning may have paralleled that of San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds. According to a recent book, Bonds, who has denied using performance-enhancing drugs, was consumed by jealousy when he first decided to use performance-enhancing drugs. The book, by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, says Bonds was irate in 1998 over the attention given the power-hitting feats of Mark McGwire and Sosa.
McGwire has declined to answer questions about whether he used steroids during his career. Sosa told a congressional panel last year: "I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs."
Callahan says the "other people were doing it" defense doesn't clear an offender of wrongdoing, although it does make judging them more complicated. "What if [a banned practice] becomes so common that even honest people need to do it to keep up? Then the ethics of it become very murky," the author says. "But not everybody does cheat."
White had once contemplated a comeback when her suspension ended. But her agent, Jerrold Colton, said this week that she has abandoned such thoughts.
"She's pretty much retired," Colton said. "She was just accepted into an MBA program and she's looking to move ahead with her life."
Experts say society sends confusing messages to athletes such as White. American culture places a disproportionate emphasis on coming out ahead - and on fame - often at the expense of ethics, says Syracuse University popular culture expert Robert Thompson.
In fact, Thompson says, society holds a special place for charismatic cheaters.
"There is a sense, I think, that we have increasingly gotten more and more tolerance for the outlaw," Thompson says. "It wasn't that long ago that we went from heroes like John Wayne - honest as the day is long - to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who were the outlaws."
Says Callahan: "We worship the winners as never before with this 24-7 celebrity culture. None of the heroes these days are people trying to make the world a better place. Our heroes are people like Donald Trump and Paris Hilton."
Given society's ambiguity, Thompson said it's understandable that a figure like Bonds, second on the all-time home run list, is booed by some and applauded by others. He said some fans may praise Bonds for rising to the top of his profession, some may consider him a cheat, and some are likely torn.
"There are a lot of people conflicted about Barry Bonds," Thompson said.