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.