“You’re not a bad person. You’re a good person who made a f**king terrible decision.”
–Triathlete Jack Kelly to his friend Collin Chartier
Triathletes are a special, often idealistic sort of athlete. In January 2022, Collin Chartier, expressed the sport’s ethic well: “The pursuit of excellence is what keeps me coming back. I may never achieve excellence, but the quest in and of itself is worth it.” In the past 20 years, no top triathlete had tested positive for doping.
Jarringly, just a little more than a year later in April of 2023, Chartier, in the wake of a failed drug test showing that he had illegally used EPO (erythropoietin—a performance-enhancing drug that stimulates production of red blood cells that was popular on the Tour de France in Lance Armstrong’s heyday) in a recent competition, apologized for cheating.
Why did Chartier cheat?
Was Kelly right in concluding that Chartier was not a bad person, but just a good person who made a f**king terrible decision? Probably. We know of no evidence that Chartier has done anything unusually bad other than make this unethical decision to dope. As is so often the case, common psychological factors studied in behavioral ethics research seem to substantially account for Chartier’s bad choice to cheat.
At this moment, Chartier’s public explanations for his behavior are limited to an Instagram post and an interview on Jack Kelly’s podcast “How They Train.” But those brief explanations expose a lot. Triathlete Timothy O’Donnell said in relation to the Chartier revelation: “For people focused on being the best version of yourself, cheating doesn’t align with that goal. We’ve never been a big-money sport, so cheating was never really incentivized.” While prize money, sponsorships, and endorsement opportunities certain add a layer of incentives to cheat, even without them the desire to win beats strongly in the competitive athlete’s chest.
The self-serving bias, which affects all of our judgments and actions, can make what advances our perceived self-interest seem like the appropriate thing to do. The self-serving bias supplemented by humans’ impressive ability to rationalize can brew up a toxic potion that drives many poor moral choices.
Although Chartier admits that he has no evidence that other top triathletes cheat, he believes that they do. Because of the conformity bias, what others are doing can come to seem to be an okay thing to do just because they are doing it. Just as we take our cues as to what to eat, how to dress, and what music to listen to from those around us, we can easily decide to follow others’ moral (or immoral) judgments. Loads of research shows that, for example, students are more likely to cheat on exams if they believe that other students are cheating. The more cyclists who doped on the Tour de France, the more cyclists who joined them. Chartier admits: “Had I not had suspicions that others were doing it, …I would have been less likely to do it.”
And then there’s incrementalism, the slippery slope. Although Chartier claims that he did not use EPO before November of 2022, he admits to having injected a different drug that was not a banned substance, but is widely believed to have performance-enhancing qualities (reported as both L-Carnosine and L-Carnitine), for 18 months or so before that. When he started injecting this other drug, Chartier started himself down the slippery slope. He admitted in the podcast interview that: “I was already starting to push the boundaries, which made it easier to cross the line when the temptation was too much.” That’s incrementalism in action. If you want to do the right thing, it’s easier to try to do it 100% of the time.
Loss aversion is people’s tendency to dislike losses more than they enjoy equal gains and therefore sometimes take risks (including acting unethically) to avoid sustaining those losses. The big loss that Chartier faced was a realization that all his hard work and sacrifice (he believed that he had denied himself “friendship, happiness, socializing and having fun”) while training to be the best was all about to be for naught. Despite all his hard work, he was not going to be a champion. Facing this reality, Chartier said: “In my mind it became all or nothing. I went all in, too much so, and now I am all out.”
At the end of the day, Chartier voluntarily chose to cheat. No one made him do it. No one manipulated him into doing it. But had Chartier known to guard against influences such as the conformity bias and incrementalism, it is less likely that he would have made such a “fu**king terrible decision.”
What was the impact of Chartier’s decision to cheat?
Most people do not perform a formal cost-benefit analysis before making a decision as to a morally-fraught question. Perhaps they should, for it seems that they often underestimate the costs that accompany a poor moral choice, as Chartier probably did here.
Chartier’s decision to dope created a right mess. As just indicated, it caused him to be banned from his sport for three years and to make the decision to leave it altogether. Given that he had sacrificed friendships, happiness, and socializing in order to win, leaving this sport that occupied the center of his life will no doubt be a huge personal blow to him. When Jack Kelly asked him about his future plans, Chartier seemed completely adrift.
Worse, Chartier has put a cloud over the entire sport. A prominent triathlete trainer, Dan Plews, observed that the scandal has “really blown up the sport.” Andrew Messick, CEO of Ironman (the leading organizer of triathlons), said that Chartier’s positive test was “an assault of our [sport’s] most fundamental value.”
Because of the widely believed saying that “no one dopes alone,” Chartier’s coach and training partners are now under suspicion.
Because of Chartier’s positive test, there is widespread belief in the triathlete community that doping explains the success he had enjoyed in the sport before November 2022, and, worse still, that other top triathletes must be doping as well. As six-time world champion Mark Allen said: “The essence of triathlon is personally dreaming about super excellent levels of crazy stuff, but doing it cleanly. Maybe it is naïve.”
There is already substantial indication that athletes who do well in the future will come under substantial suspicion of having doped, like Chartier did.
And, fairly or not, rumors are already circulating in the triathlon community about triathletes who pull out of competitions late in the day: “Maybe they knew they couldn’t pass a drug test!!”
Those desperate to keep the competition clean are recommending that organizers of triathlon competitions raise their drug testing scrutiny to new levels, even if they have to reduce the prize money by 20% to be able to afford to do so.
Collin Chartier’s “f**king bad choice” dealt a hammer blow to the vast majority of triathletes who sacrifice so much in order to test the outer limits of their endurance, discipline, commitment, and courage. This sad episode should highlight how critical integrity is to sport, as well as to our social lives in general.
Athletes who consider cheating in order to win should realize that when they cheat they are, by definition, rendering it impossible for themselves to win, because if you cheat to win, you did not truly win.
Matthew Futterman, “A Triathlon Champion’s Positive Test Jolts the Sport, Creating a Soap Opera,” New York Times, May 2, 2023.
Tim Heming, “Exclusive Interview: Mikal Iden, Coach of Suspended Pro Triathlete Collin Chartier,” Tri247, at https://www.triathlete.com/culture/news/exclusive-interview-mikal-iden-coach-of-suspended-pro-triathlete-collin-chartier/.
Susan Lacke, “Profile: Collin Chartier,” Triathlete, Jan. 1, 2022.
Jonathan Turner, “Who is Collin Chartier? The Career of the Disgraced American Triathlete,” April 24, 2023, at https://www.tri247.com/triathlon-news/elite/collin-chartier-career-recap-before-epo-suspension.
Jonathan Turner, “Allen Lambasts PTO Response but Applauds IRONMAN for Chartier Test,” tri247, May 1, 2023, at https://www.tri247.com/triathlon-news/elite/mark-allen-lambasts-pto-response-applauds-ironman-for-chartier-test.
Jonathan Turner, “Lionel Sanders Puts PTO on Spot with Radical Suggestion to Combat Doping,” tri247, May 3, 2023, at https://www.tri247.com/triathlon-news/elite/lionel-sanders-pto-triathlon-doping-testing-prize-money.
“How They Train” (Jack Kelly), April 25, 2023, at: https://howtheytrain.podbean.com/.
Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias
Loss Aversion: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/loss-aversion
Self-serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias
Photo by Óscar Salgado on Unsplash