Tuesday, 27 March 2018


In my day job there is a phenomenon called normalisation. Basically normalisation in where a behaviour occurs so often that it becomes accepted practise, usually it is associated with negative behaviours. A good example of normalistation is driving just above the speed limit. People drive 5km/h above the limit. They get a slight reward for driving faster (they get to their destination quicker) and there are no negative consequences. The positive outcomes and lack of negative outcomes leads them do it again. Soon it becomes a habit. They know they are breaking the law, but as there is no penalty there is no disincentive to stop. The non-compliant behaviour has become normalised.

That is all very interesting I hear you say, but what is the link, why talk about it here?

Well, right now a lot of Australians are watching what I think it a case of normalisation play out in the media. Over the weekend the Australian Cricket Team was caught cheating and they have admitted to it. I don't want to feed the beast when it comes to this story, but I think there are some links to triathlon here and so I thought it was worth a blog.

For those who aren't Australian, basically what the team was caught doing was tampering with the ball. In a nut shell, in cricket as the ball ages it develops different properties with respect to spin, swing, bounce etc. The teams do a range of legal things to help the ball age in a way that they want, shining the ball, polishing etc. These actions step into the illegal range when teams start using other means to influence the ball, usually abrading it in someway. That is exactly what Australia was caught doing, one of the bowlers had a bit of tape which they used to pick up bits of dirt from the ground, the dirt was then used to abrade the ball. Against the rules anyway you cut it.

Fair to say the reaction in Australia has been pretty extreme. I am not going to get into a conversation about whether the reaction is proportional or not, however, it is clear there is a whole lot of passion about this. For anyone watching from outside I think it is important to realise that cricket is one of Australia's most popular sports, members of the Australia Cricket team are close to sporting royalty here.  I think the profile of the team is one of the reasons there has been such a significant reaction to this incident. I think another reason for the reaction is that this is such a clear case of cheating. In Australia we like to think that we play sport hard, but at the end of the day we are above board, clean and fair. Winning by some form of cheating is entirely unacceptable. To find out that not just an Australian team, but the national team in one of our top sports was deliberately breaking the rules has felt the like the ultimate betrayal of trust for many people. It is kind of hard to disagree with that view.

So, given the enormity of this, how did the Australian Team get to the point where this pre-meditated plan to break the rules seemed like a good idea. There is going to be a whole bunch on investigation into this and even more written about it I am sure. I am sure some of the things that the investigation is going to point to will be cultural, the attitudes of leadership, the win at all costs mindset etc and all that will be valid. However, as I said at the start, I think one of the factors here will be normalisation. The team has worked on the ball in the past within the bounds of the rules and got good results. Perhaps they have pushed the rules a bit more, got good results and got away with it. Soon the practise becomes normal and the idea of tampering with the ball outside the rules doesn't seem like such an extreme thing. Perhaps conversations like 'we do this all the time, doing it a bit more isn't a bad thing', 'sure it isn't quite legal, but look at the results', 'everyone else does it' etc. You can see how a person could get themselves there. You hear similar justifications from cyclists caught doping. The classic slippery slope you could say.

All that is bad I hear you say, but I am still not seeing the link to Triathlon.

Well, for me the link is this. In our sport there are countless opportunities to cheat if you like, I really mean it, there are heaps:
  • The most of obvious and prevalent is drafting. Everyone else does it after all. 
  • It actually isn't that hard to cut a course short if you wanted to.
  • Our doping controls really aren't that strong, if you wanted to you could dope and it is unlikely you would be caught. 
The list goes on. 

If it is so easy, why doesn't everyone do it? Well because these are forms of cheating and most competitors have integrity, they don't want to get an unfair advantage and they also don't want to break the rules. However, as we see from the example of the Aussie Cricket team it really is possible for people to justify a lot of things. For me drafting is the key example here. There are some races where drafting is endemic, everyone does it. If you ask people about it you hear the same classic excuses, 'everyone does it', 'you have to do it it to be competitive', ' it is expected now'. In short drafting has become normalised for a lot of people. I have spoken to people who even build drafting into their race plan. I guarantee that some of the people who are jumping and down and demonizing the Aussie Cricket team right now will be deliberately sitting in the draft down at Busselton Half Ironman in 6 weeks time. Hypocrisy perhaps, but also normalisation at work, most won't even see what they are doing as wrong because in their minds it is justified. 

In the end the only reason that most sports, particularly amateur ones, don't simply descend into a farce of collective cheating is because people choose not to. When it boils down to it that is the main barrier. People can choose to acknowledge the rules and compete within them, or they can justify moving outside the rules and tell themselves it is all okay. As competitors it is up to us to make the choice. If enough competitors make the choice then behaviours don't become normalised and cheating remains just that.

It is up to us. 

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