Why We Shouldn’t Call Our Athletes “Cheaters” When They Get DQ’ed

When American swimmer Cody Miller was called for multiple dolphin kicks on the breaststroke leg of the American mixed medley relay at the Pan American Games last week, a wave of frustration erupted in cries of “cheater” for the Olympic medalist, especially given that this is not the first time that he has been called for the same infraction.

When reading those calls, I too became frustrated: not because of the DQ, but because of how obtuse the word “cheater” felt. It just didn’t make sense to me. If Lebron James fouls his opponents 6 times in a game, he is disqualified from further competition in that game, but I don’t think we’d label him a “cheater.”

Of course, it would be sanctimonious of me, given the position I sit in and the work I do, to say that elite athletes should be free from criticism. People don’t passionately follow sports only for the highs, they follow sports for the emotional roller coaster of the highs and the lows. The Cubs’ World Series win was the sweetest because of the 108 years of disappointment that came before. More-and-more athletes are understanding this and accepting it. While I still hear from some athletes (and their coaches and parents) who believe that they should be beyond reproach, most that I speak to ‘get it,’ and know that it comes with the territory if they want the sport to be commercially successful. Ultimately, while the negative reviews echo the longest, they are still a very small minority relative to the positive accolades and adulation that our elite swimmers receive.

So, I’m not here to tell anybody that they can’t be critical of athletes, or that what athletes do when they’re disqualified isn’t “cheating.” I don’t think that would do well to convince anyone anyway. Instead, I’ll share some thoughts that I posted on a thread about Miller’s DQ on a popular Facebook group for swim coaches, with some edits for clarity and venue. I hope that this alternative approach to ‘why we shouldn’t call Cody Miller a cheater’ will be more persuasive.

It’s this trend toward ‘labels’ and away from ‘stories’ and ‘facts.’ So and so is a “doper,” so and so is a “cheater,” so and so is “bad,” so and so is “a great guy,” so and so is a “hero.”

We’re all in such a hurry to sum up the totality of an individual in one word, one asterisk, one label, that we lose the nuance and complexity of humanity. Humans are complex, and we love that complexity – we see this in all of our favorite television shows like Game of Thrones, where characters oscillate between sympathetic and dastardly.

I just don’t know why we have to rush to put these one-word labels on people. I mean, I guess I know why people do it, because it’s easier to rally the masses behind one angry word than to try and describe to them a story. There’s so much information available these days, it takes a lot of work to really unpack full narratives, and intellectually can be easier to just pounce upon a word.

But I just think it’s counterproductive and takes a lot of the interest out of the story, out of the sport. To me, this is what it boils down to. You can think Cody Miller is a “cheater,” you can think Sun Yang is a “cheater,” you can think that Cameron van der Burgh is a “cheater,” you can think Michael Phelps is a “champion” or the “GOAT,” but to me, that thought, that exclamation that analysis really isn’t that interesting. In fact, it’s a rather boring narrative. If we’re going to stick our fingers in our ears boil all of our athletes down to 1 word, then nobody is going to care anymore. Everyone’s going to get bored.

Look at this from a different perspective, as a coach of just…regular… swimmers. If your athlete has a bad season, are they a “failure”? If they had a good season, are they a “success”? Or is the athlete who had a bad season a teenager who maybe was going through some stuff at home, missed too many practices, didn’t work hard enough when they were there, which resulted in bad times, and now has a decision to make about what their goals are in the sport and whether they’re willing to do the things they need to do to achieve those goals? Is your swimmer who won just “a success”? Or are they a swimmer who worked hard all season, combined that with great physical gifts, worked hard at practices, stayed late a few times to perfect that new start, took a risk on tweaking their turn 3 weeks before the big meet, fixed their head position, and that resulted in a huge time drop and a big medal at the big meet?

If we all focus more on the story and less on the label and we’ll all be less frustrated in general. We’ll all be less divisive, and less divided. We all have our story, an encyclopedia of experiences that make who we are, we all have skeletons and we all have moments to celebrate. Let’s be, and let our athletes be, all of those moments, not just one of them.

In This Story

Leave a Reply

49 Comment threads
91 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
74 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted

The issue with the dolphin kicks and breaststroke is that it’s assumed that doing them will result in a faster swim. There are very specific rules about what is allowed.

If done on purpose, breaking the rules to gain an advantage on your fellow competitors is the definition of “cheating.” If not done on purpose, then it can be viewed as a “mistake.”


And he’s been doing it for years. Not like he slipped up and made a solitary mistake. It is how he practices and intentionally performs his technique


Anyone who swam NCAA’S in the late 70’s early 80’s used a dolphin kick in breaststroke. Definitely illegal but nobody was caught just like going 35 in 30 no punishment then you just keep on doing it. Not justifying just saying Cody isn’t alone. He may be alone in being singled out for it the way he has been however.

Matt McDonald

Swam in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Never used the dolphin kick on the start or turns. Now, let’s talk about anticipation of the start when you got one false start….

Counterpoint, which I think is another variation on Braden’s LeBron argument: some NFL cornerbacks play very physical coverage on wide receivers. They know they’ll occasionally take some penalties, but also know that NFL officials allow some level of incidental contact and minor pushing. The Seattle Seahawks and their ‘Legion of Boom’ was pretty much built on playing in that gray area, and the principle that the advantage gained is worth the occasional penalty. No one considers them “cheaters.” NBA players routinely get a little leeway with an extra half step or so under the basket without a traveling call. Do we call them “cheaters” for taking advantage of how referees consistently call games? If an MLB catcher frames a pitch,… Read more »

Peaty the Potato

The problem is there is no grey area when it comes to dolphin kicks because that is categorically stated in the rules for breaststroke about their use.

In every case you’re right, the term cheater isn’t the correct word. People will make mistakes on touches, turns and pull outs. I think you’re having a lot of wool pulled over your eyes though if you think the video evidence, as well as the repeated incidents of Cody Miller performing multiple dolphin kicks is just a case of ‘mistake’ though.

Many sports do have grey areas. Multiple dolphin kicks in breaststeoke, unfortunately, is not one of them.


There IS grey area though, the exact same kind as in the NFL. Certain contact to a receiver is illegal, but is done because it isn’t caught. The grey area isn’t a legit debatable area based around technique, more an area where refs don’t have the ability to see and call a penalty consistently. That is EXACTLY the same as the dolphin kick rule, where many do it, but few are called. Whether that is right or wrong, you can judge for yourself.

Michael Schwartz

In your analysis, everything is legal as long as you don’t get caught. I have no doubt (though no evidence) that there are NFL players who are doping in one form or another. Is this a “grey area” in your book because not all of them are caught? The fact that not all eyes can be everywhere to observe all possible infractions at all seconds of every race, match, game, or competition does not take away from what is considered cheating based on the rules of that particular event. If a rule says “don’t do X” and you opt to do “X” to obtain an advantage over your opponent then by definition you are cheating. Whether you are caught or… Read more »


There is no analysis here though… It is about labeling, and how we are being inconsistent with this label. The parallel was one that I didn’t draw (football, seahawks) but we can’t use “grey area” as a defense for one rule being broken but ignore it on the other.

In your speeding analogy, sure, those people ARE speeding. The relevant question is if we all label them criminals. I personally wouldn’t, but again, you’re allowed to feel differently.

> there is no grey area when it comes to dolphin kicks because that is categorically stated in the rules for breaststroke about their use. That speaks exactly to my point. NFL rules categorically outlaw contact by a CB more than five yards downfield. NBA rules categorically outlaw traveling, or taking extra steps without dribbling. But there are gray areas in the enforcement of these rules, often limited by what referees are able to see at full speed and how often they’re willing to call violations. I’m not saying any of those actions are legal by any means. But the way enforcement is set up encourages and incentivizes athletes to compete on the edge of legality, and I don’t believe… Read more »

Swammer from Wakanda

The rule of a dolphin kick is there must not be any downward movement of the legs resulting in propultion. This means an upward movement of the legs does not count as a dolphin kick therefore no rule broken. This is not always interpreted by every official the same way because some view that upkick as an illegal kick while others do not.


That’s an important point because the officials must correctly know what the rules are if they are going to DQ someone and nullify the results of their race.


I’d talked to officials about their judgement calls for sculling ever so slightly in breast, and the upward dolphin. Both in their words not being a dq as the action wasn’t ‘propulsive.’ My retort re the sculling : Y’all have clearly never cheated on a board less kick set.

I think the right answer is either to cede that 2 kicks is OK, and change the rule. Or inforce the rule. If the latter, we’ll need under water cameras as I can confirm there’s zero chance you can call that fairly across all lanes.


I am not sure why we are comparing this to other sports. What Cody Miller has been DQ’d for and is known for… is dolphin kicks. He’s been doing it for years and years… Which means he consciously trains for it for years and years. While knowing its against the rules. That is the definition of cheating.

I would not be upset if this was his first or heck even second time. But he is on the international stage representing the USA which very few have the opportunity to do so. Wear it with honor. He continues to disregard the rules.

100% Agree with Peaty Potato below.

Brent Creager

Lots of pitchers in baseball doctor balls to get it to perform a certain way. Some get caught some don’t, is a pitcher that doctors the ball regularly considered a cheater. Many hitters use corked bats to get an advantage, when they get caught are they labeled cheaters? Some cyclists/triathletes have been caught using small motors in their bikes to gain a competitive advantage There are lots of grey areas to be sure, but this is not a grey area. It is 100% against the rule to double dolphin kick, to doctor the ball, to use corked bats, to play football with a less inflated ball, etc… So while I do believe because of that and because Miller has been… Read more »


Brent, If he had been called for it in his Bronze performance… which he should have been. He would not be a bronze medalist. and if he had DQ’d the relay in prelims with it he wouldn’t have either.

Think of it like if he’s consciously cheating… and does it in prelims of a relay, he costs many others the opportunity to medal which sometimes is their ONLY OPPORTUNITY to be an olympic medalist.

Take Tyler McGill for example if someone had done this and robbed him of his Olympic medal hopes.


I guess it is also not so much of grey area but the frequency of that being called out by referees. I assume it is very difficult for a referee to see from a relatively horizontal angle above water to see the multiple dolphin kicks (unless the feet break surface), and video review is not yet a thing in swimming. Thus it is rarely called and most swimmers or coaches just “see” it as taking advantage of grey area. If I am following this argument, then the coach and swimmer should understand the consequence and be ready for it. I am not a football or other major league /ball game follower, but i assume if a player take a risk… Read more »

Awsi Dooger

I’m late to this thread but the Seahawks coverage technique during their glory years was exactly the comparison I was going to make, after reading the OP. It is the ideal comparison to Cody Miller, IMO: Just keep doing it under the knowledge that it helps quite a bit, compared to how often you’ll actually be called for it.

The only difference is that being called for it in a swimming race carries far greater consequences and memories than the typical one play during a football game.

Peaty the Potato

An interesting perspective, absolutely agree that it gets repetitive when labels are just slung around and the background is lost. However the fact this has been raised in relation to Cody Miller sort of undermines where the perspective is coming from. None of this exists in a vacuum. There is a greater context in which this language is being used. When it comes to labels, they need to be used consistently, and as far as the label of cheater is being applied to Cody miller, it’s being applied consistently with how other swimmers who seem to have repeatedly and blatantly broken the rules have been labelled. Many people have vented their frustrations with how they can no longer look at… Read more »


I’m glad at least one person read the opinion before commenting. I suppose that 90% will not, and that’s probably why we wind up with these boring labels in the first place.


I do think it’s silly when people get all worked up in the comment section over something like this.

But he is doing something against the rules in order to get an edge… which is cheating. So unless he genuinely can’t not do 2 dolphin kicks during his pulldown, he is cheating. I can’t argue with people who call him a cheater.


I don’t think it’s really intentional. I think it just looks a bit like a Kick after the pull in the pullout


I mean, if Lebron intentionally fouls someone to get an advantage, I wouldn’t call that cheating. Not sure what I’d call it


I call it cheating


It’s cheating. Fro your own example, how can you not see that? If someone breaks a rule in a sport to gain an advantage that’s cheating😂

PK Doesn't Like His Long Name

The reason you’re not sure what to call it is because it’s extremely difficult in basketball to intentionally foul someone in a way that results in you, the fouler, gaining an advantage. There are instances where it is to your advantage to foul (ie, to extend the game) but the penalties are very obvious (the other team gets foul shots and you’re less likely to be allowed to continue within the game). I mostly disagree with Braden’s point that we wouldn’t call Lebron a cheater if he fouled out within a game-I believe that if Lebron or another high profile player had a foul rate that resulted in them fouling out repeatedly in high leverage spots, well before the game… Read more »

Gordon Wheeler Superfan

You are comparing apples to oranges. A large majority of fouls in basketball are from incidental contact or are “drawn fouls” from the offense. Intentional fouls are very rare and only are at the end of the game when your team is losing and when you commit them the opposing team gets to take free throws and you run the risk of fouling out. It is not “cheating” in nearly the same way that breaking the rules to your advantage in a RACING sport is. It is a team sports strategy that you are directly punished for by letting the other team have a free opportunity at points.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

Read More »

Want to take your swimfandom to the next level?

Subscribe to SwimSwam Magazine!